Eurolitnetwork is happy to introduce you to a sample chapter of Richard Schuberth’s novel Chronicle of a Jolly Conspiracy. Translation rights for the book are held by Zsolnay Verlag.
CHRONICLE OF A JOLLY CONSPIRARY (AN EXCERPT)
By Richard Schuberth
Translated from the German by Joe Weinkirn
Encounter on the Train
“Are you not well, sir?”, inquired the conductor.
Ernst Katz looked up to him.
“This hack won’t soil Klara!”
“No, that he won’t do.”
The conductor punched the ticket, gave it back to Ernst Katz with a wink of the eye and continued down the train car.
So he thinks me an old crank, so what? He isn’t that far off. Ernst Katz banged the back of his head against the headrest and snorted like a misunderstood hippopotamus. At his feet a crumpled up piece of newspaper. The one or two passengers who noticed were treated to a disconcerting performance. The old man rubbed the tip of is fingers so hard and fast over his scalp as if he wanted to grind it from his skull.
These new high speed trains, gently they float across the clean landscape. Even the conductors are so friendly as if casted to sow doubts among tourist about the purported history of this country. Back in the days the rolling stock rattled along with mantra-like monotony, making it possible to hide from fellow passengers and one’s own worries behind a calming steady beat. But nothing to steady the desperate in this fully air-conditioned service cabin which merely tolerates him. In a few minutes we’ll arrive at Wels Central Station.
What is it the Jews still want? We learned our lesson. Now it’s up to them to prove if there isn’t an smitten of truth to it. To what? Oh, you know.
Just look at Israel or simply take this old neurotic with his insufficiently suppressed temper tantrum.
For sure, Whackos are to be found everywhere. But somebody like him will never be part of us. And we surely won’t mind that.
Ernst Katz pressed his right cheek against the pane and felt the sweat smacking at the cold glass. With a vacuous expression he stared at the homes of the Hausruck region floating by, private residences which stared no less stupidly back at him. It just can’t be true! One of these ghastly cubes, one of these singlefamily batteries, one of these DIY haunted houses therefore spit the young author into the world who now sixty years later lays hand on the humiliated. Why of all people, Klara? Haven’t you seen enough Nazi movies to make yourself fictitious Jews?
Ernst Katz’s hands again clenched to fists. And if it’s the last thing I do, I shall stop him. I swear.
He grabbed for the newspaper ball. He opened it up. On his knees he tried to smooth out the folds. He hadn’t been dreaming. There it was still written: “Best-selling author writing concentration camp novel. Distinguished Upper Austrian writer Rene Mackensen – this year’s Adalbert Stifter prize grantee – will have a go at a sensitive genre: holocaust prose. In his next novel he wants to review the fate of the psychologist Klara Sonnenschein, who had to spent her youth in Mauthausen. “A tremendously interesting woman. And far too little known.” “And, by the way” the literary shooting star opines in the interview, ” one can’t write enough about this problematic chapter of our past.”
Philosopher, germanist, everything but psychologist was she!
Those in the train car who had already taken note of Ernst Katz couldn’t easily decide if the distortion of his face resulted from pain or ridicule. Following an old instinct, he tried to give his trembling, irate Kabuki grimace a semblance of amusement. Holocaust prose, he murmured. The learned tabloid press already denotes a specific genre by that! We used the term derisively, and hesitatingly, fearing the tastelessness of the ridicule might exceed the tastelessness of the ridiculed. And what do they do? They are grateful for the suggestion and elect it as their slogan.
Why Klara? Why, of all people, Klara?
No, claim could one not that this seventy year old man with the brown teint and the thick, white hair which reached halfway down his neck were one with himself and the world. He possessed all the customary attributes to be regarded as an interesting geriatric. He appeared vigorous, sporty, and his clothes concurred: blue shirt, gray-beige coat, pants of brown cord. Explorer of the Amazon, Adriatic captain with a business background, life-experienced globe trotter, bonvivant savvy enough to conquer with his charm and wit the hearts of younger women- and possibly men, all that was believable. In exotic countries somebody like that was draped with flower garlands, his hands clasped he would bow his head before pagan altars and water-ski together with the Dalai Lama. And what did Ernst Katz do to match at least one of these projections? Nothing at all. He could have passed as a philosopher, not one of those incomprehensible ear-bashers but of the brand wisdom & vitality. Rather Asiatically obliging than Jewishly corrosive. Yet Ernst Katz was lacking all ambition to make himself comfortable in his appealing exterior.
He eyed the pandemonium of his fellow travelers. For some time now they had observed his irate spasms, long since out of the corner of their eyes they stared at him as that failed existence which needs to be scooped, carefully, from one’s sight and one’s mind, in order so that they could resume their usual lives. In a greasy jacket, with straggly hair and strong odor he could have been classified.
But the incongruity of dignified looks and undignified behavior was bewildering.
Ernst Katz stared back, for what they were capable of, he could do every time. Over there, the sleeping commuter, the three broads two rows onwards, whom he could not see but whose tedious drivel had been unbearable since Salzburg already and whom he all envisioned with fake fur hats on their heads and bordeaux colored turtle necks, the laptop workers, the students on their way to Vienna, the two tipsy teenage brats who had boarded at Wels and presumed their cackle should be allowed to domineer the whole realm…
Keep staring at me, do I mind! Brood over your call for action!
What would be if Ernst Katz were truly looking the part, the way he was? If he were one of those balding little man behind a thousand diopters, entirely living in the mind, familiar from last century, who could only find admiration and entitlement for living in their academic careers and Suhrkamp volumes but who went extinguished with the advent of the learned talk show where one has to be quick and intelligible. Who were not suitable as Cassandra of the nation because they didn’t really belong to a nation. Neither sexy nor charismatic, those last lectern-Jews who were only kept around to forgive instantaneously per push of a button. But they better not combine smartaleckyness and irreconcilability, because the students would right away stomp on their hornrims, French thinking were so much cooler, after all, and then, when they would be desperately groping about with their bulging bags under their eyes clenched, grope their way from the campus unto the street where the mob couldn’t wait till such a professorling would stray before their rusty chains and lacquered stilettos. Ernst Katz wasn’t kidding.
He had no illusions. All, all of them there in the train car, each one without fail, would spit on him if he would stop putting up a brave front. If he would give it straight to them. And the plainer and clearer his language, the more unintelligible it would be to them and the more they would hate him, they who felt that he didn’t want to talk to them but merely had a say.
Nothing, nothing by far, as Ernst Katz knew, did they hate more in this world world than the critical thought which didn’t allow them to come to terms with the world. Righty the same as lefty, women and men, skinheads just the same as social workers, the seekers of meaning and the sellers thereof, Austrians, Turks, Yugos, Organics, Reki teachers, trained retail sales people, mechanics and female life coaches, all of them would retire their differences if somebody like him were to drop his mask. The self and the other would suddenly realize that they weren’t that different from another in light of that totally alien other, this disturbing otherness from another planet which he, Ernst Katz, embodied and which got on both their tits, the self’s and the other’s. All of them, sitting there as they did, all would offload their hatred unto the buzzkill who always has the fly in the ointment to gripe about.
My thinking is at the same time my Cyrano-nose and my Jew schnoz, even though I supposedly look like a Heinrich Harrer-Rutger Hauer blend. My thinking which unremittingly incommodes every picnic in the garden of lies, every compromise with a false life – it is the true rat fleece which everybody wants to smell, to peel off and burn; that restless and rootless and corroding mind, the real target of Anti-semitism, for the reason alone that it promises those reconciled with their unfreedom an irritating freedom. In concord with their oppressors and mental enfeeblers they must hunt this rat, what fun that is. With increasing frequency Ernst Katz’s imagination anticipated the terror in ever more sadistic images and it was by no means settled if the conjurer of such yarn in his role as victim didn’t also share in the joys of the perpetrators.
Don’t let him get away! But, he is explaining to the mob, his head streaming with blood, I only wanted to extract the fly from your ointment. There isn’t a soup he won’t find a fly in, says the Salzburg lady, her Swiss army knife drawn. And – leave his genitals for me, right? So what, flies are being thrown into our ointment, exclaims another, but they are good quality flies, you mental masturbator. He’ll gripe about every fly in the ointment, shrieks the lady, and – leave the genitals for me. Ernst Katz rises slowly, sheltering his head with his hands from further blows, that’s what I meant with my play on words. I confess, it wasn’t a particularly original play of words, even though appropriate to the occasion… Playing with words, eh? screams the germanist, his former student pal, stupid puns without depth, and somebody like that calls himself an intellectual, You can do with him whatever you want, for all I care. The university has no need for somebody like that, that’s for sure. That’s when Ernst Katz gets away, nobody knows how he managed but everybody now knows that he really is a rat, cowardly and nimble and deserving to be killed all the more. Don’t let him escape. Over there he veered off. His genitals!
Decades ago an old woman whom he out of sympathy engaged in a conversation, a sympathy he soon duly regretted, told him that back then in ’38 the Jews suddenly over night stole away from Innsbruck.
From one day to the other – poof – they’d disappeared. The fateful expression in her eyes betrayed to him that she considered the Jews betrayers who cowardly had abandoned her and their fellow citizens to Hitler, confirming all those reasons they were being hunted for.
Don’t be so full of yourself!, he was called from his day dream. I? Full of myself? But that isn’t true at all. Such a lynching would be way too much recognition of my significance, thinks you? These were the words Ernst Katz was silently thinking in the direction of the voice that had awaken him. Who around here says I should be less full of myself? Ernst Katz looked down the aisle of the train car.
You are definitely full of yourself. Musti just was over you. If you can’t see that then you’ve got a problem.
It was just one of the two teenage girls who was sitting cat-a-corner two rows from him. She was lecturing her friend. Her quick glance hit him as he was tensing up his cheek muscles and was pulling down the corners of his mouth grotesquely. He felt embarrassed having been caught in his rage by this young creature. These raging fits about whose pathology he had been in denial for decades, were coming on in ever shorter intervals.
By a quick smile Ernst Katz signaled her all-clear. She responded with an even quicker one and faced her friend again. But she did keep taps on him. Only women are capable of that. Because they are equipped with a so-called temple-eye. In the course of their existence, which was first of all one of harassment, they had to learn to avoid lustful eyes without forgoing to satisfy their curiosity for reassurance.
Ernst Katz had to take one of his prejudices back. This young human being presumably wouldn’t lynch him. Simply ignore him. That was calming.
And the advice not meant for him, to not be so full of oneself, also had a calming effect. He took a deep breath and again turned towards the landscape. But since these ubiquitous one family homes, attesting modest wealth and bad taste, were a not exactly edifying prospect, he sought invigoration, with short, quick glances to evade detection, from the teenager’s face for to project his recollection thereof unto the windowpane the outside of which dawn was turning gray. She looked cute and a pierced nose had she.
She might even be a good person. Ernst Katz most likely employed the most generous definition of a good person: a good person is somebody who wouldn’t lynch him.
What Ernst Katz didn’t want to acknowledge was that he, too, was ever more often overcome by an urge to lynch. However, those would presumably be defensive lynchings.
The two girls were drinking beer from cans and analyzing their male set of acquaintances. They were going about this so loud that nobody in the car could even miss a single word. Care they did not.
Cheerful were they, cheeky and – loaded.
To Katz, the nose-pierced one appeared especially brash. Acts as if she already has a past. Which she truly does. Because what’s coming won’t be anything to crow about. At all costs would Ernst Katz keep the grimness of this outlook to himself.
“Come on, I wouldn’t be caught dead with this Schierhuber Karli. Please, really! Extremely slow on the uptake. Before he gets it, you can jet off twice around the equator. I think he is constantly high. And his rancid humor. Recently he says to me: Biggy, whenever I lay eyes on you I have butterflies in my belly. Says I: Better stop eating caterpillars en masse.”
Uh, you are so terrible!
Not as if I am making it up!
Huhu, rejoiced Ernst Katz. Contentedness streaked inwardly through his poisoned state of mind and broke free with hearty laughter. Did she just now test the effect of her joke by glancing his way for a millisecond? Or did he just imagine it? Bashfully he turned his gaze sideways, staring into the dusking bullet train landscape. And he retracted even more prejudices. These girls, in particular the fresh one, he ennobled as a matter of procedure to be his natural allies in enemy country.
But the others would continue to stay as they were. And that’s that.
Ernst Katz eavesdropped on their conversation. They neither were from Salzburg nor Wels, maybe Wels. But the drawn-outness of their pronunciation allots the federal capital to them. Rather its environs, also called Lower Austria where the bluesy prole tone is soothed by a pinch of rusticity. The result is a melody which renders individual the formulaic coolness of working class Viennese with rustic straightforwardness. In this mixture the tone surrenders nothing of its easygoing coolness but acquires winning charm. Ernst Katz bet on St. Poelten basin. The only Austrian speech melody, excepting the slightly Viennanized High German of an Oscar Werner, which wasn’t unbearable to him. He listend to the girls and along with the typical, age-related nonsense he encountered much of what he wished for from them: ambition to outdo each other in creative verbal witticisms, in that snide humor which can’t get enough of itself and is always open to metastasize into ever snider meta humor, seconded by an inspired gleefulness which heaps punishing scorn unto that naivete which in the jungle just can’t be indulged. Ernst Katz was convinced that nowhere but here in this no-man’s-land straddling city and rural desolation arose this temper which in every generation refined anew the art of saying one thing and meaning several. These trees grew off to themselves only, affording them the opportunity to spread in vigorous gnarledness before they were pruned. Totally alien, knew Ernst Katz, was this precocious wordly-wiseness to the children of more Western and alpine regions who because of narrow valleys and non-conflictual identities were afflicted with a cute straightness which was as different from this hard-boiled meta wit as the highway is from the labyrinth.
Ernst Katz had the mycelium of this spirit envelop him and he became young again, so young as he had never been.
O fortunate age which considers the world one’s oyster a thousandfold. Still are they exploring this world autonomously, barely recognizant of their overboarding individuality, but soon they, too, will move to the city. Hither their heads will sprout city coiffure, there chic discourses will blot out their red-cheeked against-the-grainness and as knighthood symbol of this ready-to-wear existence they will drape the greasy Viennale bag over their shoulders.
The friend of the pierced one, Ernst Katz did not quite as much take to her, especially since he hadn’t caught her sight yet, was just now holding forth on the merits of sex on a revolving chair. The pierced one admitted to not yet having tried it. Ditto Ernst Katz. Yes, agreed, on a revolving chair, that must be awesome.
That’s when one of the fur hat wearers butted in:
“Excuse me, but could you conduct your shop talk a little less loud? Because not everybody is interested.
“If you got a problem with it”, replied the pierced one, “move over there, back there are a couple of seats available”.
Outstanding. Touche. In unlike circumstances Ernst Katz would have concurred but hadn’t she in his daydream demanded his genitals?
Coffee, tea, sandwiches! Coffee, tea, sandwiches!
The two girls procured beer supplies.
The snack vendor pushed his rattling cart past Katz as well and asked him if he wanted coffee or tea or maybe a beer. Katz shook his head and couldn’t wait for the disruptive element to unblock the spiritual connection between the two brats and himself, their old, intellectually curious eavesdropper. And one more time did their eyes meet in the aisle. The girl smiled. Undoubtedly, she had smiled at him. Only for an instance, but definitely. Not a scornful smile or flirtatious one but a smile of unadulterated sympathy. He was at odds with himself, then pulled himself together. He would approach the girls but not without a handsel. Katz remembered the snack vendor who surely had moved several cars on. As he got up, the pierced one addressed him.
“Join us if you like.”
He felt thunderstruck. This girl, barely of age, had just invited him and didn’t sir him. Indeed, she had recognized him. And he her. She recognized, if not exactly the peer, the like-minded in him, saw in him, eye to eye, the mensch and brother in a sea of the undead. Ernst Katz stammered something about “in a bit ” and “suds” and blushed and smiled embarrassedly and ran from the car and felt the giggling which this time wasn’t free of ridicule but which he didn’t begrudge the girls. Why not let them believe it was them he had to get away from. That bothered him as little as the fact that the little revolving chair humpress would certainly mind the old codger interfering in the jealously guarded covenant between her and her pierced idol.
Ernst Katz had unwittingly passed the snack vendor and wandered panting and close to tears all the way to the locomotive. No, this can’t be. The train is stopping in Linz. What if they get off? What if the only people who would defy the mob were leaving him again? Dripping with sweat he turned around.
That’s when the snack vendor rolled towards him. He had needed the head and had parked the cart in front of it. Ernst Katz hurried back. The girls were still there, he raised four beer cans like trophies and all misunderstanding were cleared up.
“Hi, I am Biggy”. She extended her arm. He shook her hand and sat down.
“And I am Ernst. Ernst Katz. But Ernst suffices.”
“Nice meeting, and this is my friend Beate but we just call her ‘the Symbol'”.
Ernst Katz laughed artificially and also shook the friend’s hand. As expected, she made a more childlike impression than her vis-a-vis, had dark curls and a round village face. Behind her formal politeness he felt the expected mistrust. Beate didn’t have the guts to not sir him. When he greeted her with “Hi Symbol”, the pierced one giggled approval. Ernst Katz could see that she was playing in his league and that the kid was just a satellite. Beate was of no interest to him, he immediately turned to the girl with the short hair, the nose piercing, the leather jacket, the hoodie, the beer-reddened cheeks and the big, green eyes.
“Biggy it is?”
“Yes, from Birgit.”
“And how else? By any chance Hochholdinger?”
On the last syllable his voice trailed off for he felt sudden embarrassment on account of his inappropriate teasing which was meant to show coolness. However, Biggy was laughing.
“Not quite, but not far off. Biggy Haunschmied. I don’t particularly like it but could be worse. Let’s talk about more interesting things, shall we?”
Picking the issues. Bravo!
He opened his beer can, foam spilled unto his trousers, shared laughter and cheers! By now it should have been obvious that Ernst Katz felt like being in a wonderful dream. A glimpse sideways revealed to him that the three broads from Salzburg were only two and didn’t wear fur hats. Nevertheless, their disgusted looks confirmed his inkling that they perceived the enlargement of the merry drinking circle as a mesalliance. No love lost there.
And what are you doing hoboing? You look as if you were on the lame.
Ernst Katz raised his eye brows conspiratorially and said in a low voice:
“Can you keep a secret? Do you? I am on the run. Yesterday I became a five time high school exam absconder. But no letting the parents in on it, ok?”
Beer squirted from Biggy’s nose, Beate started screeching, Biggy joined in. Yet Ernst Katz had feared that his ingratiation would reveal a bit of datedness. A proud smile cleaved his brown face. No sooner did Biggy offer her hand for a high-five. And Beate, of course, couldn’t be second to her.
“That was a really tremendous joke you got there. But ‘The Symbol’ and I laugh because of something else.” Biggy expected Beate, her court chronicler, to tell.
“You got to know that Biggy last June really did abscond before her high school exam because she was expelled from school. For she slapped Senekowitsch’s face in front of class.”
“And I of course should know who this Senekowitsch is.”
“She was my homeroom teacher”, illustrated Biggy.
“Well, you are certainly a wild one.”
Beate had her job cut out clarifying.
“If you’d only know how much this stupid cow was provoking Biggy. And it was Senekowitsch who first slapped her and then Biggy responded in kind. Just a little firmer. I tell you, two years of psychological dueling between the two of them and they really gave no quarter to each other. When Biggy became classroom speaker that’s when the war began. Tshabang. You know, the boys put up with everything. But not Biggy, no way! You’ve got to imagine, this oaf calls one of our pals mongo because he looks a slight bit Chinese, his grandparents are from Siberia or somewhere.”
“There are laws on the books. There was no need to hit this woman. From your account it’s obvious that the criminal offense of racist and anti-handicapped discrimination was committed. “
“Oh really”, Biggy butted in, “half the state government is behind her. And the city, too. Her brother is some bigwig in the State Growers Association and her brother-in-law PR flak for the mayor’s office.”
“Least of all could Senekowitsch handle the fact that Biggy was way brighter and more educated than her. I reckon you yourself surely to be bright but Biggy is the brightest human being I know. This many books she has read.”
“Come on, Symbol, don’t brag so much with me.”
Jokingly Biggy ruffled through her friends hair. The roundabout way in which the kid had put it to him that he couldn’t easily match Biggy in learnedness and sagacity, this total disregard for the difference in age gave him great pleasure.
Biggy’s expression darkened though.
“This hag is seriously insane.”
One of the fur hat wearers sans fur hat issued a reproving click of the tongue. Not a second passed before Biggy roared at her:
” Why are you looking so idiotically? You got a problem?”
Ernst Katz flinched. This sudden explosion of furiousness didn’t fail to have the desired effect. In a second Biggy had broken her counterpart and fixed the gaze on her like a predator cat. Whose lips were twitching. Ernst Katz hadn’t thought this sober-minded girl capable of such hateful theatrics. Did we have here just a reliable means of intimidation or a genuine sign of readiness to use violence? Would she lay hands on him if she didn’t like his face or opposition? Tears spilled from the woman’s eyes.
After she’d got a hold of herself, she addressed Ernst Katz in a thin voice.
“And you support this behavior. Do you really think nobody here realizes how you ingratiate yourself with these snotty-nosed brats? All of us know what you are up to but don’t you forget that you’d could be brought to judgment for this.”
What stilted diction. Ernst Katz guessed middle school teacher from the plain Jane plane. A welcome opportunity to avenge Biggy punishing the Senekowitschs of this world. A welcome opportunity also to dig up some long-time rusting biblical pathos.
“I am sorry, madam, I have to agree with the snotty-nosed brat. With whom I socialize and for what reason is none of your business. And the only justice both of us will face some day will be The Last Judgment. And there I have the better cards, you shriveled up philistine.”
Inspired by Biggy’s forbiddingness he calmly smiling looked a little while longer into the woman’s eyes, knowing that Biggy would make a stretcher case out of the hag if she’d attack him with her mail order handbag.
“Yessirr”, affirmed Biggy.
Almost never before on the Western Rail Corridor had Poechlarn and Melk, to say nothing of Loosdorf, been paid less attention to, that’s how animatedly the three beer drinkers talked about parents, teachers and the other assholes. Katz was disgusted when Beate belled a thundering burp out into the car, but had to admit that were Biggy doing so, he would find it charming.
“Very interesting. Tell me more about your family. And what else did your father say to your mother?”
Biggy annotated Beate’s burp.
When Katz learned that The Symbol would be leaving them in St.Poelten and that Biggy would be staying on to Vienna, he felt deep contentment. Without any doubt, in this girl gang Biggy was the boss and he, Ernst Katz, her deputy. Being able to achieve such ascent in society between Hoersching and St. Poelten, seemed to him a miracle of his waning days and sent him into raptures no end.
Slowly the train pulled into St. Poelten.
Biggy put it into a nutshell.
“Since the Glanzstoff factory has closed down and it no longer stinks, the town got nothing left to distinguish itself.”
This apercu delighted Ernst Katz, a Oscar Wilde couldn’t have done any better. Maybe a bit. While Beate was getting up and shouldered her backpack, she reported another one of Biggy’s daring exploits.
In composition she had written an essay titled “Field Trip to the Oetscher” about a group of St. Poelten mountain hikers who asphyxiated at the summit of the Oetscher because they couldn’t take the healthy mountain air and craved the sulphuric smells of their hometown. The Senekowitsch graded the paper B+. And had added: “Original but exaggerated!”Again the BFFs erupted in laughter and their new BFF by the name of Ernst Katz joined in cheerfully. And all three of them weren’t clear what to find more hilarious, the commentary of the teacher or the + following the B.
“Do you live in St. Poelten?”
Thus annunciated Ernst Katz his faked interest in Beate right before she would disappear.
“No, in Herzogenburg.”
“And you, Biggy?
“Mama Loosdorf, Daddy St. Bloeden, grown-up in St. Bloeden.”
“But Biggy is a wanderer”, said Beate.
The two girl friends serenaded each other farewell.
«I don’t wanna wake up in a city that always sleeps.» – «And if you make it there, you’ll make it noowhere. It’s up to you, Sankt – Blö-ö-däääään.»
Beate and Biggy embraced and kissed each other.
“Woo, am I pissed.”
“Not like me.”
Beate admonished Biggy to call her for sure. Biggy promised. The fur hat women without fur hats detrained as well.
“Lots of fun” wished their mouthpiece while passing by.
“Thanks. That’s what I gonna have. And don’t forget: Last Judgment.”
“Old whacko”, she hissed.
Biggy got up.
“Shall I wallop her?”
Ernst Katz told her to sit down. As the train continued on, a shy quietness settled in between the boss and the deputy of the girl gang.
“Beate is totally ok. A tiny bit superficial, but totally ok.”
The unctuous put down of her own girl friend satisfied Ernst Katz, because it pointed out to him that this girl, idolized by him, was only human. It was clear to him, from the beginning, that Biggy belonged to that type of young woman who would rather be a boy because she thinks the proffered roles for females idiotic and the power deficits that come with them, humiliating. He had come up with his own term for this: pre-feminist Selfempowerment. Never would she show solidarity with other girls because their handicap was self chosen, she’d prefer showing them how strong she was. But maybe he got Biggy all wrong. It was she who broke the silence.
“I have been watching you since Wels. You were not doing too well before you joined us.”
“That is true. I was livid.”
“Do you want to know why I joined you?”
“Because we compare favorably to the assholes.”
“That, too. Even though in case of doubt I am always on the side of the accused and the asshole has to prove his assholeness to me first. No,I got in touch because I need you.”
“Aha, aha. And what for, if I may ask?”
“You are well-read, no?”
“Back when, in my school days I read a lot. Not so much anymore.”
This life review made Ernst Katz smile to himself.
“Do you know this Rene Mackensen?”
“Wait, let me think. German? Contemporary author?”
“He is from Upper Austria. Hausruck Quarter. The Norwegian name is from his grandfather, I think. And Rene is probably faked. Most likely he is called Reinhard. Young blood, he is barely thirty.”
“Wow! That old?”
“Thanks a lot! His first novel was a great success. “Raubeck’s Anlass”, is the title. Or “Ablass”?. I don’t remember, these debut novels all sound so similar.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard of it. But didn’t read it.”
“That’s how it is with most people, especially those who bought the book.”
“Sure, people buy what is being recommended. And being recommended is what the readers like. And they in turn like what is being recommended. Marketing!”
“Don’t shit your pants. This doesn’t exactly deserve the Nobel brain prize.”
“I faithfully promise you to not shit my pants.”
“So what about this dude?”
“Together, you and I, we have to prevent his next novel.”
“But why? It’s not like you have to buy it. And if bought, nobody forces you to read it.”
“There is more at stake here. This is a matter of principle. By the way, have I mentioned that Biggy is an extraordinarily stupid name which doesn’t fit you at all.”
“I had a slight inkling to this effect.”
“May I call you Birgit?”
“Okay. I keep it short. This snotty-nosed brat who is already allowed to dabble in the FAZ due to the misconception that an authorling were a thinker by nature and had something to say since he were using so many words-, this brat has figured out that topics like holocaust and Nazis are especially highly remunerated by the market. Notwithstanding that he – and I am convinced of that – knows nothing about this time and is nothing but a snooty upstart drunk from his undeserved success.”
“You seem to know him well.”
” I don’t need to know him at all. He is of no interest to me as a person, only as a symptom. A symptom of a disease which I need to fight.”
“You know, I think it’s a good thing if as many people as possible work on this topic. I went to a vocational school. If you’d only know what kind of Nazi language is pattered about there again.”
“I agree with you, Biggy. Certainly. But it depends on how one treats the subject. These upstarts neither have an intellectual nor spiritual touch/feel for the subject matter. They only want to wring tragedy from it. And then they put on progressive airs to put the better progressives out of mind in favor of themselves. Rene Mackensen wants to besmirch the past of a woman I knew well. This can’t be allowed to happen and if I succeed, then I act in accordance with her. For never in a million years would have Klara wanted to be misunderstood in death as well.”
Enthusiasm sparkled in and out of Biggy’s eyes.
“Okay. How shall I get rid of him? Gun, knife, Bulgarian umbrella? Or shall he slip on the edge of the subway platform? Most difficult to detect is an overdose of insulin.”
“Biggy, please. I am not joking.”
“Neither am I.”
Between Neulengbach and Vienna the time just flew by. He would have loved to take a connecting train to Budapest with her and from there to Vladivostok or Istanbul. They talked much and freely, there was no time for the usual rituals of getting to know each other. They both agreed, and they knew this from the beginning, that both of them hated this society to its core. But Biggy’s hate made due without the usual “it’s all shit” and “no future” catchphrases which he, long since disconnected from reality, thought to be a constituent feature of recalcitrant youth since the 80s. Even though he thought her capable of brutality and malicious humor, her heart, at least that is how he wanted to see her, was no doubt at the right place, her words she chose carefully and her tongue lashed out at evil- meaning at the fools, the mean,the blind eye-turners and ass kissers. Only once their conversation was interrupted by a phone call. She talked in English, not at all badly, said she would call back later. Then she typed a text message and encouraged Katz, whose flow of talk had faltered, to continue, she were listening.
As the train pulled into Huetteldorf, Biggy typed her phone number into his cellular phone. He handed her a business card worn soft through the years out of an equally worn wallet. Finally he thanked her for not once calling him Katzii in front of her girl friend. That hit home. A final smash laughter hit.
Samuel Johnson had it right when he said that he would sell his grandmother for a laugh.
Unfortunately, Katzi had not grandmother to sell anymore and thankfully no grandkids who could put him up for sale.
Westbahnhof. At the terminal end of the tracks he asked her which direction she was going. The other one, she said with a smile. Aha, a beau is waiting already, thought Ernst Katz and was happy for her.
Then he extended her his hand.
“It was an extraordinary honor to have made your acquaintance, Biggy. Take care of yourself.”
“You do the same. Maybe we have the pleasure again some day. For coffee.”
Oh no, thought Ernst Katz, the grandfather treatment.
After a few paces, Ernst Katz couldn’t help looking after her, he turned round on his heels and said:
“I like your quick wit.”
Not once had this unusual creature given him the impression that she made allowance for him as an old codger, or goth or whatever weird wrinkly he was.
That is how they parted. Ernst Katz knew that he would never see her again but didn’t grow sad about it. He was simply glad that this person existed. And what he had just experienced was more than he could have hoped for. He didn’t feel like taking the street car now and also wasn’t keen on being swallowed up by the subway shaft. Hovering a couple inches above ground, he would float home to his six hundred square foot apartment in the ninth district, his barrel of Diogenes, as he used to call it but lately referred to it as his mausoleum. For days he would draw from this encounter before the old peevishness would creep back into his body.
By Richard Schuberth
Translated by Joe Weinkirn
More about Richard Schuberth here.
Johannes “Joe” Weinkirn was born half a century ago in the middle of Austria, halfway between Linz and Vienna. He made his way down to Vienna to study Cultural Anthropology. A few years on he decided to cross the prime meridian into the Western Hemisphere, setting up his homestead in New York City where he has spent half his life now. For work he splits his days between tour guiding and gardening; for pleasure he translates great literature.