Time is a central concern of The Liquid Land, the first novel by Austrian writer Raphaela Edelbauer, and also her first to appear in English translation. Time grinds to a halt for Ruth Schwarz one day in 2007, when she learns that her parents have died in a car accident:
For an endless morning I lay silently in my nightwear, alternating between lying on my side, my stomach, and my back. From my bed, I watched the metronomic phases of the traffic lights outside my window until I gradually gave up hope that a change would occur within me. (p. 2)
What brings Ruth out of this stasis is the knowledge that she has to organize the funeral, the machinery of family and tradition that keeps going no matter what. Ruth’s parents have willed that they be buried in Greater Einland, where they came from. The problem is that Ruth doesn’t know where Greater Einland is: it’s not on any map, and the local authority is adamant that there has never been a place of that name in Austria. It takes careful piecing together of clues from remembered conversations—and a good dose of luck while out driving in the likely area—before Ruth finally finds Greater Einland.
Ruth is a physicist researching block universe theory—which states that, as she puts it, “the past, present, and future are actually taking place at the same time. Similar to a three-dimensional block, supposedly consecutive moments can be read as being closer to one another. This means time becomes more a direction in space than something that would ever change things” (p. 29). What Ruth is about to find in Greater Einland is a place where time intermingles with space, and the past appears preserved in the present.
At first sight, Greater Einland is the very image of a traditional, picturesque Austrian town: cobbles, lantern light, winding streets. It’s not just the appearance, either, but also the almost feudal nature of society there. After a while, Ruth notices a change in her sense of time:
In Greater Einland everything moved at a different speed, an ambrosia-like timelessness that cast the events outside of this little world in an unthinkable light. Every resident had a precisely quantified significance in this social structure that one could grasp with one’s hands, because it was hierarchical and was mostly disclosed according to its terms. The simplest of tasks had something magical about them. (p. 125)
Not only does this place look like somewhere from a fairytale, it also feels like an enclave of denser reality at times (in Jen Calleja’s translation, Edelbauer’s prose moves fluidly between scientific and fantastical registers, the everyday and the heightened). But Greater Einland is not literally cut off from the modern world—for example, there are fiber-optic cables here, they just lie unused.
This duality is exemplified by the Countess, the elected ruler of Greater Einland, who also happens to own the land it’s built on. She has an otherworldly air, and when Ruth first meets her, she wonders how the Countess knows so much about her. But there’s no magic to it, just a highly developed system of informants. As the Countess describes:
”The town is a sensitive nervous system, on whose pathways information is constantly being transported back and forth. The castle is the centre from which corridors, streets, and hidden paths lead into all the cells of the town. Everything that comes out of the town passes through the castle and vice versa … ” (pp. 95-6)
This image of Greater Einland as a network of flowing information mirrors the idea of space/time paths running through the block universe that Ruth studies—both examples of a landscape which contains more than space. The Countess is keenly aware of the value of such unseen dimensions, as her position embodies “the fact that certain structures have remained that one cannot remove as such … As if one were trying to pull a skeleton out of a body, something gets forced asunder” (p. 91). The past is still here, and the future—like those fiber-optic cables—is surplus to requirements.
But the town is not being kept as it is out of pure vanity. Greater Einland’s real secret lies below ground, as the town is situated on top of a giant cavern—the result of its limestone being overexploited:
The hole was basically unmanageable. It was an endless exhalation of land, the chest of which sank as far as the ribs, breached them, and displaced the organs. The only blessing was that it had all happened so infinitely slowly that generation after generation had distributed the concern about it… (p. 52)
In other words, if we just look the other way, someone else can deal with the consequences of past actions later—or they can look away too, and keep the cycle going.
This is not just about mismanagement of natural resources. George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) has the “memory hole,” a tube leading to an incinerator used to dispose of documents that the ruling Party would rather see lost. Greater Einland’s cavern becomes a literal memory hole, which allows inconvenient occurrences to be kept out of mind.
The Countess has a job for Ruth: she wants her to develop a filling agent that will counteract the subsidence caused by the hole. In return, the Countess will provide Ruth with the resources to complete her PhD studies. Ruth accepts, thereby committing herself to Greater Einland for the long term. Initially feeling an outsider, Ruth gradually finds that she is beginning "to melt into the nature around the town" (p. 103), to become part of the landscape herself.
Ruth cannot allow herself to become too comfortable, however. As she researches more into the history of Greater Einland’s hole, Ruth finds irregularities in the published data, which in turn lead her to evidence of atrocities that have taken place and been repressed—even left in the hole to be forgotten. Through the device of the cavern, Edelbauer gives abstract ideas, such as how we deal with (or ignore) the past, a concrete form. For example, even as the hole grows and makes the fabric of the town deteriorate, the community lets itself adapt rather than face up to the cause.
Though Ruth plays a part in uncovering past atrocities, she also becomes part of the problem: the filler she formulates proves toxic to the local wildlife. There are other moral dilemmas: for instance, Ruth doesn’t want old Sister Elfriede to lose her childhood home to the subsidence—but surely Elfriede will have known about the bodies her parents dropped into the cavern network through a hole in the garden? Ruth torments herself into reconciling her feelings:
… I was overwhelmed by feelings of guilt the like of which I’d never felt before. I could save the foundations of this house that meant so much to her, but I didn’t, and the longer I remained in this situation, the more I lost my reasons for neglecting to do so … Time and again I had to … explain to myself that I was not responsible for the others, and that dozens of people shared the same fate. (p. 249)
Ruth deals with the issue in the way that such issues are so often dealt with in The Liquid Land: by turning away from its implications.
The novel builds towards a point where Ruth has the opportunity to make Greater Einland confront its past once and for all, as the Countess and her circle seek to hold a community art festival based around the hole. But what’s striking when Ruth leaves the town behind is how much it feels like stepping between worlds again. Time has passed differently for Ruth in Greater Einland than it has outside, and she might be able to leave the woes of that place behind, if she wants to (whether she should is a different question).
Like the block universe of Ruth’s studies, Greater Einland is a place where past and present coexist and describe their own paths. When traveling there, Ruth encounters a denial and suppression of the past which has dramatic consequences for the local community. In turn, Edelbauer challenges her readers to consider their own responses to the past—a challenge writ large on an intricate canvas.