- Book: The Oblique Place
- Location: Austria, France, Spain
- Author: Caterina Pascual Söderbaum
Based on the author’s own family history, The Oblique Place is a novel written to its title, with both meanings of the word “oblique” explored and utilised, oblique as an indirect expression and as a slanting or askew angle. War and evil, as noted in Emily Dickinson’s letters quoted in the front-matter, are oblique places, and Söderbaum has created a meditation on just that, the nature of war and evil as oblique.
The novel opens on the shores of Attersee in Austria, where the protagonist Caterina is visiting with her husband and daughter. From there, also at Attersee, we meet S S Unterscharführer Kurt Seidel as his stay comes to a close and he reflects on his time at Treblinka extermination camp with astonishing indifference. The oblique angle manifests in his musings over his involvement with construction projects at the camp. In his mind are practicalities and personal concerns, the tightness of his boots. Söderbaum’s depiction of Seidel, of his imaginings and concerns is apposite and chilling.
The narrative moves to a maternity hospital in Elne, the Free Zone of the French Pyrénées, where Swiss photographer Randi Tommessen confronts the reality for Spanish refugees, many of them women and children fleeing the aftermath of the Spanish civil war, only to find themselves languishing, starving in internment camps flanking the French coast. Half a million Republicans were interned these camps along with Jews from all over Europe. Thousands in the camps were then deported to Auschwitz.
It is this connection of Spain and the Spanish Civil War to what then ensued in Nazi Germany, along with the Nuns and the Red Cross who tried to ameliorate the worst for pregnant mothers, for newborns, for children, that makes The Oblique Place important as narrative history.
The prose is immersive and highly descriptive and evocative, placing the reader firmly into each setting. The pace is slow, reflective, ponderous, helped along by the jumps from setting to setting, from time to time, back and forth as the narrator, and author, comes to terms with her own ancestral past. The style of writing is artful, the use of the comma to replace the full stop provides fluidity, stream of consciousness, yet also adds an obliqueness all of its own, as the reader is positioned, first here and then there, at various oblique angles. Whether it be a physical observation of scene or place, an interior observation, a thought or deed, never does Söderbaum adopt a head-on stance.
The Oblique Place will appeal to those who love beautiful, artistic prose rather than a page turner, who want to sink into a novel and dwell for many many hours or even weeks, for those who enjoy literary fiction that demands their concentration and rewards them with an important insight into the nature of evil.
I commend the publisher for their posthumous publication of a truly fine work, and the translator for an impeccable job. If you only want to read one war novel, then make it this one and make the effort to read it.