A ‘castle of murder’ in Nazi Austria is at the heart of a semi-autobiographical family chronicle
Caterina Pascual Söderbaum, who died in 2015 at the age of 53, was born in Uppsala, central Sweden, to parents still in thrall to the swastika. Her book, a semi-fictionalised family chronicle that ventures into other lives and historical events in wartime Europe, is an attempt to come to terms with a troubled and disquieting past.
Gertrud Söderbaum, the author’s Swedish mother, was related to Hitler’s favourite female actor Kristina Söderbaum, who played the lead role in the antisemitic propaganda film Jud Süss; her Spanish father, Salvador (“Sal”) Pascual Pascó, was a die-hard Falangist who kept a framed photograph of Hitler on his wall. To Caterina, these parents were just ordinarily human.
At first glance, The Oblique Place appears to be in narrative disarray, ranging confusingly back and forth in time from Spain to Sweden, from occupied Poland to Stalingrad. But a unifying thread does emerge. In pages of densely wrought, dreamlike prose we read of Treblinka death camp, and other enormities, while the author considers her childhood, caught jarringly between Barbie dolls and souvenir Nazi daggers. Salvador first met Gertrud in 1959 on a ship sailing from Barcelona to Tenerife. Gertrud was smitten by the ex-legionnaire, whose obsession with sacrifice and sufferance seemed at once disconcerting and seductive. Their daughter, Caterina, was born three years later.
At the book’s terrible heart lies the Schloss Hartheim euthanasia clinic in Nazi Austria, where more than 18,000 “useless mouths” were murdered by poison gas, among them Jews, autistic people, political dissidents and Catholic clergymen. Salvador Pascó had no physical connection to Hartheim but his fascist beliefs belonged there. By means of photographs, witness testimonies, diaries and other documentation, the day-to-day life of the Austrian “castle of murder” is brought disturbingly to life.
Caterina Söderbaum, a translator of Swedish literature into Spanish, writes here with a sensuous immediacy of detail. Superbly translated by Frank Perry, The Oblique Place meditates darkly on our moral and memorial obligations to the past. by Caterina Pascual Söderbaum, translated by Frank Perry, MacLehose, £14.99
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The Oblique Place