‘Stierhunger'(‘The Empress and the Cake’) by Linda Stift (Review)

Food was scarce on the last leg of our Women in Translation Month world tour, but while we’ll be looking at eating again today, it’s from a rather different angle.  This time our travels take us to Vienna, where we’ll be sampling the local delights, in the local language.  Never fear, though – for those without a mastery of the German tongue, I know someone who’s got your back 🙂

Linda Stift’s Stierhunger (the English-language version, The Empress and the Cake, is translated by Jamie Bulloch and published by Peirene Press) is the story of a woman who gets caught up in the intrigues of an elderly lady she meets outside a Viennese cake shop.  Invited back to the woman’s apartment to share a Gugelhupf cake, the narrator unwillingly spends some time in the company of her new acquaintance, along with her maid Ida, a large Irish Wolfhound and a couple of noisy parrots.

Coerced into eating more than she wanted (or really should), she’s happy to slip away eventually with her own half of the cake.  However, that’s only the start of her encounters with the enigmatic Frau Hohenembs, a woman who won’t take no for an answer – even if the narrator were the kind to want to give it:

Weil du nie Nein sagen kannst, würde Charlotte antworten.  Immer schon hat sie mir vorgeworfen, ich könne nicht Nein sagen, ließe mich in alles hineindrängen, ließe alles mit mir machen, ließe mir alles zu meinem eigenen Nachteil aufhalsen, wenn ich nur nicht Nein sagen müsse, aus Höflichkeit oder falsch verstandener Freundlichkeit, die in Wirklichkeit Feigheit sei.
p.38 (Deuticke 2007)

Because you can never say No, Charlotte would reply.  She had always claimed I couldn’t say No, allowed myself to be forced into everything, allowed myself to be used for everything, allowed myself to be lumbered with things to my own disadvantage, if only I could avoid saying No, out of politeness or a false sense of friendliness, which in reality was cowardice. ***
(my translation)

Against her will, the protagonist is dragged out on a series of outings around Vienna in the company of Frau Hohenembs and the ever-present (and ever-complaining) Ida.  While these excursions are initially harmless, they soon develop in a rather different direction, culminating in a fantasy ball and a whole lot of chocolate.  Oh, Vienna, indeed.

Austrian literature has a bit of a reputation for the dark and slightly twisted, as anyone who’s read Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke or Elfriede Jelinek would know.  Peirene’s first Austrian selection, Alois Hotschnig’s Die Kinder beruhigte das nicht (Maybe This Time), is one example of this darker side of life, and Stift’s novel is merely another work to add to the collection.  Stierhunger is a rather strange tale with a number of focuses, exploring the psychology of eating disorders as well as a very Austrian obsession with the past, but the way in which it’s told is just as important as the content.

The ‘cake’ part of the English title refers to the Gugelhupf that is the catalyst for the events of the novel, but the original title, Stierhunger, is perhaps more apt here.  It’s actually the German word for bulimia (literally, in German and Greek, ‘bull hunger’), and we soon learn that the narrator has been battling the condition her whole life, with the chance encounter with Frau Hohenembs causing a relapse after fifteen years of abstinence:

Das Fressen und Kotzen schabt und kratzt einen leer, aber es bleiben Rückstände.  Ein hohles Gefäß, an dessen Innenseiten zäher Schmutz klebt, das war ich.  Wie schnell die körperliche Erinnerung wieder da war, so gräßlich vertraut.  Fünfzehn Jahre wie weggewischt. (p.22)

Stuffing your face and puking scrapes and scratches you empty, but there are still remnants.  A hollow container, with stubborn stains clinging to the inside, that’s what I was.  How quickly the memory of the physical sensation returned, so horribly familiar.  Fifteen years, wiped away in an instant. ***

One aspect of the novel is the description of her spiral into gluttony and vomiting as she buys enough food to feed a family for a week before getting through the lot in a day.  There’s a fair amount of information about the intricacies of vomiting and the art of disguising it (in truth, far more detail than I needed or wanted…).

Of course, the English title has a second part, and the ‘Empress’ here refers to Empress Elisabeth of Austria, a famous, often revered figure in Hapsburg history.  A second strand of the novel has short narratives (in italics) written from the point of view of someone close to ‘Sisi’ (as the Empress is commonly known), in which we learn of the activities and antics of a most unroyal royal.  However, these sections are closely linked to the main text in several ways.  For one thing, many of these narratives reflect the outings the present-day characters go on in Vienna, the places and items mentioned often seen by the narrator in her museum visits.  Another connection is the obsession Frau Hohenembs has with the legendary Empress, which extends to the way she dresses and behaves.  And when I say obsession, well, let’s just say that she takes her interest in Sisi’s life to criminal extremes…

Stierhunger is a clever, confusing, grotesque story, and in many ways it resembles nothing more than a twisted walking tour of Vienna, dwelling on the dark side of empire.  Stift delights in highlighting the contrast between the reverence of the cult of Sisi and its incredibly kitsch nature (culminating in what is little more than a fancy dress party).  Along the way, we’re treated to visits to a sex museum, drinking the juice of crushed duck carcasses thanks to a new (old) kitchen appliance and examining the oddities (including heads floating in preserving fluid) in the Narrenturm.  You see, even in Vienna, it’s not all balls and Gugelhupf.

This sense of the bizarre is only heightened by several what I like to call NQR moments.  Are Hohenembs and Ida really Sisi and one of her companions (Ida Ferenczy?) incognito?  Does the Charlotte the narrator keep mentioning actually exist?  Who are the strange couple the woman sees all the time, and how do they manage to get her thrown out of her flat?  The more we’re told, the less we’re tempted to take it all at face value, and there’s more than a hint of a suspicion that this may all be in the narrator’s mind.

Of course, thanks to Bulloch and the Nymph, you can always have a read of The Empress and the Cake and make your own mind up.  It’s an entertaining novel, short and dark, but I do have one caveat. This will probably work better if you already have a little knowledge of who Sisi is and how obsessed people can be with her (there’s more than a touch of the Princess Diana phenomenon here); otherwise, you might not get the full effect of Stift’s writing.  Still, even if you don’t know your Guglhupf from your Sachertorte, Stierhunger is worth a try – and yet more proof that Austrian writers are, well, a little different 😉

11 thoughts on “‘Stierhunger'(‘The Empress and the Cake’) by Linda Stift (Review)

  1. They are indeed, different, and I love them for their mix of mischief and darkness and surface ‘Gemuetlichkeit’. Sissi was also famously anorexic, so this fits well with this story of appetite and hunger.


    1. Max- Not Quite Right 😉 No, it’s all rather subtle. It’s just that if you’re already aware of the Sisi cult, it gives the book an extra dimension.


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