Given that two jaunts that have taken me to Vienna this year, Linda Stift’s The Empress and the Cake seemed an obvious choice. It’s also translated by Jamie Bulloch whose name I’ve come to associate with excellent fiction. Part of Peirene’s Fairy Tale series, Stift’s novella comes beautifully packaged in delicate pink and cream but beware: as we all know from the Brothers Grimm, fairy tales are often far from sweet and this one’s no exception.
Our unnamed narrator finds herself accosted by a black-clad woman, not unlike the Empress Elisabeth, perusing the delights of a Viennese patisserie window. A gugelhupf is far too much for her, would the young lady like to share one? Our narrator reluctantly agrees, then Frau Hohenembs, as she introduces herself, explains that even half is too much, insisting that her new acquaintance comes back to her apartment for coffee and cake. Once there, our narrator meets Ida, plump and dressed in what looks a little like a doctor’s coat. Sadly for her, this incident triggers a binging episode, fifteen years after she thought she’d rid herself of her eating disorder. A few days later, hearing rustling outside her door, she opens it to finds Ida encamped in her hallway – Frau Hohenembs is insisting on her presence. As she becomes entangled in Frau Hohenembs’ increasingly baroque schemes, horrified as her persecutor filches bits and pieces from the city’s museums including the royal cocaine syringe, she loses her battle with food, caught up in grim cycle of binging and purging.
Stift’s novella is a thought-provoking tale of madness, delusion and addiction, an exploration of the way in which the mind is able to construct elaborate and convincing scenarios for itself. Her writing is vivid, often graphically harrowing but there’s a rich vein of dark humour running through it. The coked-up dog and chorusing parrots add a particularly striking dash of lunatic comedy to the proceedings. Not a toothsome tale then but certainly an original and disturbing one which will stay with me for quite some time.