The Empress and the Cake review – a mitteleuropean nightmare

An old Viennese woman with a strange obsession and her sinister housekeeper ruin a young woman’s life in this disturbing story by Linda Stift

An unnamed young woman is invited by an elderly one to share a cake – known in Austria as Gugelhupf – and a nightmare begins. The older woman, Frau Hohenembs, has noticed scars on the younger woman’s knuckles: an identifier of bulimia, caused by the teeth as the hand reaches down the throat to stimulate the gag reflex. Frau Hohenembs, in the present day, bears a striking resemblance to the 19th-century Empress Elisabeth, and she and her sinister housekeeper, Ida, draw the narrator into their lives, implicating her in increasingly bizarre situations: the blowing up of a statue of the empress in a Viennese park; the theft of a 19th-century cocaine syringe, in whose use the narrator is then instructed. She is even forced to enter an Empress Sissi (Elisabeth’s nickname) lookalike competition.

This is, in short, one of the oddest novels I have ever read, and also one of the most disturbing. The erosion of the narrator’s will is horrifying to watch, although at times what we are seeing is so freakish that the most appropriate reaction is a shocked kind of laughter – the trip the three of them take to a sex museum being a memorable example.

I suspect there is a lot more going on than what we see on the surface. We are, after all, in the city of Sigmund Freud, where you learn to look beneath the superficial and stay alert for the concealed pun. So I wonder whether the names Hohenembs and Ida have not been carefully picked; “Hohenembs” is, to cut a long heraldic story short, a very posh Austrian name, suggestive of authority, and “Ida” is, of course, mainly composed of the Id; this would fit well with Ida’s grossness and appetites. However, I should stress that this is not a point the novel belabours. The name “Ida” may only be coincidentally connected to “Id”, but then again, as Freud taught us, there are no coincidences.

The Empress and the Cake is Stift’s second novel, originally published in 2007. It is all about appetite, and its torments: its title in German is “Stierhunger”, or bulimia (this is a direct translation from the Greek, ox-hunger. Incidentally, I think the translator’s name, Jamie Bulloch, really is a coincidence). The narrator goes into some detail about her condition and obsessive, toxic engagement with food, which makes the atmosphere all the more oppressive. There is a remorseless anti-logic to bulimia, which fits neatly with the book’s own remorseless progress, composed as it is with all the logic of a bad dream.

You could say the story is a portrait of a diseased Austro-Hungarian soul: the narrative is interspersed with italicised vignettes from the life of the empress who – to her family’s distaste, if not horror – used to adore speaking Hungarian (not the done thing in the higher reaches of the Austro-Hungarian court). She would travel incognito among the Viennese and go for long walks during which she would shake off the secret agents sent to follow her; she was eventually assassinated by the anarchist Luigi Lucheni in Geneva.

Frau Hohenembs’s relationship with Ida is a corrupted counterpart to the empress’s relationship with her beloved lady-in-waiting, Countess Irma Sztáray, and she has, without any adequate explanation I could see, the preserved head of Lucheni in her possession.

Stift has been compared to Kafka, and it isn’t hard to see why, though I think a few nuances are lost on a British audience. The book is not an easy read by virtue of its being so disturbing. That said, it is once again a great credit to the enterprising Peirene Press, which has carved out quite a niche for itself in bringing us Weird Contemporary European Novels. (Often, as I have pointed out before, with strange matriarchal figures. Is this a mitteleuropean thing?) Long may it continue to do so.

The Empress and the Cake is published by Peirene. To order a copy for £9.84 (RRP £12) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

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Nicholas Lezard

The GuardianTramp

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