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Ivan Cankar: Hiša Marije Pomočnice (The Ward of Our Lady of Mercy)

When Ivan Cankar went to Vienna, he stayed with the Löffler family. Mrs Löffler was a divorced dressmaker, with four children. In particular, she had a daughter, Amalia, known as Malchie, who had had tuberculosis of the bone and, as a result, was an invalid. Cankar became very fond of the child and she was the model for one of the children in this novel.

The novel is set, as the title tells us, in the ward of Our Lady of Mercy, a charity ward in a Viennese hospital, with fourteen beds. All the patients were girls between around the ages of ten and sixteen. They suffered from various ailments and most of them would die.

Malchie is brought to the ward by her mother at the beginning of the novel. She is not in good shape and it seems that her flesh is being eaten away. On arrival, she is greeted by Lois. Lois is an aggressive girl from a rich family, though she does not like her family, as her father is a rich drunk and both her parents are having adulterous affairs and openly argue. When they offer (separately) to take Lois home for Christmas, she refuses. Lois tells Malchie that they had a Malchie previously and she had died screaming in pain. Not surprisingly, Malchie is not happy and feels very lost.

The ward is run by Sister Cecilia, a caring woman and one who is quick to defend and help her charges and keep annoying relations at bay. Twice she brings in birds to entertain the girls. The first is a canary called Johnny, that the girls like, who escapes from an aggressive approach by the drunken father of one of the girl and kills himself when he flies into the window glass. The other is a sparrow who suffers a similar fate.

Cankar portrays the girls, showing them as individuals and not just as invalids waiting to die. We meet Katie, the lonely, working-class girl, whose body is covered in sores that never cure. She is the daughter of the drunk who caused the death of the canary. Her parents visit separately and her mother is clearly abused and miserable. She will die before her daughter.

Tina is perhaps the most interesting as she continually has visions, including seeing the Virgin Mary and the souls leaving the bodies of the dead. She has fallen in love with Edward, brother of Paula, another of the girls, but feels ugly, deformed, godforsaken, an outcast for ever in this eternal tomb. She compares the ward to a prison. All the sighs and all the anguished thoughts still dwell there. One day, she sees the Virgin Mary come into the ward. She dies the next day.

There is a certain gallows humour as the girls try to guess who will die next. They draw pieces of paper to see who it will be. The one with the long piece of paper is favoured to die. Before the draw, Minka says that, as she has already seen twelve girls die, it is her turn and, sure enough, she draws the long piece of paper and dies that night.

Many of the girls seem to have unhappy home lives. As well as the ones mentioned, there is Brigid, whose mother openly takes a lover. Brigid sees the man and her father in a knife fight. Toni’s father is a councillor and a corrupt one at that. Toni’s mother has died and her father remarried. Her new stepsister is a lesbian and tries to seduce Toni.

The feeling of death permeates this novel. Death was in all their words, in all their gestures and Death was with them in the room. They all knew it. This is not a fun novel. Most of the girls die. Only one of the girls goes home. Many of them have very unpleasant illnesses. Cankar clearly feels a great sympathy for their suffering and, clearly, after reading this, so do we.

Publishing history

First published 1904 by L. Schwentner
First published in English 2001 by Northwestern University Press
Translated by Henry Leeming