Like a poisonous vine, a complicated network of lies wound its way

The Empress and the Cake
by Linda Stift
translated from German by Jamie Bulloch

I read this as part of Women in Translation Month. This is one of those strange psychological thrillers where it is never entirely clear how much of what’s happening is real and how much is in the narrator’s head. I like that.

The narrator is walking past a cake shop in Vienna when an old lady asks her to share a Gugelhupf (a yeasted cake common in Austria), because the shop only sells them whole. This turns into an invitation to the home of Frau Hohenembs, where she is quite forcefully encouraged to help eat the cake. At first the narrator’s unwillingness to partake seems like the usual misgivings of a woman watching her figure. Then she goes home and eats her half of the cake then makes herself throw up.

Yes, it’s a story about bulimia. And it doesn’t romanticise or shy away from the details. It turns out that the narrator has been keeping her illness at bay for years, but now that she has been triggered, she spirals downward. Soon, the only other thing in her life is her growing relationship with Frau Hohenembs and her housekeeper Ida. And it’s a weird relationship, with some weird people.

“I’d come a long way! Sitting there gawping in envy at two old women eating, together with this emaciated dog. Clicking my fingers and making psst noises, I tried to lure the dog over so I could stroke his head, so the two of us starving ones could band together. But he remained obstinately at Frau Hohenembs’s feet, in the false and stupid hope (typical dog) that he might be allowed a morsel after all. Compared to him I had a distinct: I could take as much from the table as I wanted. And this thought led me on to the next, hideous thought: just one more time. Like a poisonous vine, a complicated network of lies wound its way around this one phrase, the only purpose of which was to conceal the truth that of course it could never just be one more time.”

It gradually becomes clear that Frau Hohenembs thinks she is the Austrian Empress Elisabeth (Sissi) – who was assassinated in Geneva in 1898. She has filled her apartment with Sissi souvenirs and photos, and she likes to visit museums that have Sissi memorabilia. But the obsession goes beyond that – it has a violent side.

The relationship between Frau Hohenembs and the narrator is so strange that I tended to believe that most of it was only in the narrator’s head – stories to tell herself to cope with her illness. And this isn’t the only mystery. Who is her mysterious friend (ex-girlfriend?) Charlotte? The narrator mentions her all the time but we never meet her. Does Charlotte exist?

Really if there wasn’t so many detailed scenes of vomiting, I might love this book. But those scenes were too well written – they revolted me. I definitely don’t recommend reading this at mealtimes.

Stierhunger published 2007 by Deuticke im Paul Zsolnay Verlag Wien.
This translation published 2016 by Peirene Press.

Source: I subscribe to the publisher.