Category: Fiction

Anna Katharina Hahn
Das Kleid meiner Mutter
[My Mother’s Dress]

Novel

“A vessel of desires and fears”

Madrid, 2012. The economic crisis is at its peak and an entire generation of young Spaniards must face an uncertain future. Whatever profession they have been trained to practice, or whatever field they have studied, no longer is pertinent. In fact, they themselves are no longer pertinent. Anita, the first-person narrator, belongs to this generation.

Anita’s brother Ángel has been living in Germany, allegedly to teach at the university in Berlin. In reality, he has been earning his living as a construction worker. Meanwhile, Anita has returned to live in her parents' apartment, both her mother and father, Oscar and Blanca, are people with style and culture. The father was literary editor at a major Spanish daily.

One hot day in August 2012, Anita discovers her parents in their bed, both dead. When she returns to her parents’ bedroom three days later, she finds the two corpses have disappeared – at least that’s what she thinks. Their clothing is lying in a heap on a chair. "I picked up my mother's purple dress by the fingertips to fold it. Then I saw her. Tiny, smooth, glowing rosy, the hem of her slip concealing her chaste nakedness. She was as large as a doll."

Anna Katharina Hahn remarked in an interview that she had actually dreamt the scene depicted above, and had wanted to turn it into a short novella. Clearly the material expanded in a variety of different directions. The result is a 300+ page novel: a book filled with wild fantasies and ideas, wherein the boundaries between imagination, reality, and folly are consistently and purposely being blurred.

In her first two remarkable novels, Anna Katharina Hahn has proved herself a specialist in the tortuous fears and neuroses of the German middle class, whose epicenter. perhaps not coincidentally, can be located in the well-off and bourgeois city of Stuttgart, where the author also happens to live. Hahn has relocated her novel to present day Spain – ultimately ending up in Swabia through a detour.

Piece by piece, Anna Katharina Hahn eschews a realistic narrative, while ensuring that her novel never loses its footing. Anita does not inform the authorities, or her brother, about her parents’ death. She puts on Blanca’s dress and, in so doing, slips into her mother’s skin and life. When she wears the dress, she is no longer herself, nor is she herself in her surroundings. Anita transforms into Blanca and dives into a complex web of love relationships that have a number of historical implications. It requires technical mastery and a clear and lucid language to keep track of all these narratives. Anna Katharina Hahn is a master of her craft. Initially, she scatters various references and traces along the lines of Grimm’s fairytales and black romanticism, and this motif complex increasingly takes over the narrative.

A good example of this can be seen in one of the central characters of the novel: the writer Gert de Ruit, who apparently had played an important role in both parents' lives. He is a mythical figure. There are no photos of him, except for a photo taken during a meeting of the Group 47. All we are able to see of him is a blur and his foot in a boot (!) De Ruit, born in 1930, the son of German parents and living in Spain, is Anna Katharina Hahn’s most lustfully composed vessel of collective wishes and fears. She pieces together an intricate path to his biographical background that not only leads back to Germany, back to the middle class, but also back to National Socialism.

Admittedly, this all sounds rather implausible. But it is not. The novel is consistent and highly literary, while keeping open the possibility to be read as a story fueled by the Spanish heat, and as a figment of the overwhelmed and burnt out Anita’s mind. Anna Katharina Hahn must have had a lot of fun in weaving a vast web of literary allusions and references. Ludwig Tieck meets Will Vesper meets Roberto Bolano. Not all paths in this novel lead to an end, yet all in all, they create an atmosphere: The dark disquiet of contemporary Madrid, much like the Swabian past, has a common underlying cause that ultimately has to do with politics and moral squalor. This is why „Das Kleid meiner Mutter" is more than just a game.
Christoph Schröder

By Christoph Schröder, 07.10.2016

​Christoph Schroeder is a freelance writer (Süddeutsche Zeitung, Tagesspiegel, Die Zeit) based in Frankfurt am Main and is a lecturer in literary criticism at the university there.

Translated by Zaia Alexander