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In a valley in the Austrian Alps, Word War I is on the horizon, but has not yet reached the scenic mountain setting in the middle of Vorarlberg. Monika Helfer’s first novel to be translated into English, is a snippet into a seemingly idyllic life, filled with white blouses, rompers, and the cleanliness of a sunny spring day. But “reality breezes its way into the picture, cold and pitiless: even soap needs to be rationed. The family is poor, just two cows, one goat. Five children.” It is the story of a family that lives apart from the village, literally the last house before the mountain that overshadows their quaint life and home. The villagers call the family ‘the bagage’, meaning baggage, rabble or just simply “the whole lot of them.” Maria, the mother, is more beautiful than the villagers think she deserves, and nobody truly understands what her husband Josef is working on, but they assume that it is some crooked business. But the two of them are happy, until Josef has to leave and fight in the war. His wife and children now become dependent on the mayor, and when a handsome German stranger enters the picture, the family drama seems to be complete. But the man does not stay long and leaves just before Josef comes home on leave. Soon after her husband returns to the front, Maria discovers that she is pregnant with Grete, the one child the father will never speak to. And the mother of Monika Helfer.
The Moosbrugger family lives apart from the rest of the family, both visually and socially. Their home is far from the village – not even the postal worker comes every day – and in church they take the last pew. But it is unclear whether they prefer it that way, or have been forced to do it.
Even though the family portrayed lived more than 100 years ago, the reality of country life has not changed significantly. Close-knit village communities are still quick to judge, newcomers are eyed suspiciously, and village life is not apt to change or to accept outsiders. That is the precise reason why the German man is the downfall of the content family life. The mayor, himself attracted to Maria, had been asked to provide for the remaining family throughout the war years. But when the story of the foreign visitor reaches his ears, he begins to think that he might deserve some earthly reward for his good deeds himself, as surely the foreigner did not only pay simply friendly visits? Maria, however, refuses his advances and the mayor turns his back on her, leaving the family to fend for itself against the vicious rumours that go round the village. When Josef returns, the elephant in the room becomes the sticking point between the two men and Josef opts to believe the shunned man rather than his wife. Or so the story goes.
Writing about one’s own parents and grandparents is never easy; too many things are left unsaid or hidden from prying children’s eyes. Helfer’s investigations, (as her aunt Kathe calls them), were left untouched until Kathe was the only sibling still alive. She almost had to be forced to tell the story of their lives in the mountains, but once she did open up, she offered a lively narration, an almost play-like reliving of the war and post-war years. Monika Helfer has taken this lively re-enactment and made it truly her own. There are no cliches, no exaggerated paintings of the scenery, no embellishment; Helfer’s strong prose and Gillian Davidson’s powerful translation are heart-breaking precisely because of this simplicity. A story of such biblical allusions as Maria and Josef’s does not need loud symbolism or entertaining descriptions, it asks for a quiet and thoughtful narrative that captivates its readers seemingly without trying to appeal to them at all.
Monika Helfer is one of Austria’s best-known and most acclaimed writers. Besides several literary prizes, she has also received the Austrian Cross of Honour. She has never shied away from depicting complicated family relations, preferably from the perspective of the children involved. The Last House before the Mountain is no exception, but the connection to her own remarkable family history, both in generations before and after her, offers the reader a profoundly personal view into her own very intimate personal life. Despite a tumultuous familial background, she still lives in Vorarlberg with her husband, author Michael Koehlmeier. Quite poignantly, one of their children – Paula Koehlmeier – died tragically in the mountains to which her mother is so intimately tied.
In the laudatory speech upon the conferment of the Cross of Honour, it was remarked that Helfer’s characters display courage, a will to survive and the stubborn defiance that only children have. But it is a rightful defiance against social categories and morals that limit people. Maria, the unflinchingly loyal protagonist of The Last House before the Mountain, is grounded in this defiance too; she leads a quiet life that does not need to make anyone happy but herself. Even in the face of a social scandal, she remains true to herself and her family. This is a haunting family saga about love, family, and the often unconsidered victims of war. Even though Maria was a victim of slander and her husband’s distrust, Josef would never speak to his daughter Grete. Monika Helfer herself was born into a family that had drifted apart because of a lie, but the lasting strength of the Moosbrugger women is what remains with the readers. In beautifully crafted, yet simple prose, Helfer unravels both her own family history and the fate that so many women suffered and indeed still continue to endure. We know how the story ends, there is no mystery there, but this novel still leaves the reader yearning for more. The only hope is that Last House before the Mountain will not be Helfer’s last novel to be translated into English.
by Monika Helfer
Translated by Gillian Davidson
Bloomsbury, 192 pages
Raphaela Behounek is a PhD student at the University of Salzburg, Austria, currently researching in the field of young adult fiction and fantastic fiction. After completing a BA in English and American Studies, she went on to earn her MA in Literature from the University of Essex, UK. Her research interests are Fantastic fiction, the fictionalisation of institutions and power relations, as well as literature in popular culture. A key area in her work is not only teaching literacy, but also how literature can transcend the page and offer real-life impulses.