How does the follow-up culture work

The splendid Edificio Telefónica on Gran Vía in Madrid is a landmark to this day. Completed in 1929, it was the first high-rise building in Europe with fourteen floors and the headquarters of the telecommunications company Telefónica with the main circuit connection for the entire Spanish telephone system.

This building is the setting of a novel by the Austrian Ilsa Barea-Kulcsar, whose publication history alone is remarkable. The journalist, speaker and functionary in the Austrian labor movement finished "Telefónica" in 1938, but it was not until a decade later, from March to June 1949, that the text was published as a serial in the Wiener Arbeiter-Zeitung.

Born in Vienna in 1902, Barea-Kulcsar has been politically active since her youth. Only for the communists and, after a stay in prison, as a member of the Social Democratic Workers' Party. Presumably the Arbeiter-Zeitung - the official mouthpiece of the Austrian Social Democrats - was more interested in the political content of "Telefónica" than in its literary dimension. And so, after the short-lived first publication, it was Barea-Kulcsar's express wish to have a hardcover in his hands. But decades passed again, Barea-Kulcsar died in Vienna in 1973, and only now is the book finally available.

This is a great merit of the Edition Atelier publishing house, because the novel is set at the time of the Spanish Civil War. This was repeatedly processed by writers around the world, but this topic is a rarity in Austrian literature, although a disproportionately large number of compatriots took part in the acts of war at the time.

"Of course I'm here like all of us, as a socialist and anti-fascist."

"Telefónica" concentrates on four days in December 1936. The Francoist troops stand in front of Madrid. The skyscraper is one of their strategic targets. The defenders of democracy hide there and watch the fighting on the front from the top floors. One of the main characters is the German Anita Adam. She works there, censors the reports of foreign journalists who send their articles out into the world via the Telefónica communication channels. This Anita Adam, Ilsa Barea-Kulcsar didn't want to hide that, is a fictionalized version of herself. Her name already bears traces of the time of her involvement with Telefónica. Ilse became the Hispanic Ilsa. She met her second husband, the writer Arturo Barea, in the press censorship department.

The brutal suppression of the Social Democratic Workers' Party (SDAP) during the Austrian Civil War in February 1934 and the subsequent Austro-Fascism led Barea-Kulcsar to side with the Republicans against the Franco attack. She wasn't alone in that. Around 1,400 Austrian comrades formed the "February 12th Battalion" with the International Brigades to defend what had been so bitterly lost in their own homeland.

Barea-Kulcsar's protagonist, Anita Adam, is also driven to Spain by the political mandate. When her superior asked what she was doing in Madrid, she replied: "Of course I'm here like all of us, as a socialist and anti-fascist or whatever you want to call it. At least as a comrade who wants to help here." As Barea-Kulcsar describes the scene, she also makes clear her character's arrogant irritation about being asked such a question, and in doing so she reflects the blind spot of her activism: "Anita didn't understand his distrust. So far she was just that encountered the spontaneous cordiality of her chauffeurs and the exuberant courtesy of the ministerial officials towards the foreign journalist and, moreover, believed that her fanatical will to work and her long political activity had a license for republican Spain. "

Franco, his putschists and allies, including Hitler's Condor Legion, only play a role in the background of the novel. They are a faceless constant threat who unpredictably attack the house with planes and grenades. Barea-Kulcsar explains the intention of her novel in the preface: "Soon you will no longer understand what it was like ... I lived in the Telefónica in Madrid during those months. I want to try to find these people - not the ones on the record, but the inner truth of all of us - to make live in a book ".

The focus of the story is therefore on everyday life in the skyscraper and the people who work there or who have found refuge. Around five hundred women and children in the basement, on the different floors: foreign correspondents, members of the military and civil administration, security guards and secret service agents, leaders of political parties and trade unions, telephone operators, employees of the censorship office.

In short chapters, the novel jumps between floors and figures. Social classes and contradicting views collide. Barea-Kulcsar does not leave out what is all too human. Mistrust, espionage and betrayal in their own ranks. And jealousy. A common thread is Anita Adams' love for the captain of the house. However, from the cellar he plagues his insufferable wife and a mistress among the telephone operators whom Anita Adam denounces in the military intelligence service.

With this ménage à quatre Barea-Kulcsar tries to exemplarily show the difference between the unenlightened woman who clings to the roles of the spouse or lover and an emancipated comrade who does constructive work in a crisis situation, at eye level with the men. In contrast to the figure of Anita Adam, the wife and lover turn out to be a bit simple. Barea-Kulcsar stylizes the German as a figurehead of emancipation. If Anita Adam is criticized, it is only from characters who reveal themselves as backward or as traitors. It may be that Barea-Kulcsar didn't quite trust this heroization herself, but in any case she counteracts it by repeatedly describing Anita Adam as a not particularly handsome person. From today's point of view, this "making ugly" the main female character backfires. It shows how even a writer who insists on self-determination has internalized aesthetic norms of the female body, which she reproduces through derogatory descriptions.

"Telefónica" is an eighty-year-old text that cannot be expected to satisfy recent discourses. But there are also more timeless craftsmanship defects. For as frank as Barea-Kulcsar narrates between the floors, she suddenly changes tense, the past and the historical present tumble at one another. She proceeds in a similar way with perspectives. If you get involved in the thought cosmos of a character, it suddenly throws you into the head of another protagonist. It is all the more astonishing, if one disregards this sometimes brutal narrative style, what pull the novel develops, how extraordinarily well one can still follow the numerous characters. The assembly technology in the chapters reads almost modern. One feels reminded of the multi-perspective, widely ramified plot of a series.

Another highlight is Barea-Kulcsar's reflection on the possibilities and limits of journalistic reporting. This creates a differentiated picture of journalists who struggle with their neutrality in the face of the cruelty they experience. Reporters who are overwhelmed with writing down what they see. In addition, there is the pressure exerted by clients, the constant argument with the press censorship about which information may be published and which information must be withheld for tactical reasons. It is in this dichotomy that Anita Adam's perspective unfolds its strength. It ignores the Ministry's requirements and lets more information about the Republican side of the civil war leak out than the instructions allow. She interferes, inciting the journalists whose texts she censors not to write the same thing over and over again. "We all don't know what is happening to us here. But I'm simply trying to get the foreign press to force the world out there to think of Madrid," Anita Adam explains to her comrades. "You do not know the outside world; I know it. I belonged there. But now I belong to you, I am part of the house and you have to take note of me."

Barea-Kulcsar is probably speaking here again in the guise of her main character and one immediately believes that she has succeeded in securing her place in the Telefónica. Because the author can tell astonishingly subtle about the ideological currents among the supporters of the young democratic republic. Even if nobody says it directly, the hunch remains that the political differences among the Republicans are weakening their clout against the fascist attackers. It was not for nothing that Ilsa Barea-Kulcsar marked the end of her novel with the important date March 31, 1939: the last day of the Spanish Civil War, before Franco established his dictatorship and fascism took hold of Europe.

"Telefónica" is not a thoroughly mature novel, here and there maybe also theses-like, but one wants to overlook that immediately. Because the new - by the way wonderfully designed - edition together with the knowledgeable epilogue by Georg Pichler is a worthy memory book for Ilsa Barea-Kulcsar, who moved on from Spain to Great Britain, worked there for the BBC listening service, translated and a non-fiction book on the history of the city Vienna wrote in English, which was long considered a standard work in the Anglo-Saxon region. With "Telefónica" she has erected a memorial to the victims of the Spanish Civil War. And yourself too.

Ilsa Barea-Kulcsar: Telefónica. Novel. Ed. Georg Pichler. Edition Atelier, Vienna 2019. 351 pages, 25 euros.