England, I Set Foot on You in Heels
Translation by Rachel McNicholl
The islandís outline is elongated and bear-like. Died
scarlet, it lies on a Venetian terrazzo floor. Iím on the Canal
Grande but am reminded of the shape of England by
the fur rug. Where is the ermine of the kings, the popes,
of the signora who lives here and adores the works of
da Vinci and the Irish painter Francis Bacon? Sheís cooking
in her gilded cage. How does England manifest itself
when I shake it out of my sleeve? What canals, what
channels connect me with the British isle?
The monarchy costs about £40 million a year. This
foots the bill for the Queen to travel around the world,
wearing the same style for the last 60 years as she
stands in pastel-coloured coats and matching hats next
to American presidents. During a banquet, Obama had
the misfortune to propose a toast to the Queen just as
the British national anthem was struck up; the Queen froze.
But the expression on her face didnít change; it suits
every occasion, whether a funeral is filing past her or a
banquet about to begin. She wears a silent look that only
modulates in response to a given situation, expressing
something approaching joy or sorrow. She is a mirror for
othersí projections and a blank space which can be filled
with 'common sense' emotions as the circumstances dictate.
Almost as if life did not really pass through her. Thus the face is an empty landscape of control and power. The
taming of the face.
The Queen was my second Englishwoman. First place
went to my aunt, who had escaped to London with one
of the British Occupation soldiers. She wasnít a refugee;
she was in love. She had always looked like the Queen. I
used to think of them as being the same age. Faces that
donít age, that always seem old, like aunts. When I heard
that this aunt was coming from London to visit us, I started
decorating the house. I turned my little armchair into
a throne and moved it under the standard lamp. Turned
on the light. The royal cape billowed and snaked in folds
on to the floor, and the ermine trim was cotton wool with
spots dabbed on.
The died bearskin rug is only sheepskin. The Canal
Grande is just outside, and from the windows with
their byzantine tracery my thoughts drift across the Rialto
Bridge to the merchant of Venice, who insists on his
pound of flesh and in this implacability reveals a touch
of anti-Semitism in Shakespeare. The composer Viktor
Ullman was deported to Theresienstadt; his children survived
in London: Kindertransport. A Viennese documentary
described how babies were taken from their Jewish
parents in Vienna and sent away, to save them from extermination.
The Ullmann children had no luck; they went
Ingeborg Bachmann had never set foot on English soil
but she too fell in love with a soldier, who set her on the
path to uncovering hypocrisy amid murderers and madmen.
England has countryside and cityscapes and coastal
edges. Its sense of humour is cryptic but witty, something
our English teachers in provincial Austria never
managed. What was unfathomable was the hypocrisy.
But I always thought the Queenís face unfathomable too,
for behind her brow there is a sea of thoughts that must
be deep and wide and stormy, given how much of her history played out on the ocean wave. Who knows what she
represents today, this formative national presence which,
if one thinks about it too deeply, might start to fragment,
dissolve and dissipate, like in a Francis Bacon painting,
and conjure up the thought of the other side of the coin,
namely the opposite of control: unfettered violence.
Francis Bacon portrays the Pope sitting in a cage made
of role and system, both of which deform the person; and
costumed in robes. The Empire upholds structures, and
the figure of the Queen is an export item, a mascot that
creates identity in a reassuring way, even for me, although
Iím not English.
Where do the English get their self-deprecating irony?
The projections that inspired Alan Bennettís The Uncommon
Reader could only be carried off by an author who
knows himself inside out and hence the systemís every
flaw. I didnít spend long enough in the United Kingdom
to be able to identify all the social layers and nuances of
speech. I can identify what is English about Hitchcockí
work, or Greenawayís, Jarmanís and Monty Pythonís, whose
Ministry of Silly Walks triggered the idea that led me
to step out on my own artistic path.
Argentine tango is not English, of course, but as far as
Iím concerned it belongs in the Silly Walks category and
therefore to the Monty Python Ministry. I like to tango, and
wear high heels to dance those strange steps. I execute
boleos and ganchos in out-of-the-way places in cities like
London and Venice. So my high heels always travel with
me in a cloth bag. If Iím feeling new in a city, I quickly
feel lost, and a well-rehearsed ritual helps me find my
feet: dance. Whether in Venice or in London. At milongas,
as Argentine tango gatherings are called, all the dancers
know the customs, which universally recognised, the
same wherever you go, and so you soon feel at home. But
it takes more than ritual to create that sense of familiarity,
it takes cordiality too. There was no sensuality to the ritual
of our secondary-school English lessons with Ann and Pat. It was as if England was a cardboard cut-out and only
became a real sensory experience through play.
My little basket chair was the Aunt-Queenís throne.
And I decorated it with peacock feathers. My mother had
spent her childhood on a farm, had collected the feathers
and kept them arranged like dried flowers into a tall floor
vase. Right next door to her parentís farmhouse there was
a disused primary school, and the British soldiers, who
were among the Allied forces liberating Austria, were
billeted in the classrooms. They traded marmalade for
eggs that my mother gave them fresh from the nest. At
age 5 she could taste that the world was fruity, bitter.
Roast beef was bloody, barely cooked; Aunt Resi barely
grown up, and she looked like the Queen before she ever
met the Englishman. Her soldier had no time for Carinthia,
apart from her. Years later, her English was so good
that she spoke German with an accent. She only came
back to bury her brother, an anti-Fascist. He had mutilated
himself to avoid enlisting in the Wehrmacht, and it
was for that reason, because he refused to fit in, that she
came back for his funeral.
In German, England sounds like a portmanteau word
ó das enge Land, the narrow land ó with two meanings
rolled into one. A contradiction, because the capital, London,
does not fit the image of a suitcase or portmanteau.
Sidmouth is a better fit, with its screeching seagulls; Bristol
maybe; Bath and Dover. Steep coastline with chalk
cliffs. I brought chalk from there back to my teacher parents
to make sense of the lumps with which they taught.
Chalk is so crumbly yet it can bear a countryís weight:
fascination with that creates the difference between fact
and the power of the imagination. Like universal time running
through Greenwich on the zero meridian.
London is my city of choice, a well-oiled machine
where everyone seems to know whatís to be done, why
work is grounding, and where walks build in impressions,
text to go with the city. Though the city is incredibly closely monitored, every corner on camera, for security
reasons supposedly, at least wherever the house prices
are prohibitive. This works in a city where rituals are full
of pomp but pass off peacefully. But is it a good system?
Is it right? Iím thinking of the Queenís annual speech at
the opening of parliament and of her audiences with
newly elected prime ministers. The House of Lords and
House of Commons. This ritual seems worthy yet of questionable
merit. Afternoon tea and Changing the Guard.
The Tower of London has been renovated and display
boards announce that in England only so-and-so-many
death sentences were carried out. And when exactly was
the last witch burned? Many of Viennaís Jews saw London
as a place of refuge. Itís where Freud spent his last
year, and Jean Amťry contemplated living here. I wrote
about his work while in Brussels. And read the essay to
an audience in London. A few weeks before I came to the
Ingeborg Bachmann Centre, I had been in Auschwitz. I
was working on a journalistic essay. I arranged my desk
in London to make the most of the expensive view and
increase my pleasure in it. Harrods on the horizon. In the
foreground the rooftops, the patios, tea roses, courtyards
and back gardens of the brick houses. The terraced facades
formed alleyways of brick red and white pointing,
with sash windows and characteristic chimneys. At night,
the cornices and turrets of Harrods light up, like fluorescent
make-up or fancy icing on a cake.
Sometime Iíd like to go to Manchester and see the
canals, where ships travel through the landscape, see
sailors and captains. I know Heathrow, the Victoria Line
and the British Museum, with all the looted antiquities
that would have been plundered now in the Arab Spring
and flogged off to private collectors, rendering them
inaccessible to ordinary mortals. The Egyptian section
with the mummies contained the first dead people I ever
came close to. There is a male Snow White in the British
Museum, in a glass cabinet. The corpse is thousands of years old. It was dehydrated by heat and sand; the hyenas
didnít find the carcase and therefore didnít eat the
murder victim. You can see the blow to the naked manís
skull, see his rear end too. I would cover up his naked
behind. Preserve some semblance of normality. Then uncover
my covering again to trace the boundary where
the grotesque begins.
My last visit to England was at the invitation of the University
of London and the Austrian Cultural Forum. And
there was a dinner in my honour. I had met the diplomatic
couple before, in New York, where I had also been
their guest some years earlier. I tried to piece a few elegant
words together; my electronic dictionary was forgotten
in my suitcase, I couldnít look anything up, had to
try to remember which tense went with which future in
We drank Austrian schnapps from Austrian glasses
engraved with the official coat of arms. The schnapps
spread a warm glow, my blood vessels dilated, and maybe
this is what gave me my very own personal English
feeling and triggered a desire to stay in London for a
while. I felt a bit like an island on the island. Narrow and
bounded. I realised at that moment that the skin you are
in can be touched from the inside too, by the feeling that
generates inside you. I was here as an individual, unique
and therefore unrepeatable, in an aura of almost protective
cordiality. I was the guest of honour. Surrounded by
all sorts of interesting people. I was enjoying feeling at
At the end of the evening I was asked to sign the visitorsí
book. I opened it and realised I must have made an
entry already and signed the book some time ago. I read:
'Thank you for the invitation; I had a stimulating time, and
I will try to fulfil my task to the best of my ability soon
again, though of course I will need to be given the opportunity
to do so.'
Those lines were written in New York. The book was the diplomatís personal property. He took it with him from
posting to posting. Not the house. Not the cutlery, not the
glass, not the plates, not the food, maybe the recipes, and
the guests were flung together randomly, as it were. As
an Austrian writer I was serving the Austrian household;
I could be relied on, like the inventory. This was no heritage
museum of diplomatic life; it was an important cultural
visit, but suddenly I felt actively engaged, playing a
vital role for Austria, whatever that might be. Is that what
being Queen feels like?
I was on English soil and had got to know the city, was
even in love with a Persian tanguero who had been living
here in exile since the Shah was overthrown. But I packed
him off into the London wilderness all the same because
we would have needed more canals than dance and history:
weíd have needed real closeness.
Spitting rain in London. According to people in Rosental,
Carinthia, the English wear checks with stripes and
have strange tastes; they go for walks in the countryside,
mushrooms, hunt game and eat mint with it.
They donít sunbathe, they fogbathe. England suits the fog,
and the telephone boxes fit the picture too; London still
has them, even in this mobile phone age. The same can
be said of the monarchy, all the royal fuss: itís anachronistic
but nice to look at. I manage to get closer to London
by means of tango, literary practice and by transforming
and adapting the world while working at my desk.
The time came to pack up my English props and bits
of sets, drag my suitcase over the Rialto Bridge to the
Tronchetto, make the journey from Venice to Vienna, and
write about London. That English feeling set in again as
I sat in my armchair by a crackling fire with a water of
life, a whiskey. A finger placed on sealed lips appears
before my inner eye: the tanguero who does not wish to
be identified, whom I had tempted all the way to Vienna,
who didnít even know why there were memorial plaques
set into the pavement in front of my house. And didnít ask either. The next day the city was white, covered up.
The Venetians have a reputation for elegance but
I didnít find them very chivalrous. The men offered no
assistance. In Venice there are too many bridges over
which one might have to carry ladiesí luggage.
Venice used to be a great place for Italian food; now
London is. I ate my way through world cuisine, and in Vienna
I follow English chefsí recipes.
For now, the most important English moment that
caught my senses was my time in the Ingeborg Bachmann
Centre, while the text I was to read was evolving,
which led me to visit the kind of places that leave impressions
but also recover them, even though they may seem
to have been captured already, to be concluded, ready
to file way. My English sojourn had a reaffirming effect
because engaging intensively with literature shook me
up and revitalised me. To crown my personal and literary
development, however, as with Manhattan, I shall have
to be invited back at the earliest opportunity. London is
beautiful, and right now, as I write, the Danube is turning
into the Thames.
Venice and Vienna, March 2012