The Exiles Return: A Novel

Picador  2014


The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal is a posthumously published novel that was brought to light by the author’s grandson, the writer and artist Edmund de Waal. The story takes place between 1954 and 1955, when Austria was still under the control of the occupying forces, and at times powerfully reminds readers that Austria embraced Nazism enthusiastically. It is by no means an historical novel, but is about love, betrayal, and what it means to be an exile. Through subtle character statements the reader understands what it is like to return to a homeland that has changed in appearance although not in attitude among Austria’s aristocratic, clerical, and intellectual spheres.

The main characters are three returning exiles: Theophil Kanakis, a descendant of a wealthy Greek-Austrian family; eighteen-year-old Marie-Theres Larsen, known as Resi, the American daughter of an exiled Austrian princess; and Austrian Jewish professor Dr. Kuno Adler, who escaped the Nazi atrocities by emigrating to America. All three discard the life they lived in America to find some salvation in Austria. Kanakis wants to use his money to fund a pleasure-seeking life. Resi is sent to live with her Austrian relatives to be transformed from an indifferent, lazy, and dreamy adolescent to a mature and responsible adult. But the character who possibly makes the most impact is Dr. Adler, who confronts anti-Semitism yet still considers himself an agnostic and not a man of faith.

It is interesting to see how the author explores such controversial issues as homosexual relationships, interfaith relationships, and pregnancy out of wedlock. Readers will see how attitudes have changed from the period when the book was written, the 1950s, to the current time. The most gripping issue discussed is when Dr. Adler is confronted by his superior, who performed medical experiments with the Nazis on concentration camp victims. Dr. Adler brilliantly responds, “I am one of those, Dr. Krieger, whom you didn’t get rid of.”

Mr. De Waal explains in the foreword that there is a little of his grandmother in all of the main characters. He writes, “Elisabeth de Waal was Viennese and this is a novel about being Viennese. As such, it is a novel about exile and about return, about the push and pull of love, anger and despair about a place which is part of your identity, but which has also rejected you.The Exiles Return is alive to this complexity and it stands, in part, as a kind of autobiography in its mapping of these emotions...But above all the book is about the heartbreak of returning."

The Exiles Return is a riveting novel that is about identity, losing a homeland, and returning to find that time has not stopped. It is a story of how the different characters were affected pre- and post-World War II, and how their lives became intertwined.

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