Author: Elisabeth Klar
Translator: Fiona Graham

Translator’s Introduction
Sylvia and her friend Jonathan, a young gay man, live in Vienna. They work for the same NGO: Jonathan has recently finished a placement in Brazil, while Sylvia is a street fundraiser. Both outsiders, they are happiest when hanging out at a local drag club, Heavenbound. There are two further crucial details: Jonathan, who sometimes smells of chicken, is beginning to sprout wings, and Sylvia is actually a fox in disguise.


Chapter 4

She notices he’s walking differently. More stiffly, holding himself differently. Avoiding leaning against the backrest on the metro. And he doesn’t like stretching his arms up high. Inside her flat, he sets his kitbag down, removes his T-shirt slowly, gingerly, breathing deeply all the while. He lies down on his stomach, letting Sylvia sit beside him on the bed and scrutinise his back, but when she attacks him there, he flinches.

‘Bit less pressure?’ she asks.

He nods, his face in the pillow.

So she strokes as lightly as possible over his skin. First he twitches again, then relaxes under her touch.

It doesn’t look so very different. Only because she knows his back so well can she spot the two bumps between spine and shoulder blades. The patches are still hot. Still seething. She bends over him, sniffing. Chicken.

‘Have you always been human?’ she asks. ‘You can tell me.’

‘Yeah, always have,’ he says, then: ‘Unfortunately.’

No need to regret it, Sylvia thinks. I don’t really think you’d have wanted my life. Or that you’d have survived. Least of all factory farming.

When she turns to him in bed on wakening, he’s still quite heavy, motionless, even when she fondles him; she leaves the patches beside his shoulder blades alone. They’re so hot.
His ear is exposed, and she thinks what she always thinks on spotting ears that she might actually be allowed to grasp, like now. If she were permitted to remove his ear, she thinks, she’d like to pull the ironing board out from between the wardrobe and the wall and set it up. She’d just have to shove the rest of the clobber aside with her foot. But it would be good to set up the ironing board, with its tight-fitting, unwrinkled cloth cover, crimped underneath where the elastic draws it together. The cover that crackles when you run your fingers over its smooth surface. Then put the ear on the board and plug the iron in. She’d fill the iron up properly, let the water heat up till steam came out. And then she’d manoeuvre the iron into all the folds and curves of his ear, until that too was pressed quite flat, ironed smooth.

One of the perks of her new life – making things flat and smooth, hot and steamy.

She’s not allowed to.

She’s not allowed to do so many things she’d like to do with him, so by way of compensation he sometimes lets her put her arms around him at night. Like now – and it’s good to have him back. She’s been without his smell or the touch of his little ears for so many months, but now his weight is beside her in bed again and she wants to press against it, as always. Jonathan with his human body that’s been a human body forever, moving with a sureness she still doesn’t quite comprehend.

But now he’s grown more rigid.

She runs her finger along the curve of his ear, into the hollow within, along the inside. Grime gathers here, so, making use of her thumb because she has one now, she bends the curved part upwards. At that he breathes out, long and deeply, curls up against her, then flinches as his upper back brushes against her.

Cat bounds onto the bed, stepping between and over Sylvia’s legs.

That, too, is something Sylvia barely understands – that she, of all people, has a cat. She bends Jonathan’s ear up, bends it up till she’s almost got a flat surface, but as soon as she lets go it flips back into its accustomed shape. And she likes feeling the cat’s ears too: again and again she runs her fingers over the delicate point right at the tip, squeezing it between her fingers, with a purr as the only response. Just a purr when she runs her fingers under the ear cartilage, moving the ear back and forth, folding the cat’s ears over, though Cat isn’t too fond of that. Sylvia wasn’t too fond of it either in the past. But Cat purrs rather than running away from Sylvia in accordance with her instinct, which must surely be able to scent who’s hiding beneath the false skin. Cat has decided to believe the lie in return for food, fondling fingers, warmth.

And Sylvia gives her these things: food, fondling fingers, warmth.

Why, come to think of it?

She hears Cat purring, and as she shoves her off the bed with her leg there’s a dull thud.

Not now.

Not just now when he’s pressing against her, when she’s giving his ear a little upward tug,
opening up its folds, scratching him in a place where he always itches. But she knows that if she persists for too long it’ll hurt. Where’s the limit?

In the cat’s case, the limit is where Sylvia would snap her tail if she continued. Because the very tip of her tail is slightly crooked, the last vertebra, and can’t be straightened without breaking it. Each time it’s a temptation. Straightening things. The tail would probably just grow back even more crooked anyway.

My cat – because I feed her. And how about you, Jonathan?

Mostly you feed me.

She edges nearer till she’s quite close to his ear, runs her tongue over it cautiously. He grunts, brushing his ear with his fingers as if trying to shoo an insect off. She waits until his hand is lying still on the linen sheet again, then she bites. She likes the way he cries out, suddenly awake – then the pillow lands in her face. She giggles, even when he rolls onto her, his eyes still wide with sleep.

Waits till he recognises her.

‘You might have known that was coming,’ Sylvia says.

He gives her a look.

‘Go and make some coffee,’ he says.

Cat winds in and out of Sylvia’s legs. With the window onto the inside courtyard open, she sniffs the air, but today you can’t really smell the dustbins, it’s the wrong weather. Stretching, she takes the coffee down from the bookshelf: the espresso percolator is on the stove, still half full from yesterday. So she empties it, unscrews it and knocks the powder out, as Jonathan wants fresh coffee; she shoves the empty crisp packet on the stove into the sink. Jonathan is moving around on the bed behind her; she hears the duvet being shifted here and there. Cat miaows. Sylvia fills one of the jars in the sink with water, sets it out for her, finds some fruit yogurt left in the fridge, tears it open, and puts it next to the water. The two mugs are on the coffee table beside the bed: Jonathan wants them washed, and she must have some washing-up liquid left, she just doesn’t know where.

‘You shouldn’t give your cat fruit yogurt so often,’ Jonathan’s saying now. She turns towards him: he’s raised himself to a sitting position, legs wide apart and feet on the floor, watching Cat, who’s already knocked over the fruit yogurt and is licking it up swiftly and meticulously as it oozes out over the parquet. ‘All that sugar isn’t good for her.’

‘Never did me any harm.’ And now the coffee’s on the boil too.

‘You’re not a cat. Never have been.’

Shrugging, Sylvia pours the coffee into the mugs. She’s never grasped why she’s supposed to keep tabs on what Cat feels like eating.

‘No milk left?’ he asks when she hands him the mug. Shaking her head, she sits beside him on the bed, pushes the sugar bowl over to him, takes a few gulps, lays her head first on his shoulder, then pushes his arm aside and lays her head in his lap.

He ruffles her hair.

‘You might be a bit less unkempt,’ he says.

Then he bends forward, his stomach presses down on her briefly, and she sighs, stretching. He reaches for the ashtray on the coffee table. She pinched it last night from Heavenbound, and now he’s turning it in his fingers.

‘Don’t you have enough of those already?’ he asks. ‘It’s not even very attractive, and anyway, it’s dirty.’

But Jonathan’s never understood why she steals what she steals. She can’t explain it either. It’s just that some things jump out at her. They have a nice feel to them, they glitter, or they’re covered in dirty ash that forms patterns.

Humans produce so many things she wants to have.

He puts the ashtray back.

‘I’ll be off this afternoon, don’t worry,’ he says, pulling out his mobile. ‘I just need to arrange my next sofa. I’m looking for flats too, it’s just that … well, it’s not that easy right now.’

‘Or you could stay here,’ says Sylvia.


‘Longer – as long as you want.’

Jonathan looks around the room. ‘You’ve only got this one room. There’s not enough space for two of us and a cat.’

Sylvia looks around the room too, to see what he means.

‘No,’ she answers simply.

Everyone always thinks her flat’s too small. But what more does she need? Ground floor: she can escape through the window any time. Dustbins in the inner courtyard: reassuring when she’s in bed at night. Even though she can control that urge now, it’s good to have them there as a food reserve for emergencies. It gives her security.

But Jonathan’s trying to catch her eye, frowning, she doesn’t know why: then it dawns on her what he might have on his mind.

‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to try to have sex with you any more,’ she says. ‘And definitely not when you’re asleep. I won’t ask any more either. I promise.’

He makes a noise something like a laugh, then shakes his head.

‘What? Have I said something wrong?’

He’d been so furious with her that time. His whole body had trembled with anger.

‘No, no,’ he says, turning his smartphone over in his hand. ‘Okay, great, till I find something else. Thank you.’

‘That’s all right.’

‘No, really, thank you. You’ve no idea what a grind it is to go off somewhere different to sleep each day, to try and avoid disturbing a different set of people every day, to beg for a place to stay each day, without knowing who’s going to take you in this time.’

‘I do, actually,’ she says.

She’d lived like that for months at the beginning. She’d just approached people; it was mostly men that took her home. She’d soon grasped what condoms were for. She’d soon learned how essential it is to have a smartphone, and where you can get free WiFi or charge your battery. Learned to survive, to adapt. So it goes.

Now she has her lair. On the ground floor, with dustbins in the yard. With a door that locks.

‘Yeah,’ he says, his shoulders rising. ‘Sorry.’

‘Doesn’t matter. Will you come for a walk now?’


Chapter 5

Jonathan’s footsteps are heavy on the asphalt, and he lies down again as soon as they get back. He stays in bed when she sets off to work the next day, and he’s still lying there when she comes home. He eats whatever she puts out for him, even if it’s only cold crème fraîche and boiled eggs.

‘Talk to me!’ she says on Thursday. He’s been almost silent for a week, and it hasn’t been an easy week for her. She’s hardly managed to persuade anyone to make a donation, and then two drunks started fighting in front of the museum district when there happened to be a squad car nearby. She can’t afford to be picked up by the police, even if only by mistake. Her lie is thin, and it’s easy to rip open the skin under her false sleeves.

Jonathan blinks.

‘Come on down to Heavenbound, or talk to me!’

She nudges his arm.

‘What am I supposed to talk to you about?’

‘I don’t know, what’s up with your tumour?’

‘What do you want me to say? I’ve got an appointment sometime for a CT scan or a biopsy or something. I’ve forgotten what they’re going to do.’

‘Brazil then, tell me about Brazil. What’s Feo doing?’

‘Feo?’ asks Jonathan, pulling his arms in close to his sides. ‘What makes you think of him now?’

‘Wasn’t it because of him you went there?’

He pulls his legs in. ‘No. Maybe. I’ve been wondering how she’s doing.’


‘He. I meant him.’

‘Then why didn’t you say so?’

He shakes his head, but it doesn’t work too well, as he’s on his side. He pulls a face.

‘It’s complicated, he’s trans.’


‘So …’ He curls up even more. ‘So nothing, it’s just that it made everything so confusing in Altamira. At first I got what was going on, in Rio I mean, and then, in Altamira, it was all so weird, so wrong, and I’ve been in a muddle ever since. That’s all. It’s not complicated really, it’s just that I’m … well, I’m totally useless. I just can’t manage to do anything right.’

Jonathan cries. That’s another of the perks of being human. Being able to cry. It’s just she never knows how to react. It remains alien to her, and she’s never brought it off herself.

‘Stop that and come out dancing with me,’ she says.

Jonathan shakes his head against the mattress.

‘Dancing’s good for you, it helps you forget everything.’

‘It hurts everywhere, Sylvia. I don’t even want to get up.’

‘I think Adin’s going to be there today.’

She can usually tempt Jonathan with Adin, Adin with his blue plastic wings and his neat bum. She likes watching him move too. He’s got the knack. The wings make him look as if he could fly away at any moment. Not that he’d get far in Heavenbound. The ceiling’s too low.

And Jonathan thinks it over, doesn’t answer immediately. Nods then, just once. Lets her pull him to his feet, pulls on the T-shirt she pinched for him because it’s covered in sequins – something stirs deep inside her when she shifts them back and forth, altering the pattern of colours. He goes along with her when she takes his hand.

But then Jonathan scarcely looks at Adin for more than a moment. Soon he sits down and she goes off to the dancefloor. Later she sees Ronaldo sitting with him, talking to him.

‘You can’t say anything this evening, Ronaldo’s made an effort this time,’ Sylvia yells to Adin over the top of the music; she knows Adin has a list of rules for how a drag queen should look and that Ronaldo has obeyed them all tonight – makeup, eyelashes, wig, no stubble, stomach held in, falsies, nails, shaved legs, what else was there?

Adin glances at the bar, then grins at her. ‘Not half bad,’ he says, giving her a wink.

‘You’ve got to let him know!’ yells Sylvia.

‘I thought I wasn’t supposed to!’ Adin yells back, laughing.


Excerpted from Elisabeth Klar, Himmelwärts  © 2020 Residenz Verlag GmbH, Salzburg – Wien

Banishment from Hell

Author: Robert Menasse
Translator: Fiona Graham

Translator’s Note:   Banishment from Hell weaves together two stories: that of Rabbi Samuel Manasseh ben Israel, born Manoel (Mané) Dias Soeiro in early sixteenth-century Portugal, and that of Viktor Abravanel, son of an Austrian Jew sent to Britain in 1938 with a Kindertransport. The first two excerpts are set in the Portugal of the Inquisition, when forcibly converted Jews known as ‘New Christians’ were mercilessly hounded. The third excerpt is set in 1990s Vienna, at a reunion of Viktor’s grammar school class twenty-five years after the Matura school-leaving examination.


They’re going to set the house on fire. We’ll be burned. If we run out, they’ll beat us to death.

He saw the torches flaming up beyond the shutters, he heard the din people were making outside: singing, shrieking, yelling.

It was a funeral procession. The biggest funeral procession ever seen in Vila dos Começos – and the strangest – was making its way through the streets of the little town. A mourning procession in which no-one was mourning.

Two black horses adorned with purple fabric rosettes drew the hearse, which bore a coffin so tiny that it looked tailor-made for an infant. Behind it, holding a crucifix aloft in both hands, walked Cardinal João d’Almeida from Evora in a blood-red cassock and a red biretta, with the ermine-trimmed cappa magna draped over his shoulders, its train carried by four canons in purple cassocks. They were followed by the priests of Começos and the surrounding parishes, dressed in black cassocks, with white surplices and violet stoles. The nobles, in purple velvet with broad leather belts, bore their daggers drawn and pointing downwards. The representatives of the town council and the burghers, in black suits and large black hats, carried torches whose plumes of smoke traced a mourning band around the sun.

All this pomp, better suited to a state funeral, could not disguise the fact that the mood was heavy with fury, hatred and bloodlust. Nearly all of Começos had come out to join this procession, the purpose of which was to inter a cat. They murmured not prayers, but curses; did not fold their hands, but shook their fists. Their faces were reddened not by the sun, but by bagaço firewater, and were marked not by grief, but by the lust to kill, burn and pillage.

Now the clergy were intoning the Martyrium Christi, but it was drowned out by people yelling to the torchbearers at the front, whenever they passed certain houses: ‘Put your torches to this roof!’

The funeral procession turned into the Rua da Consolação, the tiny coffin containing a cat that hadn’t lived beyond eight or nine months, a little black cat with mask-like white patches around its eyes. ‘Come on! Torch the roof!’ It was the Soeiros’ house.

Antonia Soeira was one of the few not out in the street. Standing at the window with her children Estrela and Manoel, she peeped out cautiously through the cracks in the closed shutters and pulled the children back into the middle of the room as the noise outside rose to an increasingly threatening pitch, saying, ‘These madmen will yet declare that cat to be God. Let it eat the Dove in the Catholics’ heaven!’

The reason for the great commotion that had seized Começos and its surroundings was that this cat had been crucified. It had been found pinned with heavy iron nails to a wooden cross in front of the Casa da Misericordia. To the men of the Church it was instantly clear that by holding a funeral on a magnificent scale, designed to reinstate the sacred dignity of crucifixion, they could channel the local populace into united, fanatical combat against heretics and unbelievers; the Inquisition had entered Começos just a fortnight before.

The singing and shouting outside faded into the distance, and the boy stood in the middle of the darkened room, with the urge to run away, as fast and as far as ever he could, but he was stock-still. Just before being pulled back from the window, he had spotted the coffin on the hearse, that tiny coffin, and it occurred to him in that instant, for the first time, that he would probably never see his father again. His father had been among the first to be arrested by the Holy Office.

Drawn by the pitch-black horses, the coffin in a reddish light, as if the sun were setting and the cardinal’s scarlet vestments were aflame. A last sunset, the end of the world.

Manoel had always had to be home by sunset in the days when he used to go out to meet his friends. His father had been a real stickler about that – home by sunset. Woe betide him if he returned any later. Why? There had been no explanations, and by the time he understood, it was too late.

His father was a corpulent man, inelegant, and always very proper but never distinguished in his dress. On his cheek was a large crescent-shaped scar that repelled and intimidated Manoel. He was forever drawing himself up to discipline his children. He spoke quietly, almost hoarsely, and indistinctly. In the evenings he would read silently, mouldering over his book. Though Manoel had been instructed to address him as ‘Senhor’, he was no Senhor to the boy, who thought he played the role poorly. Manoel lowered his gaze before him out of fear, but also in disdain; he could not look up at him.

But now it was the idea of never seeing his father again that frightened him immeasurably. The din of the funeral procession was still audible far off, and Manoel felt his heart thudding even in his head, its rhythm as insistent as if it were straining desperately to match the drumming and the rhythmic chanting outside. But that was impossible now. They’re going to kill us all.

*                                        *                                        *
There was work in Vila dos Começos. The time when men used to loiter in the streets, waiting and watching, was over. No-one had to wait for casual labour, a handout or better times. Anyone who could work was put to work. And it was best not to watch too closely any more, or at least people didn’t let on that they were. The Casa da Misericordia, which was both the seat of the Holy Office’s bureaucracy in the Começos district and its prison, set off an unprecedented boom in the little town. Joiners and cabinet-makers delivered racks and other items to the Casa, works of art that combined, in the most labour-intensive fashion, workmanlike precision, mechanical inventiveness and the human desire for beauty and ornamentation. Just building the balustrades for the Casa’s great courtroom resulted in written records of seventeen new woodturning techniques. Written records – clerking quickly became a promising trade. Começos’ school was reformed and a teacher training institute was even added. Pupils like Fernando were driven back to their fathers’ workbenches by the cane. Or into the fallow fields and groves around Começos, where they learned how to plant vines and then, according to precise instructions, to produce the wine called ‘Lagrima do Nosso Senhor’, sought after by the lords of the Casa and now preferred by all self-respecting burghers of Começos. After endlessly long lean years, the domains of the landed gentry now bore fruit once more. The aristocrats, reduced until recently to mere parasites living off the vanity of their prosperous Jewish, New Christian sons-in-law, no longer pawned their silver tableware and brocade robes, but leased out land; no longer sold their daughters, but lists of names; no longer hid from debt-collectors, but waited impatiently for the tailors they had summoned. The tailors needed seamstresses, coachmen and teams of horses to keep pace with demand.

The self-indulgence of the lords of the Holy Office, aped by the flourishing tradesmen and craftsmen, transformed the face of the town; cramped craftsmen’s booths where men sat hunched over cheap repair jobs – when not quaffing spirits on the Praça do Mercado – became specialised workshops constantly in search of apprentices and assistants. They were building as if the town were being founded anew. Masons and carpenters, booked up for months in advance, sought out second- and third-born peasants’ sons from the Alentejo who had been tramping around Portugal without any prospect of employment and brought them to Começos, where they found work and bread. Silk, velvet and brocade became as commonplace as coarse linen had been. Cobblers learned how to cut leather with the same skill as the best cordwainers of Florence. The gold- and silversmiths rivalled those of Cordoba and Venice. The lords of the Casa in their fine boots had the town council pave the square and, eventually, all the streets in town. Stonemasons and pavers established themselves as new trades in Começos. There was money in abundance for the Holy Office. Money from the Crown, but also wealth seized from those who fell into the hands of the Inquisition. Commercial links, long since established and carefully maintained by merchants now languishing in the dungeons of the Casa da Misericordia, fell into the hands of men who had once been their clerks or, quite often, merely their coachmen. They showered coins and gold onto the market as if scooping them out of the wells of their new houses. Houses that had been seized, then plundered and ruined, had to be repaired and refurbished – by families who were ready to pay any price for brazilwood. These were golden times. The emblem of the Inquisition, the ‘standard’, in solid gold, was affixed to the façade of the Casa da Misericordia: a sword, a cross, a severed branch. Below were the letters M e J.

When the golden sword in this coat of arms came loose from the building’s still damp new plaster and crashed to the ground one night, it vanished without trace within minutes. People who had come out of their houses, alerted by the noise, now saw only the absence of those prized four pounds of gold. They laughed and laughed. Their howls reached the dungeons of the Casa. For the people in the square it was if a nickel coin had gone missing. The sword’s doing its work at night, haha, bottles of bagaço were passed around, haha, where was the sword? With the Oliveiras? With the Soeiros? The sword of God at work, haha!

Four days later the emblem’s sword had been replaced. A surfeit of gold flowed into Começos. In their new houses, Old Christians were already contemplating paving their yards with gold. And on this very day, when the sword returned to the façade of the Casa, barely a year after the cat’s burial, Antonia Soeira was arrested. Gaspar Rodrigues, the second time he was put to the question, had accused his wife of having incited him to judaizing. On the rack he had uttered a single word that might have been a screamed Yes, but might also have been just an inarticulate scream. But the records noted:

‘…indicated, on the second occasion that he was put to the question, that his spouse, Antonia Soeira…’

Suddenly there were men in the house wearing patched shifts and armbands, red, with a cross sewn on, men too rough and too unskilled for any trade in need of hands, who earned their living by hauling people away, for a bowl of soup during the day and for bagaço in the Mercado, for which the tavern-keepers dared not charge these men with their armbands. Not forgetting the body searches. Those brought in a pretty penny. There was bread for all in Começos.
And then there was also a man in a cassock and a red skull-cap, who would constantly rub his hands together, interlocking his fingers whenever he spoke. His hands were red and scaly; they even rustled when he rubbed them, and flakes of skin floated to the floor. Later, Mané would often regret that he had been so mesmerised by this that he’d seen nothing else. He didn’t see the expression on his mother’s face, didn’t see whether she betrayed fear or stayed cold and contemptuous; the latter, at any rate, was what he would later claim: ‘Her reaction seemed cold and contemptuous; the only concern she showed was about the fate of us children.’

‘The children are to be delivered up for Christian education on the morrow,’ said the man with the hands.
That was the last night in this house:
‘I know what you’re thinking!’ (Estrela)
‘No, Estrela, you don’t, because I don’t know myself.’
‘Don’t call me Estrela any more. I’m Esther!’
‘Esther.’ He realised that it was too late. ‘What am I thinking?’
‘You want to run, run away, as fast as you can.’
‘I can’t run.’
‘Then we won’t get very far.’
‘We won’t even get out of this house!’
‘Then let’s pack our bags for tomorrow.’


*                                        *                                        *

Like students, they all rapped the table with their knuckles by way of applause. The former headmaster, Mr. Preuß, raised his hands in thanks, requesting another moment’s quiet, as he had something to add.

The only imponderable in Viktor’s plan had been how he could engineer the situation he needed to put it into practice. He intended to wait for a while, then, once they’d had a few drinks, to tap his glass with his knife and ask them all to give him their attention, as if he were about to raise a toast. But the idea Preuß was now proposing would – unexpectedly – make it all easier and speed things up. The Headmaster proposed that his former pupils take turns to describe ‘in broad words, I mean in broad terms’ the course their lives had taken since their final Matura exams. This would mean everyone would have at least a general overview of what everyone else had done, not just the people who happened to be next to them at table. This procedure, he thought, would satisfy the basic curiosity of everyone here and it might well ease further communication. He looked around, and as a number of teachers raised their voices in support, he proposed that they start at the end of the table and continue around it, and so he would like to call on Dr. Horak – yes, please, Dr. Horak – to set the ball rolling.

Turek, said the man who had just been addressed, Eduard Turek, and he was in business, he’d taken a degree in commerce – at the other end of the table they called out, ‘Louder! Louder!’ and Eduard got to his feet, repeated, ‘I took a degree in commerce and…’ Viktor froze instantly. Where he was sitting, he’d be third in line, or, if he ‘naturally’ allowed Maria, who was seated opposite him, to go first, he’d be fourth. He hadn’t expected that the opportunity to spring his attack would arise so quickly; now he was nervously scrabbling in his jacket pockets after the paper he had prepared, first in the right one, then in the left one – had he forgotten it? Eduard’s speech rattled on past him, so bumptious as to be excruciating, phrases like ‘Now I’ve got two hundred employees working under me’ nearly made him groan out loud, then it was Wolfgang’s turn, of course he’d become a lawyer, of course he’d taken over his father’s legal practice, but, at the same time – of course – he still played ‘an active part in the student fraternity, though now, being a graduate, as one of the “old guard” ’; yes, he was active ‘in “Bajuvaria” ’ and not – as was so trendy among the lefties these days, ‘in Tuscany’. Laughter.

Now all eyes were on Viktor, who gestured courteously towards Maria, and, as she whispered, ‘No, no, no, you go first!’ suddenly found the sheet of paper in his breast pocket. Viktor stood up, he felt an instant coldness towards them, suddenly he relished standing there and allowing his gaze to wander slowly from one to the other, contemplating the faces of these familiar strangers, who were looking at him so good-humouredly, expectantly, even though they certainly didn’t expect him to have as impressive a career to recount as most of the others.

‘After school I studied history,’ he finally said, ‘history and philosophy.’ All that everyone wanted to know now, he sensed, was whether he’d got a master’s or a doctorate, whether he’d become a teacher or an academic, whether he was married and how many children he had. ‘The study of history,’ he continued, ‘is nothing other than an examination of the conditions determining the genesis of our own lives.’ This sentence was too stiff, he realised at once; he paused briefly and took the piece of paper out of his breast pocket, saying, as he unfolded it, ‘We’ve just been asked to sketch out our lives, but we’ve never been told anything about the lives of the people who were our teachers, the people who educated us and who, surely, formed us one way or another, I mean …’

Viktor was sweating, and his glasses slipped down his nose slightly; he pushed them back with his middle finger. How he’d enjoyed playing football. Would have enjoyed. But since he wore glasses … ‘To understand what a person has become, I think it may also be very rewarding, very enlightening, to ask: who were his teachers? Who – “in broad words,”, as Mr. Preuß has just put it – were our teachers?’ He looked up the long table to the old teachers; they were grinning, were they seriously expecting something funny now? The lame jokes of the final year’s school magazine which no-one had wanted to write at the time, served up cold twenty-five years later? Viktor swallowed, lowered his gaze to his papers and read out, ‘Josef Berger, a member of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, membership number 7 081 217. Eugen Buzek, NSDAP member No 1 010 912. Alfred Daim, NSDAP member No 5 210 619. Adelheid Fischer, a high-ranking leader in the League of German Girls, from 1939 leader of a Girls’ Circle, the Girls’ Circle was made up of five Girls’ Groups, each one comprised four Girls’ Troops, and each Girls’ Troop was made up of three Girls’ Units with fifteen members each. So she was in charge of almost a thousand girls in Vienna and …’ The shocked silence was so profound that he managed to list two more names and NSDAP membership numbers without anyone moving or saying anything. Finally he got to ‘Karl Neidhardt, a particularly interesting case, by the way. After the war had started he studied English, the language of the enemy – why did a fervent Nazi and would-be German study English? Well, for that very reason. Because his convictions were so strong. The Nazis needed particularly reliable people to listen in to the enemy, and Mr. Neidhardt was assigned to this task at the Reich Security Headquarters, in the rank of a senior lieutenant. Maybe some of you remember how our English teacher came into the classroom one day in 1965 to read out an obituary of Winston Churchill, who had just died. All the English teachers in Austria were obliged to do that at the time. It was an order from the Ministry of Education. So he read out this text, which praised Churchill for the part he had played in the liberation of Austria, but I can recall his expression even now; you could see he could barely restrain himself from shouting: ‘The swine is dead!’

Suddenly there was a bang. A shot? A thunderclap? Viktor saw that Mr. Preuß must have leapt to his feet so abruptly that his chair had fallen over; Mr. Spazierer and Miss Rehak were standing too. ‘The swine is dead!’ said Viktor. ‘That was what he really wanted to yell…’ He had got an astoundingly long way, but now he clearly had only seconds left. So he followed up quickly with ‘Otto Preuß, NSDAP member number…’

‘Get out! That’s enough!’ yelled the Headmaster at a volume that blanked out every sound in this inner room, every further word from Viktor, the scraping of chairs, the former teachers and pupils’ first outraged utterances, the clearing of throats, even breathing itself. And now, into this dense silence, he yelled again, ‘That’s enough! Have you gone mad?’ He snorted, standing rigidly erect, his arms at his sides, rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet, groped for words, and finally got out: ‘You can’t expect me to stay any longer.’ Kicking aside the chair that had toppled over, he stormed out, followed by the teachers, red-faced, their expressions frozen, looking neither right nor left.

Excerpted from Robert Menasse, Die Vertreibung aus der Hölle.  Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main and Berlin,  2003 and 2017.