‘Personal Belongings’ and ‘Austerlitz’. Diana Raznovich & W.G. Sebald

Personal Belongings’ (A one act play/monologue) by Argentine writer Diana Raznovich and ‘Austerlitz’ by the late German novelist, W. G. Sebald share common themes of dictatorship, exile, immigration (arrival and departures) and the maintenance of ‘facades’ of the personal, architectural and political. Both texts examine the ordinary life encased in extraordinary circumstances, panic driven angst located in the mundane. Both texts share protagonists who lack knowledge of their past. 

Where they’ve come from, where they’re going can only be established through naming the world around them either with or without a witness.

In ‘Austerlitz’ it is whilst visiting the city of Antwerp (Belgium) that the omniscient narrator of the story finds himself imbued in Kafka-esque presentiments of being unwell.  From the opening pages with black and white photographs, eyes of both animals and humans remind us of ‘the fixed, inquiring gaze found in certain painters and philosophers who seek to penetrate the darkness which surrounds us purely by means of looking and thinking’.

Then without fanfare our nameless narrator finds himself in conversation with a fellow traveler, named Austerlitz. ‘One of the people waiting in the Salle des pas perdues was Austerlitz, a man who then, in 1967, appeared almost youthful, with fair, curiously wavy hair of a kind I had seen elsewhere only on German hero Siegfried in Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen film’. Thus, Austerlitz, in the eyes of the narrator and the reader alike, seems to contain a somewhat larger than life persona, whose proclamations on all and sundry further one’s enquiry into an unknown past.

‘Baggage’ becomes a leitmotif in both texts. The critic John Post describes Sebalds need ‘to hold events together by recording them for the reader.  This explains the detritus of real-life-travel – passport mishaps, photos of knapsacks, sketches on a napkin – that litter the pages of his novels’ (Freeman, John. Post-gazette.com)

A description of the army surplus bag that Austerlitz carries as ‘the only truly reliable thing in his life’ is contrasted with the protagonist, in ‘Personal Belongings’ Casalia Beltrop (‘Also called Prima Donna or The Actress – A middle-aged woman. Exotic, beautiful, extravagant’.)

Lost amongst ‘baggage’ without claimants and without witness in her place of exile in an unknown destination. She searches for her suitcase and when she finds what she believes to be hers it only has the ‘appearance’ of being so. When it is found it is full of the unexpected.  Bones of past loves and lovers appear without sentiment as remnants of a reign of terror and disappearances (‘Desapareicdos’). 

‘Desaparecidos is the Spanish word for “The Disappeared”.  For thousands of Argentine families, this word has become a symbol of a long harrowing nightmare.  In a coup on March 24, a military junta seized power in Argentina and went on a campaign to wipe out left-wing terrorism with terror far worse than the one they were combating.  Between 1976 and 1983 – under military rule – thousands of people, most of them dissidents and innocent civilians unconnected with terrorism, were arrested and then vanished without trace’. (The Vanished Gallery)

Through the bones of the lost we are taken on a journey within a theatrical/historical as well as geo/political context. The setting of both texts begins, and in the case of ‘Personal Belongings’ ends in a place of transit. Sebald‘s ‘Austerlitz’ takes the reader on a progressive and linear narrative where, as in a labyrinth, we witness the external architecture of place while omitting anything of the personal.

Throughout ‘Austerlitz’ we are drawn into a world where facades of an archaic world order caution us that everything while appearing ordinary might be used otherwise.

‘When I entered the great hall of the Central Station with its dome arching sixty meters high above it, my first thought, perhaps triggered by my visit to the zoo and the sight of the dromedary, was that this magnificent although then severely dilapidated foyer ought to have cages for lions and leopards let into its marble niches and aquaria for sharks, octopuses and crocodiles, just as some zoos, conversely, have little railway trains in which you can, so to speak, travel to the farthest corners of the earth’.

While in contrast in ‘Personal Belongings’ Casalia Beltrop describes a scenario where her suitcase has the nature of a chameleon and the appearance of ‘crocodile’. Forty six is my number but it doesn’t match here.  Undoubtedly, during the hard journey the appearance, the content, and the circumstances of my suitcases have all changed.  They were of black crocodile skin.  I can remember very well the shape, the size, even the pleasure I would feel touching them.  Crocodile is a lizard of an unmistakable kind.  I acquired mine right after hatching.  The female laid forty six eggs.  I bought the last one.  My brother chose the thirty-eighth, much more voracious.  My sister chose the seventh, very treacherous.  The fate of my crocodile was to become luggage, and that is its appearance whenever it’s with me’.

Both ‘Personal Belongings’ and ‘Austerlitz’ share a language rich in reference to historical contexts which impede and implode on their protagonists. Diana Raznovich states ‘I was born in Buenos Aires on May 12, (sic) few days after the end of the Second World War.  Twelve days before my birthday, on April 30th Hitler had committed suicide en (sic) his bunker’.  

Her grandparents on both sides had fled anti-Semitic persecution both in Russia, and in Austria.  ‘Everyone met in this strange country in the south of everything and I was born here’.  In ‘Personal Belongings’ it is from an unstated dictatorship that her protagonist Casalia Beltrop has fled. Raznovich, like so many, decided to leave Argentina.

The character, Austerlitz, flees the dictatorship of Hitler.  Guardian critic Stephen Mitchelmore describes Austerlitz’s circumstances in his review ‘A Thwarted Empathy’ – ‘His parents sent him to Britain as the Nazis closed in on Prague.  They didn’t escape.

He ended up in provincial Wales, living in a vicarage as Dafydd Elias’. (Mitchelmore, Stephen) Guardian critic, Nicholas Lezard states that ‘The search for the roots of childhood memory is, in life as well as in fiction, urgent and crucial.  Which means that after a certain point in this book, one starts reading it through a blur of incipient tears, as well as through the triple curtain of tears’.

Sebald/narrator/Austerlitz’.  ‘Austerlitz’ has often been described as ‘historical fiction’ written not by a survivor of ‘The Holocaust’ but by a German national, born at the close of the war.

As with Sebald, Raznovich’s themes have grown out of her own experience. When the seventies arrived and the ‘dirty war’ was in full swing, Raznovich found herself in exile in Spain but it was through friendships with theatre makers in Germany that she began to make her mark. ‘I decided to fight Europe for my own space, and I won.’

From: the text of ‘Personal Belongings’

Shouting:  ‘Europe: Listen to me!   What will be left in this continent if you let me run away with La Gioconda?’  

By Casalia Beltrop addressing Europe, Raznovich rips at the façade of a Europe which sees itself as the rightful custodian of all antiquities.  While Casalia admits her guilt there is no judge in view.  She questions which country she now inhabits?  She also states that if she was in Argentina ‘I would need my personal belongings’. With a final statement of ‘If they could only tell me if I am leaving or I’ve just arrived’. 

Raznovich states that, “My style, which is also my unrestrained opinion, is a dangerous mix of humor and distraction; as if upon finding you, I would invite you to go over my work, upon defining me, I would ask you to ‘undefine’ me and once unknown, I would begin to know you” During her formative years Raznovich rebelled against the traditional values of ‘the prefixed destiny of an-upper class bourgeois girl.

She replaced images of James Dean with beginning to read ‘Beckett, Che, Simone de Beauvoir, Borges and Cortazar’.  Her destiny of a writer was underway. Sydney Morning Herald critic, Angela Bennie  described Director Ros Horin’s world premiere of ‘Personal Belongings’ as ‘this difficult surreal work is moving and estranging at the same time’. (September 11, 1989)

‘The Australian’ reporter, Rosemary Neill’s reading was ‘Personal Belongings is essentially a parable about freedom and individuality under a dictatorship but it also points to the emotional, political and intellectual shackles that characterize societies such as Japan and Europe’.

Sebald, talks about the need for ‘elaboration’ as his means of developing his work. Sebald also drew on coincidence, and instinct to allow his imagination to lead him to his characters in situ.

The writing of Kafka are major influence on his work. The use of photography as a conduit for the past become present is notable in Sebald’s work.  ‘The older pictures have an uncanny ability of suggesting that there is another world where the departed are’.  (Sebald, W.G.)

Chapter 1 of Diana Taylor’s discourse titled ‘Acts of Transfers’is headed with a cartoon by Diana Raznovich stating “PerFOR what Studies?’ Taylor’s discourse on the nature of ‘performance’ travels beyond a Western approach to theatre studies which views anything outside its own as ‘other’ or ‘foreign.’ Taylor states ‘Performances function as vital acts of transfer, transmitting social knowledge, memory, and a sense of identity . . .’ (Taylor, Diana ‘Acts of Transfer).

 ‘Sometimes, I feel that I will never be able to completely return and that I will never be able to completely leave, as if the experience of that long and productive 12 year period outside of Argentina had marked me forever’. (Raznovich, Diana) ‘Objectos personales’ born of that exile is a testament not only to the author’s survival but to the legacy of the disappeared (‘Desaperecidos’) while ‘Austerlitz’ serves as a reminder that conscience and memory act as a counter measure to silence.

Essay by Janice Slater (c) 2011


In 1989 I worked as voice coach/sound designer on the world premiere production of ‘Personal Belongings’ for the director Ros Horin.  It was one in a series of three plays titled Foreign Matter’ at the Belvoir Street Theatre, Sydney.  The fragmented nature of Raznovich’s monologue, along with working with the actor Dasha Blahova, (Czechoslovakian) with English as her second language brought further to life the theme of ‘dislocation’ explored in the text. ‘Personal Belongings’ appeared to fall into no obvious ‘school’ – ‘stream of consciousness’ was disrupted by random political referencing only to be disrupted by historical and art/commerce maladies – not to mention the ‘personal’ baggage become political ‘bones’ as its protagonist finds herself adrift in a sea of luggage filled space. 

Bibliography: re Diana Raznovich

Raznovich, Diana

The Vanished Gallery: The Desaparecidos of Argentina


Acts of Transfer
Taylor, Diana
From The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas Durham: Duke UP, 2003

References: re Diana Raznovich

Hemispheric Institute:
July 11-19, New York, 2003
Performances and Politics in the Americas
Spectacles of Religiosities:

Political Performance in Latin America

Taylor, Diana



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