UNO Center Austria: Reading of Franzobel’s The Raft of the Medusa


Vinicio Hernandez

On the afternoon of Oct. 1, UNO Center Austria invited Austrian playwright and novelist Franzobel to read from a translated excerpt of his new novel, Das Floß der Medusa (The Raft of the Medusa), published in 2017 by Zsolnay. Franzobel, a pseudonym for author Franz Stefan Griebl, has published German-language books since 1990 with a focus on historical fiction. In 1997, Griebl won the Wolfgang Weyrauch Prize as an up-and-coming author, in 1998, the Kassel Literary Prize for Grotesque Humor. Recipient of the prestigious Nicolas Born Prize, The Raft of the Medusa was long-listed for the German Book Prize for best German-language novel of 2017.


Before the reading of the novel’s opening excerpt, Griebl addressed his personal history with the audience of eight on the fourth floor of the Earl K. Long Library, among them Dr. Günter Bischof, Director of the UNO Center Austria and Dr. Elaine Brooks, Chairwoman of the program. Griebl explained that The Raft of the Medusa follows the account of the real-life French frigate Méduse, actively historically in the Mauritius campaign of 1809–1811. The frigate was set to sail from France to Senegal, but due to its commander’s incompetence as a naval officer, the frigate spurned the warnings from naval commanders and was quickly lost to sea. The vessel and its some 400 passengers landed on an island after being struck off present-day Mauritania. Faced with a dire situation, 151 of those passengers were unable to evacuate and set to crafting a makeshift raft from the shipwreck’s fragments. Off to sea with no sailing experience and no sense of direction, the remaining passengers quickly grew anxious to cling to any possible means of survival, eventually resorting to cannibalism. The raft was discovered after two weeks with only 15 men still alive. Griebl’s novel seeks to present a narrative of those two weeks before the raft was discovered. 


The creative germ of the novel began with Griebl’s observation of the 1819 French Romantic portrait of the hallowed raft, La Radeau de la Méduse, by artist Theodore Géricault. Researching the topic through the original four French accounts of the shipwreck, Griebl expressed “[falling] in love” with the subject over time. He travels extensively while conducting research on his novels and has visited New Orleans for a prospective novel on the conquests of Hernando de Soto. 


Composed in German, the novel grew “quite popular” in Norwegian, according to the author; though not completely translated into English, as it is not the author’s first language, the translation for the reading was commissioned by Griebl’s publisher. Though Griebl disdains the rhythm of his writing style lost in its translation to English, regarding the story as “not easy to translate,” he admires that the novel is earning a wider readership. Reading the novel in English was difficult for Griebl, whose literary style in German is by now so well-established that, the author lamented, “it’s like losing my language to read in English. I’m missing the original Austrian rhythm.”


Bischof, having read the full novel in German, understands that the tension of the novel is yet to be revealed, because Griebl only went through the novel’s opening chapter. Details about the survivors are yet to be revealed. The book, Bischof explains, “is about the hardest of human conditions and how to survive in those conditions.” Bischof praised Griebl’s recreation of early 19th-century French culture, especially during its occupation of Africa, while not attempting to emulate too closely the literary style of writers of that period. The focus of the story is on its narrative, Griebl emphasized.


Griebl intends to return for another reading upon completion of his work of Hernando de Soto. The author can be followed as Franzobel on Twitter and Facebook, though his social media posts are written only in German.