Author: Vladimir Vertlib
Translator: Cornelius Partsch
Mein erster Mörder contains three “life stories;” this excerpt is from the first, titular story. 44-year-old Leopold Ableitinger, who as a 24-year-old murdered a man who treated him disrespectfully and aggressively, speaks to a journalist about events that occurred in Vienna in 1957, when Leopold was 14 years old. The narrative is arranged to let the reader understand why Leopold committed the crime.
Chapter Two relates events of Leopold’s childhood. Leopold, his parents, and a great aunt have been displaced by World War II and are currently living in cramped social housing in Vienna. In the translated passage, young Leopold first learns of a dark secret in his tyrannical father’s past, something related to Hungarian prisoners of war. Later, Leopold’s curiosity leads him to piece together how his father might have been involved in a war crime, for which he was never held accountable.
My father enjoyed giving me long lectures about the art of hanging up towels to dry. I listened and did not interrupt him. This warm day in April was no exception. The rest of the laundry did not matter to him. He was terribly meticulous, but only with towels. Not just that they all had to hang at the same height and evenly spaced on the line! A stranger might have thought the towels had been thrown out of an airplane and dropped on our balcony by chance. But there was a system behind it. The third towel from the left had to be folded three times, on the fifth towel the clothespin had to be placed at the top right-hand corner. Most importantly, the blue stripes should not line up to form continuous lines under any circumstances. “Your father is off his rocker,” said my great aunt Elfriede. “My old radio from before the Anschluss works better than his brain. I wonder how many tubes have burned out in there?” In any case, I soon knew the towel rules better than my father himself and corrected him when he made an error. I was fourteen. At that time, my parents and I lived in Vienna. I moved to Salzburg later, as an adult.
We had a nice apartment in a house that had been damaged during the war. In retrospect, it was a bit of good luck for us that the Germans and the Russians had been locked in an artillery battle near the Donaukanal in April of 1945. That’s how we got our balcony. A shell had blown away the façade, as well as a room, the attic, and the roof structure at the upper right corner of the building. After some makeshift repairs, the apartment was rented out again. Two rooms, a kitchen, and a roof deck in place of the third room. A sizeable “outdoor area.” Even with hardwood floors. From there we had a view of the Donaukanal, the city railway, and the Friedensbrücke stop. When it was clear, you could see the hills of the Wienerwald in the distance. A few years prior, the Donaukanal had served as a border between occupation zones. On our side, some claimed, Siberia ended. On the other side, America began. When I was much younger people had to show their identification cards on the Friedensbrücke in order to get to the West. That was exciting. Crossing from one world into another. Now it was all the same, but Austria was free.
Unfortunately, our house was to be demolished soon to make room for a new building. Cracks had started to appear in the walls, so wide that a rat could hide in them. Rats actually did come out of the walls. They made our kitchen unsafe and nibbled on Aunt Elfriede’s diary, which contained a record of my father’s many lunatic moments. In addition, the more intelligent rats (which was most of them) had learned to fetch the cheese bits out of the trap without triggering the fatal snapping mechanism.
My father ranted: “Just when one kind of vermin is gone, another shows up. First the Russians, then the Rat-sians.”
My parents had applied for public housing. We were scheduled to move to Brünner Straße in six months’ time. To Floridsdorf. Back home. That’s where my parents were both born and where they grew up. There, they had found work in a factory. My mother worked on the assembly line. My father paced through the hall and made sure that the women working the line did not work too fast or too slow. The lazy ones were fired, just like the overly enthusiastic ones. Mother adhered to the mandated speed. She never distinguished herself at anything in her life, not in either direction.
My parents had married in Floridsdorf and started a family there. They would have never left that place had they not been forced away by bombing raids in the winter of ‘45. They were out of their element on this side of the Danube.
Those people down there are shameless, said Aunt Elfriede. She was eyeing the sidewalk in front of our front door.
It had been painful for her to walk around my desk, open the window, arch her torso, and lean out the window. Some time ago, when she was still able to make it out onto the balcony, not even cats sitting under parked cars were safe from the clutch of her gaze. She entered every tiny detail into her diary. Including date and time.
She was appalled: “That slut from downstairs just pulled her dress up to the hips. You can see her knee and part of her thighs, and she is not wearing stockings, either, that slut. The redneck who is with her has three buttons on his shirt open, showing his chest hair. That would have been impossible in the good old days.”
Father grumbled: “Stop it with the Führer and the good old days.”
“Who’s talking about the yokel from Braunau? I meant the good old days when his majesty the emperor was still residing in the Hofburg. Even the dwarf who opened fire on the workers back in ‘34 had his good side. All that so-called ‘greatest commander of all times’ from Upper Austria ever did was to bring the Russians into our country. He should rot in hell.”
Father laughed and pointed his finger at his forehead. Our dear aunt has been saying strange things of late, he noted. Was this still the same woman who had got him through the difficult years of his youth?
After the death of my great uncle she became bedridden, and we moved her to our place. Father declared that he owed her that much. Now I had to share my room with her. She slept in my bed, and I on a mattress between my desk and my wardrobe. When I awoke in the bright moonshine, I saw the shadow of her pointy nose on the shade of the floor lamp. Her snoring did not bother me, but I could not stand having to look at her bird face on my lamp. It haunted me in my dreams. But Mother refused to buy thicker curtains. We could not afford such a luxury, she said. It was bad enough that she did the laundry for Aunt Elfriede, that she brought her medication and food to the bedside whenever walking to the kitchen was just too exhausting for the old woman. And of course, she also took care of the business with the chamber pot and – during the days when my aunt’s health was even worse – with the diapers. But what to do? You couldn’t just let her croak. “Everyone’s time comes,” said Mother, “every woman’s, I mean. You men have it much easier.”
We were sitting in the living room, a room that also served as my parents’ bedroom. My great aunt’s gut wobbled while she spoke, and a rattling sound emanated from her mouth. Her face and her hair seemed to match the red and white squares on the couch. The hair – a dusty white; the face – a pale red. My great aunt had striking features, disregarding the pointy nose of course. Mother came in from the kitchen with a basket of clean laundry. Father was enjoying a beer. He had already hung up the towels. The rest was of no concern to him.
“I haven’t slept for three nights”, said my great aunt. That was not true. Like always, she had been snoring.
“Should I go downstairs?” Father clenched a fist. “I’ll show them!”
Mother replied: “Stop bragging!”
Father poured himself another glass. He held the bottle in his left hand although he was right-handed. For good luck, he claimed. Many years ago, he had poured a beer with his left hand because he had injured his right one at work. He was unable to operate machinery in the factory for a month, yet not only was he not fired, he was even promoted to foreman. Since that time, he believed in the power of rituals. All in all, my great aunt had counted twenty-seven lunatic episodes, better yet twenty-eight if she counted the biggest of them all, by which she meant his “general state of mind.”
“Now this is starting up again! Not even on Sundays can you have some peace and quiet.” Father emptied his glass of beer in one gulp and wiped away the foam from this mouth with the back of his hand.
The noise came just like the rats out of the cracks in the wall. It came from the apartment below us, where the slut and her redneck husband lived with their young children, both of them girls. They had moved into the building two months ago, even though demolition had already been scheduled. But evidently they needed a place to stay and could not afford anything better. There were problems from the outset. They did not greet you properly when you ran into them. They left the radio on until midnight and made rude remarks when you complained. The janitor could not do anything about them and even Herr Pohl, the former Block Warden, did not succeed in making an impression on them. The police left them in peace, probably because the radio always fell silent when a police officer entered the building. Or maybe because they had other concerns besides disputes between neighbors who would only be living in the same building for a few more months.
The situation had escalated in the last few days. The neighbors had visitors. That meant noisy chatter until deep into the night. The rats’ passageways ensured that we heard every last detail.
Father said: “There is only one language these people understand. A chokehold, a punch to the stomach. In the good old days, it would have been enough to …”
“Just shut up! Are you stupid or something?” Mother glanced over at me.
“I’ll do it, I swear. The 1-kilo weight from the scale in one hand, a knife in the other…”
“You said the same thing yesterday, and three weeks ago.”
“Do you want to argue with me?”
I remained calm. When Father hit Mother there was something else going on. Even my great aunt could not manage to restrain him in those moments.
“I am going downstairs to talk to them. They will listen to me. I have never argued with them before.” The adults were flabbergasted. Mother shook her head. Father put down his beer, and after a long silence my great aunt agreed: “Actually, why not? From the mouth of a child even bad tidings sound gentle.”
“Don’t you sound like a poet today,” my father mumbled.
“That’s out of the question,” said Mother. But I had already prepared myself for the task, rolled up my sleeves and went into the kitchen to wet my comb. It didn’t help. I didn’t look like James Dean, and it wasn’t just because of the hair. Mother thought that I had inherited the looks of my Upper Austrian grandfather. Everyone who came from his neck of the woods had the same hamster face.
“Tell them that I’ve been lenient so far,” Father yelled after me, “due to my good nature, but my patience will run out soon.”
While I was putting on father’s sunglasses, I heard my great aunt’s voice: “And don’t talk with that slut for too long.”
As I walked down the stairs, I became dizzy with excitement. I had to hold on to the rope. There used to be a handrail there but it hadn’t made it through the war.
The floor tiles in front of their door were loose and clacked when I stepped on them. Paint was peeling off the door. This apartment had been vacant for a few years. It was a miracle that it was inhabitable at all. Natsch. A strange surname. The name was written on a piece of cardboard tacked to the door just under the spyhole. The old metal doorbell was rusted solid. I knocked. A woman whom I had met only once previously opened. She was wearing a worn-out nightgown and mousy felt slippers. She seemed old to me, in her mid-thirties, maybe forty. She was probably in her late twenties. Herr and Frau Natsch are not home, she explained. She was just here visiting for a few days with her husband. That’s just the problem, I stammered, and I thought to myself that neither the sunglasses nor the greased-back hair made me look grown up and strong at all. My damn grandfather from Upper Austria! Had I inherited his squeaky voice, too? It’s like this, I stated weakly. My parents are complaining about the noise level in the evenings, and since Herr and Frau Natsch have had visitors in the apartment, it has even gotten much worse… I looked down at my shoes and sensed how I was blushing. Goddamn grandfather!
“We are leaving the day after tomorrow.”
A male figure had appeared behind the woman.
“Is there a problem?”
“No, go back to bed.”
It was ten in the morning and they were still in bed! If I tell them upstairs, there will be more bad blood. I noticed that the man had the same accent as the Natsch woman. Our neighbors were Germans from western Hungary or, as people liked to say of late, Old Austrians. They had fled from their homeland after the failed uprising last fall.
“We will try to make less noise,” the woman explained to me. “Please tell your parents.” I thanked her and went on my way when I heard the tiles clacking behind me.
“What do you want from us?” At first glance, Herr Natsch was a slight figure. He had a long upper body, but fairly short and muscular arms and legs, and he was wide around the hips, like a woman. Somehow nothing on his body seemed to fit together. Maybe that was one of the reasons why he attracted the resentment of his fellow human beings. Some referred to him openly as a cripple. By contrast, his wife was a beauty. Slim, dark-haired, sensuous. When I jerked off, I fantasized more often about her than about Trudl from home economics class.
“It’s because of the radio,” I muttered and took off the sunglasses. “At night. And because of the loud talking.”
“Really? Are they now sending children to bother me?” he screamed. “Am I supposed to act like I live in a tomb, like all the others here?”
“But the house rules …”
“The house rules? Do you mean that piece of paper downstairs? I could use that to wipe my ass. There isn’t going to be a house here in a few months anyway.”
“Oswald! Think about what you are saying!” Frau Natsch’s dress was very short indeed. I could see her knees and thighs. And how she swayed her hips. It was unbearable.
The woman in the doorway said something in Hungarian. It sounded soothing, almost ironic. Herr Natsch responded in a provocative tone. Then they quarreled. A short dialogue. The woman turned around and went back inside.
“I don’t argue with children. Tell that to your father.” Herr Natsch’s voice was now calmer. Frau Natsch smiled at me.
Suddenly I stopped being afraid. I was angry. I thought, I am going to turn fifteen in a few months, and these people treat me like a baby.
“You know, Herr Natsch,” I countered, trying to sound threatening, “my father said that he would come down to see you. With a 1-kilo weight from our scale in one hand and a knife in the other, if you keep acting like a monkey.” I was mighty proud of the monkey-idea.
“Let him come down! We will see who slices up who! And now go back to your toys.” The door slammed. “Well, I guess I put him in his place,” I whispered, held back the tears and put the sunglasses back on. “I showed him!”
On this day, my father hit my mother again, and I was to blame, because I had screwed up everything. I riled him up when I told him about my conversation with the Natsches. I said what happened and added some embellishments. For example, that our neighbor had blustered on about slicing him open and called my father a pussy. “Pussy!” I liked that word.
I enjoyed Father’s rage. I agreed with him completely. We were of one opinion. I was starting to feel like a real man. Then mother intervened. She was tired of listening to all of this. It was a beautiful Sunday. Instead of going for a stroll by the Danube or in the Prater, we were sitting around in the apartment and talking about the Natsches. Father slapped her twice. When I tried to stop him Mother said: “Don’t get in the middle of this.” And my great aunt told me to go to my room. She would deal with the situation.
I remember that I tried to do my homework that afternoon. In order to get to the desk I had to squeeze by the bed and the mattress. The chair creaked unhappily. But I found the right technique for making it work. The edge cut into my behind, my left leg became numb, but I was in a seated position. My parents had promised that everything would be different in the new apartment in Floridsdorf.
I took the Latin text I had to translate out of the desk drawer. In Latin, as in most of the other subjects, I was best in class. If I should ever sink into mediocrity my parents would immediately take me out of school. I had to thank my great aunt Elfriede for being in high school at all. If father had had his way I would have completed primary school, up till the 8th grade, vocational school in the best case, and then done an apprenticeship with a plumber or a carpenter. My primary schoolteacher’s powers of persuasion could not sway Father, all her talk of my “extraordinary talents” and of the many opportunities available to someone with a high school diploma. Father wouldn’t hear it, until my great aunt put her foot down: “Be happy that he isn’t a half-wit like you. Having a brainiac in the family is the best retirement plan.”
Father always did what my great aunt demanded. She did not tolerate dissent. He had never even raised his voice with her. Until today. That confused me so much that I could not make sense of the Latin words. I simply could not make heads or tails out of the day’s events. Just before Father let loose on Mother I had recounted yet again how the neighbors spoke Hungarian and even imitated the sound of this language in a way that seemed accurate and funny to me. “A dirty little Volk, these Hungarians,” he opined.
Mother countered: “The Natsches are Germans.”
I corrected her: “Old Austrians.”
“It’s all the same, the race does not matter,” said father. “They are a dirty people, these Hungarians.”
“You should know best,” my great aunt said with derision in her voice. “After everything you saw when you…” She did not finish the sentence. Father was already by her side. He had never moved across the room this quickly. “Are you crazy?!” he howled. “Shut your mouth, or else…!”
The adults suddenly fell silent and looked at me. The silence lasted for a long time, it seemed to me, maybe thirty seconds or longer. I had never seen my parents so terrified before. Not even the gnawing sound emanating from the kitchen – the rats were dining again – caused them to leap into action.
Vita omnis in venationibus atque in studiis rei militaris consistit.
“Their whole life consists of …”, I muttered. What on earth does “venationibus” mean? I flicked through the dictionary absent-mindedly and missed the letter V. How was my father connected to Hungary? As far as I knew he had never traveled beyond the borders of Lower Austria. Not during the war, either. “Their whole life…” He was born in 1902. He was too young to fight during World War I, and too old during World War II. At some point, he had a physical, but he was not drafted because he was a skilled worker. He had to join the home guard, but not until March of ’45. The mission took him to the outskirts of Vienna, and he was able to defect just before everything fell apart. “… of military exercises …” Whereas both of my older brothers were at the front, one in Russia and the other in Norway. I was a late arrival. The product of faulty contraception.
Father did not have anything to do with the Hungarian refugees, either, the ones who showed up in Austria last year. And so what if he’d had contact with them? Why the terror on their faces earlier? Foreign workers were employed in my father’s factory during the war. They were all from the Ukraine and “were treated very well,” father had said. So again, no Hungarians.
Venationibus. Their whole life consisted of hunting and military exercises. Caesar wrote that about the Germanic tribes. Hungarians did not exist back then.
Ita est profecto: multis fortuna parcit in poenam. What nonsense. That could be describing me, but not the Germanic tribes. I opened the window and peered out. Down below a Vespa rattled by. A few teenage rebels were hanging out in front of the corner pub – cool posture, cigarettes dangling from their mouths, jackets open, their shoes black and polished. How I would have loved to be one of them. But I had to do my homework if I did not want to spend my life doing factory work like the rest of my family. Radio tunes wafted up through the rat holes. At least it was quiet in the living room. No more slapping sounds. Later tonight, when we are alone, I will ask my great aunt what she meant with her comment about father and the Hungarians.
From My First Murderer (Mein Erster Mörder). Deuticke im Paul Zsolnay Verlag, Vienna, 2006.