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As the landing gear hit the concrete with a thump, Rudolf Herter started awake from a deep, dreamless sleep. The aircraft braked with a roar of its engines and turned off the runway in a smooth arc. Flughafen Wien. He sat up with a slight groan; he had taken off his shoes and was massaging the toes of his left foot with a pained expression.
“What’s wrong?” asked the tall, much younger woman sitting next to him. She had red hair that she wore up.
“I’ve got a cramp in my index toe.”
“In your what?”
“In my index toe.” He smiled and looked into her big, green and brown eyes. “It’s funny how every bit of your body has a name—nostril, ear, elbow, palm—except for the two toes to the left and right of your middle toe. They’ve been forgotten.” He laughed and said, “I hereby dub them the index toe and the ring toe. Behold the completer of the work of Adam, who gave things their names.” He looked at her. “For that matter, Maria isn’t all that far away from Eve.”
“I see you’re your usual idiotic self,” said Maria.
“It’s my job.”
“Had a pleasant trip, Mr. Herter?” asked the steward, bringing their coats.
“Apart from drinking a quarter bottle too much of Alsace wine over Frankfurt. Terrible. These days every glass of wine costs me ten minutes’ extra sleep.”
Because they were traveling business class, they were able to leave the aircraft first. Herter looked into the happy, wide-eyed faces of the assembled crew; the captain had also appeared in the doorway of the cockpit.
“Good-bye, Mr. Herter. Enjoy your stay in Vienna,” he said with a broad smile, “and thanks for your wonderful book.”
“I was only doing my duty,” said Herter with a grin.
In the baggage-claim area, Maria tugged a trolley from the telescoped row, while Herter leaned against a pillar with his coat over his arm. The abundant hair around his sharply etched face sprang like flames from his head but at the same time was as white as the foam on the surf. He wore a greenish tweed suit with a vest, the function of which seemed to be to hold his tall, narrow, fragile, almost transparent frame together; after two cancer operations and a brain hemorrhage, he felt physically a shadow of the shadow of his former self—but only physically. He turned his cool, gray-blue eyes on Maria, who, like a hound at a foxhole, kept her eyes riveted on the rubber flaps, which one moment let through a calfskin Her-mès bag, the next a shabby package tied with string. She, too, was slightly built, but thirty years younger and thirty times stronger than he was. With powerful swings she pulled each of their suitcases off the conveyor belt and put it on the trolley in a single movement.
As they came through the sliding doors into the arrivals terminal, they were confronted by a long line of signs and pieces of paper being held aloft: hilton shuttle, dr. oberkofler, ibm, frau marianne gruber, philatelie 1999...
“No one for us,” said Herter. “I’m always shoved into the corner and sneered at by everyone.” He felt giddy.
“Mr. Herter!” A small, beaming, obviously pregnant lady headed straight toward him and put out her hand. “I recognize you, of course, like everyone else. Thérèse Röell from the Dutch embassy. I’m the ambassador’s right-hand man.”
Herter leaned forward, smiled, and kissed her hand. A heavily pregnant right-hand man. This was the sort of thing he liked so much about Holland: the good humor. At those countless literary-political conferences that he had attended in his lifetime (all equally useless, by the way), the atmosphere was always liveliest among the Dutch delegations. While the Germans and French gathered in ponderous seriousness to work out their strategy for the following day, the Dutch invariably formed an exuberant group. Even in the cabinet, he had been told by a ministerial friend, they were regularly doubled up with laughter.
The embassy car was waiting right outside the exit; the chauffeur, a man with a huge handlebar mustache, held the doors open. It suddenly felt much colder than in Amsterdam. In the backseat Herter discussed his program with the right-hand man. Maria, whom he had introduced as his companion, sat in front next to the driver, but was half turned toward them so that she could follow the conversation—not only out of interest but also because she knew that he would find it even more difficult than usual to understand what was said, as his hearing aid also amplified the sound of the engine. Now and then he glanced at her, whereupon she repeated Mrs. Röell’s words more or less unobtrusively. In order to conserve energy, the organizers had been very selective. Today there was just a short television interview for a cultural-affairs program, which would be broadcast later in the evening, giving him sufficient time to unpack and freshen up. Tomorrow morning there were interviews with three leading dailies and weeklies, lunch with the ambassador, and then, in the evening, the reading. He would have Thursday completely to himself. Mrs. Röell handed over the documentation and some newspapers with preliminary pieces on his work, which he immediately passed on to Maria. He made a brief movement with his eyebrows, so that Maria knew she had to take over the conversation at this point.
The city received them into the magnificent, monumental embrace of the Ringstrasse. He did not often visit Vienna, but each time he did, he felt more at home here than in any other city. His family came from Austria; obviously people carried in their genes the imprint of towns and landscapes where they themselves had never been. It was busy, the low November sun making everything vivid and precise; the last autumn leaves on the trees were few enough to count, and after the next storm they, too, would be gone. As they drove past a bright green park, covered with golden yellow leaves, Herter pointed to them and said, “That’s how I often feel these days.” At the majestic Opera House, the car made a right turn and stopped at the Hotel Sacher. Mrs. Röell apologized for not being able to attend the lunch or reading tomorrow but said she would collect them on Thursday evening and take them to the airport.
At the reception desk in the busy lobby, he was welcomed with delighted surprise, like someone for whom the luxurious hotel had been waiting for years. Herter took the whole thing in good spirits, but since he had never seen himself the way others had seen him for decades, he thought, All this is intended for an eighteen-year-old lad just after the Second World War, desperately poor and unknown, who is trying to get a story down on paper. But perhaps, he thought with amusement as the porter followed with their suitcases down long corridors carpeted and furnished in red, with nineteenth-century portraits in heavy gilt frames, the reality was less modest—perhaps it was completely the other way around: he was indeed unchanged, in the sense that for himself he had always been as he now was for others, too, even in his attic with the frost flowers on the windows.
On the table in the lounge of the spacious suite, a corner room that, with its crystal chandeliers and romantic paintings, looked like a boudoir of the Empress Sissi, stood a vase of flowers, a large dish of fruit with two plates, cutlery and napkins, and a bottle of sparkling wine in a silver- plated cooler. Next to two small traditional Sachertorten, Viennese chocolate cakes, lay a handwritten welcome note from the manager. After the operation of all the necessary buttons had been explained to them, Herter immediately started unpacking in order to remove the traces of the journey and to begin the next phase. Meanwhile, sitting on the edge of the bed, Maria phoned his estranged wife, Olga, to report their safe arrival; Olga was the mother of his grown-up daughters; in Amsterdam she was now looking after Marnix, the seven-year-old son of Maria and Herter. While Maria ran the bath and undressed, Herter went over to the corner windows.
Across the street the eye saw only the side wall of the imposing, Renaissance-style Opera House; in the square next to the hotel, by the mounted statue on its pedestal, stood a row of horse- drawn cabs for the tourists, the horses with blankets over their backs, the coachmen and coachwomen in long coats and capes and bowler hats. A little farther on was the Albertina Museum and behind it the towers and domes of the Hofburg could be seen in the thin autumn air.
Herter’s thoughts went back to his first visit to Vienna forty-six years ago. He was twenty-six, bursting with vitality, and a year previously had published his first novel, The Scarecrow, which was awarded a prize while still in manuscript. When, at the age of fifty, he won the National Prize for Literature, the government representative called him a “born National Prize– winner,” and he felt the same way. These kinds of things were part and parcel of his life, but back in 1952 no one except himself knew that yet. A journalist friend had to do an international report for an illustrated weekly and asked if he would come along. There were virtually no autobahns then, and they drove to Vienna in a Volkswagen along provincial roads via Cologne, Stuttgart, and Ulm. At that time, halfway through the twentieth century, the Second World War was only just over; cities lay in ruins, and the pair of them slept in the underground shelters that had been turned into temporary hotels. Vienna was also still full of rubble. Two memories had remained with him most vividly. The first was waking up the morning after his arrival in his shabby hotel in the Wiedner Hauptstrasse, not far from here. His room looked out onto a courtyard, and when he opened the window, he was struck by a completely new sensation: he could smell a vague, sweet smell, which he remembered without ever having smelled it before. Could one inherit the memory of smells? What’s more, there was no temperature. The still air was not a fraction cooler or warmer than his skin; it was as if he were merging with the world. In some way he felt as if he had come home to his father, with whom by that time any further communication was impossible. The second memory was a meeting a few days later. Vienna was still occupied by the four Allies; on the façade of the Hofburg, where in 1938 Hitler had been acclaimed, now hung a gigantic Soviet star with the hammer and sickle. Exactly how this meeting had come about he could no longer remember, but there, in the Russian sector, he had got to talking with a soldier from the Red Army: a few years younger than he, a head shorter, garrison cap perched at an angle on his dark blond hair, supple boots and belt around his wide, overhanging peasant tunic with its epaulets. “Got to talking” was not quite the right description, since neither could understand a word of what the other was saying, and all Herter learned was that the soldier’s name was Yuri and that he had come here from the vast depths of the Soviet Union to make sure that Hitler’s seed did not germinate again. For several hours they walked through Vienna with their arms around each other’s waists, pointing out the Austrians to each other and repeating a single text:
“Germanski niks Kultur.”
Where was Yuri now? If he were still alive, he would be approaching seventy. Herter sighed deeply. Perhaps he should write it all down at some point. It would be time for his memoirs by now, if it were not that his whole work consisted of memoirs: not only of his actual life but also of his imagination—the two being inseparable. There was a knock at the door; a porter set down a large bouquet, from the ambassador.
Herter looked back down at the square. The coachmen in their monkey suits were tending their horses, and from behind a balustrade the bronze duke on his bronze horse also surveyed the city. In an empty part of the square stood a large, modern monument, on the spot where hundreds of Viennese had died during a bombing raid. That, too, they owed to their prodigal son, whom they had embraced adoringly a few years before on the Heldenplatz.
Posted February 1, 2011
No text was provided for this review.