It all starts with a slice of cake. The elderly Frau Hohenembs approaches a young, unnamed woman in a supermarket, and invites her for a slice of Gugelhupf. She and her housekeeper, Ida, draw the young woman into their lives. Frau Hohenembs bears a striking resemblance to the Empress Sisi—a resemblance that grows with each passing day, as she draws the young woman into her schemes, slowly, imperceptibly eating away at her autonomy and her sense of selfhood. There are some novels that can only be set in Vienna. A city rich in fading grandeur, with air which buzzes with the psychosexual obsessions of a past European intelligentsia. The Empress and the Cake is precisely one of these novels.
The title of Linda Stift’s book in German—the language from which it was translated—is Stierhunger: bulimia. The first thing that Hohenembs notices about her young friend—or, perhaps, prey—is the scarring on her knuckles, scarring that comes from reaching down one’s throat to trigger the gag reflex. Food plays a crucial part in the slow disintegration of the narrator’s will, from the Gugelhupf that kicks the whole thing off, to the imperial spreads with which Hohenembs torments the narrator, and the food over which Stift’s narrator obsesses, on which she gorges, only to regurgitate.
Over the course of their relationship, Hohenembs manipulates Stift’s narrator into a complex web of theft, destruction, and costume parties. Hohenembs and Ida start off small, manipulating the narrator into carrying an antique duck press out of a museum—Hohenembs has been suffering without her meat juice, a taste of her imperial predecessor. Later, the trio will blow up a statue that the Empress Sisi particularly loathed, and steal her cocaine syringe, which the narrator will later use to dose Hohenembs up with opiates. With each crime, Hohenembs’ identity merges with Sisi’s, but equally, the narrator’s autonomy is eroded, whether by means psychological or practical.
Freud weighs heavily on Stift’s novel, a hallucinatory fever dream shot through with a vein of dark humour. But equally heavy weighs that other crafter of Mitteleuropean hallucinations—Kafka. In the novel’s curious mixture of physiological grotesquerie, and its account of psychological disintegration, The Empress and the Cake is a curious fairy-tale with more than a hint of darkness, as delighting as it is disturbing.