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Reviews: The Liquid Land by Raphaela Edelbauer and No Touching by Ketty Rouf

A symbolic crater is the pivot of a dizzying debut about repressed memory, while the power dynamics of lap-dancing clubs are explored well in a novel about being true to yourself.

When the parents of Ruth Schwarz – the protagonist of Austrian writer Raphaela Edelbauer’s disorientating debut novel The Liquid Land – die in mysterious circumstances, the ground is literally cut from beneath her feet.

Told they wanted to be buried in their hometown of Greater Einland, the troubled physicist sets off to find it; but it is not on any map and no-one is sure it exists.

Ruth, who is hooked on pills, is writing a post-doctoral thesis on block universe theory: the idea that the past, present and future all exist simultaneously.

When she finally stumbles on Greater Einland, she finds it is a town out of time, presided over by a ‘countess’ who governs by whim, and perched on a giant hole into which it is sinking.

Soon, Ruth is co-opted to invent a ‘filler’ – something that can be used to stop the subsidence – but, as she works, she discovers the hole is full of ugly secrets which she is determined to expose.

The symbolism is almost too obvious. The town, once the site of a satellite of the Mauthausen concentration camp, has buried its Nazi past. The hole represents repressed memory – collective and individual – which now threatens to swallow it up.

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And yet The Liquid Land is clever and compelling. The dust jacket blurb alludes to Thomas Bernhard. Like him, Edelbauer creates a disturbing dreamscape; a dystopian Brigadoon, inhabited by a docile population who accept the arbitrariness of the rules imposed on them.

Mental instability is rife; people drink too much and buy into the countess’s wild plan to make the hole the centrepiece of a great festival.

Bookending Ruth’s time in Greater Einland are encounters with the Flying Mask Dealer who tells her of the Aboriginal Australians’ concept of Dreamtime – “a place where the spiritual and physical world are connected in an eternal present”.

He explains that in Dreamtime the whole world is a metaphor and, of course, The Liquid Land is itself a metaphor for historical amnesia, and failing to reckon with guilt.

Edelbauer may be indebted to Bernhard, but she also uses Brecht’s alienation technique to great effect as Greater Einland – in all its oddness – forces us to confront our own failures to challenge false narratives and oppose social injustice.

No Touching by French-Italian writer Ketty Rouf is similarly discomfiting. By day, Joséphine is a depressed philosophy teacher in a volatile Parisian high school, by night Rose Lee, a stripper in a lapdancing club.

As in The Liquid Land, her specialism allows her to raise the questions the novel purports to explore, such as: are happiness and freedom incompatible?

She also shares Descartes’ fascination with the distinction between the body and the mind. Joséphine has been brought up to believe she is ugly, and that fulfilment lies in intellectual pursuits. And yet she finds liberation in loving her own body and in using it to excite men.

Rouf is good on the power dynamics of lap-dancing clubs, positing that the No Touching rule is the crux of their appeal, in that it keeps sex idealised and grants men the illusion of not cheating.

Joséphine prefers herself as Rose Lee. The message of the novel seems to be “to thine own self be true”. Still, there’s an emptiness to all the back-arching and nipple-shaking that all her zeal for her new identity cannot quite dispel.

The Liquid Land by Raphaela Edelbauer, translated by Jen Calleja, is out now (Scribe Publications, £14.99)

No Touching by Ketty Rouf, translated by Tina Kover, is out now (Europa Editions, £12.99)

@DaniGaravelli1

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