Banishment from Hell

By Robert Menasse

Translation 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.