"Biggins writes with a fine sense of the sea and a truly marvelous wit." —Booklist
A Sailor of Austria: In Which, Without Really Intending to, Otto Prohaska Becomes Official War Hero No. 27 of the Habsburg Empireby John Biggins
In this ironic, hilarious, and poignant story, Otto Prohaska is a submarine captain serving the almost-landlocked Austro-Hungarian Empire. He faces a host of unlikely circumstances, from petrol poisoning to exploding lavatories to trigger-happy Turks. All signs point to the total collapse of the bloated empire he serves, but Otto refuses to abandon the Habsburgs in
In this ironic, hilarious, and poignant story, Otto Prohaska is a submarine captain serving the almost-landlocked Austro-Hungarian Empire. He faces a host of unlikely circumstances, from petrol poisoning to exploding lavatories to trigger-happy Turks. All signs point to the total collapse of the bloated empire he serves, but Otto refuses to abandon the Habsburgs in their hour of need.
"Biggins writes with a fine sense of the sea and a truly marvelous wit." —Booklist
Read an Excerpt
A Sailor of Austria
In Which, Without Really Intending to, Otto Probaska Becomes Official War Hero No. 27 of the Habsburg Empire
By John Biggins
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1991 John Biggins
All rights reserved.
WHY I AM TELLING YOU ALL THIS
I IMAGINE THAT MANY OF MY LISTENERS will take the view that if a man has to wait until his hundred and first year before committing himself to posterity, then what he has to say cannot really have been very important in the first place. I am afraid though that I cannot help this. Please understand that I am sitting here now, speaking into this little machine, as much for my own benefit as for yours. Naturally, I hope that these ramblings of mine may be of some historical value; perhaps also divert or even amuse you. But my main purpose in committing all this to record is to try and make some sense of it all to myself: to carry out, if you like, a sort of final audit of the accounts before they tow me away on my long-overdue voyage to the breaker's yard.
I think that I may not have much time left now. This, I appreciate, hardly sounds a very remarkable statement, coming from a man who celebrated his hundredth birthday nearly six months ago; but the fact of the matter is that the ghosts have been hovering about me night and day these past few months, ever since the reappearance of the album and my arrival here in this place whose name I shall not even attempt to pronounce. But no, "ghosts" is not the right word, I think: there is nothing at all threatening or sinister about these sudden, vivid, quite unpredictable incursions of the people and events of seventy years ago into the world of here and now. Quite the contrary: now that I have got used to them they leave me with a curious feeling of peace. Nor are they transparent or insubstantial in any way; in fact they seem far more real than the events of a few minutes ago — or what pass for events in an old people's home full of decrepit Central European émigrés. Do they come to me or do I go to them? Or have they been there all the time? I really cannot say. All I know is that time is falling to pieces now: day and night and past and present all shuffled together like a pack of cards as I drift into eternity.
We had a storm last night, with a good deal of that loud, ill- tempered thunder that seems to go on above the clouds. I was lying half-asleep, half-awake in the fitful way that you will doze if you ever live to be as monstrously old as I am. Then suddenly, for no reason that I could think of, I was back there with them aboard U26 that morning — it must have been May 1917 — when the British destroyers were depth-charging us off Malta. It was no dream, I can assure you: I was present again among them in that cramped, stuffy little control room as we turned and dived and doubled our course down there in the crashing green twilight, sixty metres below the ultramarine waves, thrown about like frogs in a bucket as each brain-jarring concussion shattered the electric lamps and brought flakes of white paint showering down from the deckheads. No, it was no dream; they were all there exactly as they had been that morning: my Second Officer Béla Meszáros, his brow beaded with sweat and his knuckles clenched white as he gripped the edge of the chart table to steady himself. And our helmsman, the Montenegrin Grigorovic, huge and impassive as ever, with his egg-brown face and his little waxed moustache, wedged into his chair behind the steering wheel and gyro compass card, repeating my helm orders as calmly as if he were piloting a steam pinnace at a regatta in Pola harbour — except that I could just hear him mutter to himself: "Hail Mary, full of grace ... Starboard ten points Herr Kommandant ... Pray for us sinners ..." CRASH! "... now and at the hour of our death ..." Well, even as a lifelong sceptic I have to admit that the Blessed Virgin's intercession on our behalf was efficacious that morning. We all lived to die another day, for I suppose that they must all be dead now, many years since, except for me: the thirty-one-year-old whom they called "der Alte" — "the Old Man."
But this is unforgivable, to ramble on like this without introducing myself. At your service: Ottokar Eugen Prohaska, Ritter von Strachnitz, sometime Senior Lieutenant in the Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Navy, sometime Commander-in-Chief of the Czechoslovak Danube Flotilla, sometime Admiralissimo of the Paraguayan Republic, Commodore in the Polish Navy and Attaché Extraordinary to the Polish and Czechoslovak Governments-in-Exile, holder of the Knight's Cross of the Military Order of Maria Theresa, the Gold and the Silver Signum Laudis, the Knight's Cross of the Order of Leopold, the Order of the Iron Crown First Class, the Military Service Cross with Laurels, the German Iron Cross First Class, the Ottoman Liakat Order with Crossed Sabres, the Order of Polonia Restituta, the Silver Virtuti Militari, the Order of the White Lion, the Paraguayan Golden Armadillo with Sun Rays and the Distinguished Service Order with Bar.
However, if you care to strip away the fake title of nobility and the encrustations of metalware, like layers of paint and rusted drawing-pins off the back of an old door, you may think of me as Otto Prohaska, which was my name during my years in the Austrian service. Or if you prefer it, as plain Ottokár Procházka, the square-faced old Czech peasant who looks at me out of the mirror each morning: a wrinkled Bohemian village elder with high cheek-bones and a bristling white moustache, just like his grandfather and the preceding forty or so generations of Procházkas who goaded their plough-oxen across the fields around the village of Strchnice in the district of Kolin, about sixty kilometres east of Prague. They certainly built us to last. My grandfather lived to be ninety-seven, while as for my father the Imperial-Royal Deputy District Superintendent of Posts and Telegraphs, he would probably have made the century as well if he had not been run over by a railway locomotive.
As for myself, I passed my hundredth birthday back in April. I didn't receive the customary telegram from your Queen. But please don't think that I am complaining about this: I gather that the telegram has to be requested on behalf of the recipient, and the Mother Superior did write to Buckingham Palace on my behalf. Her Majesty's secretary was very polite, but said that they have to abide by certain rules, and require a birth certificate as evidence. And of course, as to my birth certificate, who can say? Perhaps it lies mouldering in some cellar in Prague or Brünn or Vienna; more likely it was burnt and scattered to the winds in 1945. No, I am more than grateful enough to Queen Elizabeth and her father for having given a penniless old refugee somewhere to rest his bones these past forty years. Beyond that, why should I be any concern of hers? I was born a subject of the Emperor Franz Josef, and I have served a dozen states since without ever having sworn allegiance to any of them. No, the only oath of loyalty that I ever took was as a pink-cheeked young Seefähnrich that morning in 1905 on the quarterdeck of the old Babenburg, swearing lifelong devotion to Emperor and Dynasty as I tied on for the first time that sword belt of black-and-yellow silk, like a nun taking the veil. Since then it has all been one to me: Austria-Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Paraguay, Poland, The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland; Empires, People's Republics, thousand-year Reichs, all of them as insubstantial as smoke and transient as hailstones on an August afternoon, those huge Central European hailstones that smash roof-tiles and kill animals and flatten hectares of rye, then vanish before your eyes as the sun comes out.
That was what they used to drum into us cadets at the Imperial and Royal Marine Academy in Fiume: "Whoever puts on the tunic of a Habsburg officer puts aside his nationality." The only snag for me and for a generation of my brother officers was that there would come a day when the tunics would be rudely stripped from our backs and we would have to don our old nationality again — if we could remember what it had once been. Most of us found that they fitted indifferently on middle-aged bodies, while as for myself, I never really found one that suited me. I have been a Stateless Person these past thirty-five years, ever since the Poles took away my passport and the Czech regime sentenced me to death in absentia, and I must say that this citizenship suits me as well as any other. A good joke really, if you think about it: the man without a country who doesn't know his own name, born in a town without a name and brought to die in a place whose name he can't even pronounce. When young Dr Watkins came to see me a few weeks ago I asked him if he would consider making out my death certificate in advance, so that I can have at least some official evidence that I exist. He smiled evasively and pretended not to have heard me.
Anyway, I am wandering away from my task, which is to tell you why I am putting my recollections on record. So really I suppose that I have to start with Sister Elisabeth — or El?bieta, to give her her on-duty Polish title. She arrived at the Convent in Ealing about the middle of last year, on secondment from the Mother Convent of the Sisters of the Perpetual Veneration at a place called Tarnów in southern Poland: a dull little town which I remember quite well from my youth when some cousins of mine lived near by. Now, I will say nothing against the Sisters: they took me in, free of charge, ten years ago when my wife died and I could no longer look after myself, and since that time they have been very good to me in so far as they have been able, with ninety or so other aged, sick and cantankerous Polish refugees to look after. In fact I feel a perfect fraud for having lived so long and been such a burden on their generosity. They are all very sweet and kind. But even so these have been lonely and trying years for me. For one thing, being a sort of Czech has set a certain gulf between me and the other "pure ethnic Polish" residents (I must try not to call them inmates) of the Home. My mother was a Pole, I speak the language better than many of them and I think that my record of service to the Polish state speaks for itself. But still there has always been a certain reserve and awkwardness between me and them. And there is the matter of age, now that I am "Our Oldest Resident" (Mother Superior's sickly sweet way of addressing me — "And how is Our Oldest Resident this morning?" — as if I had forgotten my name during the night). I am now nine years older than the next most senior resident Mr Wojciechowski (who is completely gaga) and thirty-eight years older than the eldest of the Sisters. Perhaps this might have been tolerable if my brain had turned to soup, but I'm afraid that it remains as sharp as ever, though sadly lacking in stimulation these past couple of years now that the cataracts prevent me from reading very much.
But Sister Elisabeth is not like the rest of them. It must be admitted that she is not much to look at: a drab, mouse-like little woman with wire-rimmed spectacles and a mouthful of stainless steel teeth to replace the ones lost through scurvy and beatings in a Soviet labour camp in 1940. But for me she has been a spring of crystal water in a ten-year-wide wilderness of dust and stones: someone who talks with me about things that we both know and understand, someone who treats me as an intelligent human being rather than a near-imbecile. Also she is great fun to be with: a natural anarchist with a deadly talent for mimicry and a charmingly irreverent attitude to the Church and all other purveyors of received truth. I believe that her father was a senior civil servant in the old Imperial-Royal Ministry of Education, in charge of middle schooling throughout Austrian Poland: a Regierungsrat, no less. Elisabeth was born in 1924 in the former provincial capital of Lemberg, by that time renamed Lwów. But even though her home language was Polish she was brought up to think of herself as a servant of the now-vanished Dynasty and its scattered peoples: in other words, as an Old Austrian, unencumbered by anything so vulgar as a nationality. One of her first memories, she tells me, is of her father lulling her to sleep by humming the "Gott Erhalte," Haydn's beautiful old imperial anthem with its versions in all eleven official languages of the Monarchy. They work her very hard in the kitchens, but we still find time to sit together and talk about the places we both knew and the people who once lived in them, before the flood came and swept them all away.
It was Sister Elisabeth who restored the album to me one morning early in May, as the lime trees of Iddesleigh Road were breaking into flower and the Heathrow Nightingales were starting to thunder overhead, one every three minutes. It was the day before I was due to set off on my journey down here to South Wales, and I was sitting in my room watching as Sister Anuncja packed my suitcase, kneeling on the lid in an effort to engage the catches. As she worked she talked to me over her shoulder in the way that one would speak to a cat or a low-grade mental defective — someone at any rate who is not expected to reply, or even to understand very much. She was telling me how much I would enjoy my holiday at Plas Gaerllwydd.
"Really," she prattled, "it's so lovely down there by the sea. The beach is all white sand and three kilometres long and the waves are huge and go crash on the beach all day long. You'll really enjoy it. It's nearly as nice as Sopot."
I was just about to enquire whether I would be allowed to go paddling (though I find that, in general, sarcasm is quite wasted on the Sisters) when Sister Elisabeth came scuffling in through the half-open door with that slightly furtive, hamster-like gait of hers. I saw that she was carrying something wrapped in a Sainsburys carrier bag; also that she had about her a distinct air of excitement and conspiracy. She smiled at me from behind her thick, round lenses and gave me a glimpse of the dental catastrophe behind her lips. Anuncja glanced behind her.
"Oh, it's you El?bieta — been out shopping I see." Then, without waiting for a reply: "Here, look after the old rascal for a few minutes will you, while I pop down to the laundry?" — for all the world as if I, who still read newspapers and am neither senile nor incontinent, would infallibly electrocute myself or drown in the wash-basin if left alone for more than twenty seconds. As Anuncja's busy footsteps receded down the linoleum-covered corridor Sister Elisabeth shut the door gently behind her and came over to where I was sitting.
"Here," she said, "look what I've brought for you. I found it outside a junk shop on Hanwell Broadway and I thought it might be of interest." She fumbled in the rustling plastic bag and produced a large, thick book, bound in mulberry-coloured watered-silk board and evidently much the worse for wear. She placed it on the table beside me, then stepped back with the expectant air of one who has just lit the touchpaper of an old firework without a label and is waiting to see what will happen: whether it will be a shower of blue and orange stars, or a loud bang or simply a damp splutter and then silence.
"Thank you, Sister Elisabeth," I said. "You are really too good to me. I wonder what on earth this can be. Would you be so kind as to pass me my reading glasses from beside the bed?" I slipped on my spectacles and began to examine the volume lying on the table in front of me.
It was certainly an album of some description: a thick, heavy book with tattered morocco leather corners and a broken spine. I could not for the life of me imagine what it might be. But as I touched it, without knowing why, I felt a sudden and disturbing tingle of recognition. I inspected the book more closely, and saw that the lower left-hand corner of the front cover bore a small, round, embossed stamp; and that the stamp consisted of a double-headed eagle surrounded by the legend K.K. HOFRAT J. STROSSMAYER. FOTOGRAF. WIEN 7. MARIAHILFERSTRASSE 23. My hands trembled as I opened the front cover and my ears began to sing with a high-pitched ringing note. Then my eyes fell on the first page. My mind skated helplessly across the paper, trying to take in what lay before it.
Excerpted from A Sailor of Austria by John Biggins. Copyright © 1991 John Biggins. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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Meet the Author
John Biggins came across photos of the Austro-Hungarian submarine service in 1987. He subsequently wrote the four-book Otto Prohaska series, a cult classic with literary flair and an ironic twist. A native of England, Biggins currently lives in the Netherlands.
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This was an excellent read on two levels: as engrossing fiction with well thought out and vivid characters plus as an excellent history lesson with an interesting and indepth look at the vanished Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Several times during the read I thought what a jewel I had happened onto. I can't recommend this book enough.
This is the best series of books on WWI from the German Allies point of view. The book moves our hero through his early life, training in U-boats, to first combat. Truly a wondrous look at the impact of war on a small, over-shadowed nation