Late one night a young engineer named Kurt Weyrath is involved in a highway accident that leaves a middle-aged couple dead and their twenty-four-year-old daughter, Anna Kainz, in a coma. Tormented afterwards by his guilt for having fled the scene of the accident, Kurt quits his job, leaves his longtime girlfriend, and joins an ambulance service so that he might come into contact with the comatose young woman. He becomes closely involved in her life—helping with her therapies, visiting her old neighborhood, attending art classes she has taken, and searching for anyone who has known her. A year and a half later, Anna awakens from her coma, and Kurt discovers that she is a vastly different woman from the one he has imagined. The novel’s pace increases as Kurt and Anna together recover her past—and that past inexorably catches up with them.
|Publisher:||University of Nebraska Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.03(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.38(d)|
About the Author
Austrian writer Alois Hotschnig is the recipient of numerous literary prizes, including, for Leonardo’s Hands, the Anna Seghers Prize and the Carinthia Prize in the Ingeborg Bachmann competition.
Peter Filkins is an associate professor of English at Simon’s Rock College of Bard. He is the author of What She Knew and the translator of Songs in Flight: The Collected Poems of Ingeborg Bachmann, winner of an ALTA Award for Outstanding Translation.
Read an Excerpt
When someone dies, around here we say, he won't be shopping with us anymore. The newspaper is read from back to front, the last page first. The obituaries.
The five o'clock shift, the daily squabble over the paper, who will know first whom God the Father has taken.
You shake your head or nod, yes, I transported that one. A bit stunned, indifferent, but also concerned. For it's always one of our customers.
Frau Holzmann won't be shopping with us anymore.
Every day, the fifth floor, two hundred pounds, someone says. That's a load off our backs. At least she had the decency to die.
Due to the actual or imagined pain, so many of the ones he transported revealed their true selves in the most unguarded manner, fearing the examination or diagnosis, their backs against the wall, speaking to him as if every sentence would be their last, as if nothing had ever been said before and everything still needed to be said, spoken from them to him as they dug away at their fear and whatever came out of them was dumped onto him. In their pain, in their particular condition, they were all that mattered, each one alone in his suffering, the first and only sick person in the world, each trivial detail blown up into a major event and thus suffered for the sake of mankind, though in the process not a single pain was washed away.
This flood of speech often swept over him like a wave, making it impossible for him to move, numbing him to their speech. He was tense all over as he shrank beneath their words, as ifblows beat him down, forcing him to capitulate to their demands on his attention, as he said yes, listened and nodded, in order to survive.
You simply don't understand, for you have no idea what it's like, the symptoms, this pain, or maybe you've been through the same thing yourself, you know what it's like, you say that you understand everything, because that's the easiest thing to say, the most dishonest, sheer hypocrisy, in order to protect yourself.
'Yes, I understand,' is how it goes. My God, you are sick, and the pain, and yet to stand here and look at you, how you handle it, the incredible strength it takes, I know I couldn't do it, how you face up to it and keep on, so many others would have given up long ago. 'I'm amazed,' that's what you hear, and this amazement only means, thank God it's not me. You're amazing, it's wonderful how you keep at it, and I have such respect for you and can't help but show it, and I'm always thinking of you and how you're doing, what you're doing, and when I'm feeling bad, I think of you, what you would do, what kind of strength you would muster, and then I stop my complaining and feel small compared to you. And so everyone always understands, and yet, in reality, understands nothing. Even you in reality understand nothing.
Yes, that's right.
Only someone who has been through it can really understand.
To be reasonable, humble, weak, otherwise unable to survive, a weakling in the face of weakness, a weakling in the face of strength, and you yourself, nothing.
Indifference was a professional tool without which it was impossible to do the job, as indispensable as the latex gloves that were always nearby.
For indifference was as much a part of the routine as washing up, which in itself became a kind of mania. When they returned to the station, they washed their hands as soon as they got out of the ambulance, washing them and cleansing themselves of their own disgust for having once again become slaves to someone's need.
Silence consumed them during the ritual of washing. Indifference, nothing more could rattle them. The uniform had turned each into a kind of savior on the outside, their insides sealed off from anything that could potentially do them harm.
Your name, please?
Frau Geller. Then the first name.
Where do you live?
Liechtensteinstrasse 12. Please, I'm in a lot of pain.
You're registered as a pensioner in Salzburg?
Thank you. That's all.
None were spared the necessary pity, not even themselves. If they arrived and found someone dead, they said at least he had the decency to die, making him their favorite kind of patient.
And yet the dead kept popping up as if they spawned one another: first Frau Holzmann, then the next one. It sparked their contempt, and you had to resist the temptation to laugh. The sick outnumbered them, and each one who passed on left behind another one who was sick and had to be transported. It went on and on, and that's how you made your living.
Someone would read aloud from the obituaries, and their laughter disguised itself as a feeling of solidarity, though complicity was what lay beneath it. At best, my friend, one only weeps for oneself, and that means, speaking from experience, one only weeps for oneself.
They feared only one thing, though they were never quite ready for it. Their own coldness and contempt, their own hardheartedness appearing unexpectedly in someone else, a patient's relative, or even the stricken one himself, and themselves suddenly standing accused of malfeasance.
This unexpected coldness irritated them more than anything else. Having mortified themselves into a state of numbness, they picked up on the same kind of hard contempt even when it wasn't obvious.
And so they tried to ease their own consciences by telling themselves stories of what they would do if they were in the same position, picturing how the patient should best think about his own condition and how to proceed.
Because they were themselves healthy, they were capable of showing all the love in the world, albeit in the subjunctive, pretending as if their own lives were at stake and preparing themselves to play the innocents as if for the first time.
The woman there. Pick her up.
And who are you?
Her daughter. Why?
No matter who or what they were running away from, here they were respected, here they meant something. The term 'rescue crew' was always ready and available to anyone who joined up, as good a reason as any for why the uniform provided a sense of security, a sense that it could open all doors, for you never knew when you might be needed. 'At least you can look at yourself in the mirror,' was what he always heard. And if you couldn't, well then, at least others could, namely, those who were satisfied with such a well-dressed lie. For among themselves, none credited the other with any kind of noble motive; each knew what the other was at heart.
No one socialized after work, for they were too afraid to get to know one another well in private, thus creating yet another kind of dependency.
'To have respect,' was how they put it, and that meant to be anxious, to bend over, follow procedure, bow down.
They had respect for one another. The rule was simple. Either the others respected you, or you respected them. The audition for either role was as easy as the rule itself, and the decision was made during the first conversation, and if not during the first conversation, then during the first call when the talk was about the daily routine, something more important than merely saving a life. If you lost respect right off, or lost it at any time, you had to depend on your colleague as a witness who could either betray you or stand by you. And even then there was a price. For any such lie only covered up yet another lie.
You always had to be on your guard, for no one could know who would say what to whom. Should you meet with resistance, your first thought was survival, rather than fighting back, for resistance was not tolerated, whenever and wherever it emerged, and had to be suppressed and silenced. Always ready with a kind of intimidation which on better days passed for friendliness, you tiptoed around one another, always on the lookout for any threat. Fights often broke out in the station; between the driver and crew a hierarchy dictated who could laugh at whom, for you fraternized only when necessary, it being a sign of weakness.
And so they had respect for one another, and you settled for that, for that was the arrangement.
Some didn't settle for that and had not come to terms with a future that for one and all comes to pass. So they worked overtime, a few hours more for the comforts, the luxuries, perhaps for a child, or for whatever they hoped to be able to afford later. 'Working for a better life,' was what they called it. The others simply had begun to reconcile themselves to the fact that, for them, everything was simply the way it was.
Sometimes while trying to figure out what they were really capable of doing, it dawned on them that they had written off their own lives by choosing such an occupation. So they wrote others off, not knowing that they themselves had long since given up on what they still might, at long last, accomplish, and that this is the way it would remain, that they had found their calling.
Those who scoffed at everyone besides themselves, even some who scoffed at themselves, still looked at themselves in the mirror, pretending to be something they weren't, such as a competitive sport fisherman, or a builder of cribs for orphans, or the European champion in rabbit breeding, and thus were renowned and no longer needed to chase after happiness.
Gentlemen, forgive me, but you two have no sense of posture. You come here and haul old Herr Behr out of bed and then lean on me as if I were a crutch, which simply won't do. Stand up, straight as an arrow, like this you see, that's the way to stand. And how old do you think I am? Guess. No, not with the chair, just prop me up. Just had an operation, you know. The hip. The first since 1940. Think of it, since '40 never sick, think of it. How old do you think these teeth are? Every one of them real, you know, all real, except for one on the lower right, and even that shouldn't have happened if it weren't for that quack back in '55, right after the war, though I won't mention his name.
Young man, what is your name?
How old are you? If you don't mind my guessing, I'd say thirty-eight, thirty-five?
No, I don't mind.
Well then, how old?
Thirty-two. Why, you're still a kid, wouldn't you say?
But this posture. Listen, young man, a crutch looks a little different. What's that, you've been through this before? That's right, I forget, you all have. The younger you are, the more you know. And yet, how old do you think these teeth are? I'll tell you, they're at least eighty years old. They've survived Russian bread, you know. And three wives. Don't ask, I know what I'm talking about. How many dead?
I don't understand.
Don't you have any on your conscience, not even one?
Well then, how many?
One. Perhaps. I don't know.
Patients who had to be transported more often got to know them better and played upon their weaknesses, forcing them into subservience. In this way they knew exactly which pain could be eased by which particular attendant through a simple conversation.
And always this same earnestness when it came to having missed out on something along the way. He said to the other drivers that what the sick ones told him was right. They had indeed survived a great deal, and it was all behind them, though it was nothing but a memory and in truth did not exist.
A bad business, young man. Ever since I've been in the nursing home I've noticed how many young men there are, and yet each one only reminds me of what I've missed out on. Well-mannered, responsible, but to whom and for what? And why so proud?
Ah, the decent old folk, he thought to himself when Frau Rosa, eighty, tried to grab him between the legs.
My god, young man, don't take it badly. Sow your oats, I tell you, live a little. I was a good girl, my whole life I was good, a pillar of sincerity I was, and I could look anyone in the eye. And yet I never gazed into the eyes of anyone. Sow your oats, step out of line, grab a piece of ass while it's still within reach. There will be plenty of time to be decent and full of regret. You feel the pangs of a bad conscience all the better, young man, when that bad conscience really has something to be pained about.
To have regrets about having been good, that's hell. For then there's no more heaven to hope for.
It's all gone to rot. Look at me, I'm falling apart.
A piece of ass, my dear, a little pleasure, and might one ask for more? But of course, my friend, always. Being good might make you proud, but I tell you, if you want to know what happened to the old crones here, just look at me, being good is what makes you old.
And you. Are you also kind and good? You're a good man, you listen to me. But what do you really think?
What do you think it's like when you have nothing more to do but sit, stand, drink some tea, sleep. And when you think of the past, the times, you don't remember what was, young man, but rather what could have been. One can live on that, if you call that a life. But you don't live well.
You're as old as your memories, but it's what didn't happen that's so hard to forget. Sow your oats, I tell you, be your own man, with either a good or bad conscience, for it doesn't matter, you'll regret both. At your age, when you miss an opportunity, that can feel good, for then you think of yourself as an honorable man, right? That feels good, you know there will be another chance, sometime, that you won't let it slip by, that feels good, a clear conscience, and still the chance to change it all later. That's how it was with me, he heard her say, and from this angle I can say that times gone by are even more enticing within one's own mind, so long as everything is still ahead of you.
But all that changes with time, she says, as your skirt gets longer, since it simply has to. One does need to be decent and pure, you know. And as the skirt grows longer, deeper are the regrets about what you've missed, the opportunities passed by, until eventually you're nothing but cloth, and one looks your way or doesn't, and you despise yourself as you sit in the old folks home like Frau Rosa, and you never again appear from beneath all this cloth. You're disgusted, right? Give me your hand. It's not every day that such young flesh is so near.
But where are you really taking me?
What it's like to have nothing to do. In this they felt different than the old ones, for they had something to do, though in another way they were the same, for the past also had a way of working on them, and working overtime was the wrong answer.
Because of his intensity, Weyrath didn't seem quite human, and the others felt he wanted to climb above them. Ease up, Kurt, was what they said.
Since the accident he hardly ever spoke freely about himself, choosing to remain detached and secretive, trying to let go of something that nonetheless wouldn't let go of him.
And yet there was always the fear he felt whenever he began to draw close to someone whom he wanted to confide in, hoping that something might develop between them that wouldn't cause him to let something slip out unexpectedly, leaving the wrong impression and him facing the reaction: I see, that's who you are.
This prevented the kind of conversation that he had sought like a drug ever since then, one in which he would be able to tell someone about it and yet not feel betrayed, the desire for release, the longing for a conversation that would wipe the slate clean so that he would no longer feel the need to be saved. However, once such a hope was expressed, no doubt the other person would be disturbed and might suddenly think it was late, this 'Perhaps I'm upsetting you,' the very thing that he could hear himself say, and it being nothing more than his own desire to avoid such conversations, knowing within himself that every hope of such a talk was really a desire that no such talk would occur, a fact with which he remained content. The urge for someone to help him escape such a vicious circle would prod him to call in the hope that someone would be there and pick up the phone, as he waited in fear that someone would not pick up, this fear then turning into panic when no one was there, becoming a kind of obsession, though even when someone was there and answered the phone or opened the door and offered a chair, a drink, and began to chat with him, the circle would tighten even more, giving rise to the fear, the urge to flee, though he couldn't, no way to run away from it, the only available escape being to listen to the other person's story and allow it to take over the conversation completely. The only reprieve would come, he knew, after the disruption that would occur once the other person finished talking about himself, giving the appearance of having settled something within himself, and then taking leave of him as the talk sputtered out and the conversation came to a close with the kind of excuse that other people always found easier to come up with than he did.
Why call, then, why walk through the cold to someone's place in the hope that, indeed, no one is home? Why haul someone out of bed at night, only to perceive their annoyance and desire not to be disturbed and to be left alone? Why wasn't it possible to consider calling or visiting someone, and then to leave it at that? How do you speak with someone without really having to speak?
In the ambulance, in his uniform, he felt like a complete fake compared to those who really were ill, for in the face of their sickness his own troubles disappeared. This did him some good and helped him gain some perspective when faced with someone who lay there in such a condition that all he could do was nod his head and stay by them. When that happened, as it had in one particular case, he felt that he couldn't give up.
Some even thrived despite their illness, and he'd look on ashamed, yet encouraged. Such as Max Schreger, who lived in Wolkensteinweg. Paralyzed, a severely bruised spine. Therapy for the last two years.
Such as when someone like Schreger began with time to stand again and leave the stretcher behind, eventually setting the wheelchair aside as well, saying I'll do it myself, I'm not dead yet, I'll beat this for sure.
Though in fact he felt ashamed that someone like Schreger did not make him feel encouraged or more daring. It was the same with those who rushed toward a hope, which he did not have himself, for he felt even more ashamed when those who were sick included him as part of their cures, seeking to make him part of their convalescence as they thanked him, saying, without you I wouldn't have made it, if you hadn't been there I'd already be dead and buried, or at least still lying paralyzed in bed or sitting in a wheelchair.
People like Schreger had the ability to not accept their present condition as real. They allowed themselves to knit together a string of lies that created a future where everything would be different, and to such an extent that they didn't completely fathom their present condition. What they did know, however, was their own fear, and to that degree he knew what it was like to have such fear, such pity, for them and for himself.
And yet there were the bets (who do you take?) that he almost always won, saying no, that one won't make it.
You're making a mistake, a driver once said to him. You don't give them a chance, but what if it was you lying there and we were betting. You'd be betting that you yourself didn't have a chance, which in fact was true. True because of his own failure, back then, when what happened need not have happened, a situation that had nothing to do with him, but which he thought about ever since.
No, wait a minute, let me see, how did that go? First they took off my finger and then the foot. The right one first. The kidney trouble came later. How did you happen to notice that I am blind?
A place where he saw the others lose it was the Olympic Village, where almost every day they were on call for hours at a time, and where the crew members had no one but each other to pass the time because there were no distractions.
On call at the O-Village, which meant sit there and wait, for whatever, and then be set free when another call came through. They hated the O-Village because it meant disgrace, and it was easy to fall into disgrace. It meant sitting between the high rises, waiting for someone to jump.
The Olympic Village, the O-Village. Suicide Haven was what they called it. It's full of towers. They like to go there to take a dive. On call and waiting. For someone to dive. Perhaps a man, plunging from high above into the Schutzenstrasse. Into the Austrasse, plunging from high above, a child. An-der-Lan-Strasse, plunging from high above, a mother and child. Kajetan-Sweth-Strasse, plunging from high above, a man. Innstrasse, plunging from high above, two kids, Rotadlerstrasse, plunging from high above, a woman, a child. Bettelwurfgasse, plunging from high above, a child. Col-di-Lana-Strasse. Monte-Piano-Strasse. Neururerstrasse. Kugelfangweg. On call, on call, day after day, Innstrasse, Rotadlerstrasse, until you couldn't stand it anymore, Bettelwurfgasse, An-der-Lan-Strasse, on call and waiting. Hoping. That no one takes a dive, at least not this time, hoping that nothing happens, even if it makes the hours seem endless.
They hated the divers, for it was because of them that they had to sit there on call, only because of them, which in fact was pointless. On the way to pick one up you took your time, for you knew already it was hopeless. Some of the crew lived in the O-Village. For them it was a fine place to live, and it still is, despite everything, because it's quiet and really is nice, they said.
And if you were there and on call, then you simply were doing your job. The Olympic Village had everything they could ask for: stables, tennis courts, swimming pools, what more could they want? And the view from the towers that looked out over the entire city really made you feel at home.
But where have you taken me?
With each passing day she got worse, you know, each day she faded a bit more, and there was nothing the doctors could do for her, you know. Therapy each day, what was there that I didn't try, but you have to try to do something, though it's a matter of wanting to do it yourself, but she didn't want to try, you don't want to try, Linde. You're not doing it for me, I told her, only for yourself. But if she could only see that! What do you think, have I done everything I could?
We pulled through the first stroke pretty well, for we traveled together to the spas. Bad Haring, Stolzalpe, Graz, I went everywhere with her. I went through it all with her, and even I've become half crippled, for it wears you out.
But of course for that you have to not think of yourself, and that much I've done. For five years I haven't thought of myself a single day. But she doesn't want to do it. Think of it, for five years I've had to force her to remember that she's lucky to be alive. Otherwise, believe me, she wouldn't even be here. And that takes a toll, I can tell you, that wears you out. You should have seen me five years ago, and now, look what I've become, just look at me.
Selflessness, that's what it's about. And both sides need to accomplish that. For in that way you finally come together. And she thinks she's tried for my sake long enough. Right, Linde?
At first she learned to do everything again, it started off so well. You know, she could even lift her arm to her mouth again.
Still. One day the soup no longer tasted any good to our little patient. And since then she no longer raises her hand. I can't feel anything, she says. All the doctors say the opposite. They prick her arm with a needle and she pulls it back. I've tried it myself, for you know, we don't lie when we're asleep. Neither does my Linde. But she stands by what she says, that she feels nothing, says nothing, doesn't move a hand or foot anymore, doesn't eat her soup anymore. And doesn't grasp the fact, you understand, that everything I tried to do for her was for nothing.
Frau Sonner, are you not feeling well?
I'm fine. But I want to....
What do you want? Tell me what you want. You know that you can't speak. Talking is against orders. It makes you too excited. Says the doctor.
I want. To say something.
She wants to say something, my Linde, now she wants to say something. For the last five years at home she didn't say a word. If we were home, she'd clam right up, I know she would. Not a word. But we practice speaking every day. Though she doesn't say a word. But now, Linde, now that we're going for a ride, now maybe you can speak, now perhaps the words will come, which for the last five years at home wouldn't come, bubbling up from inside you at last.
She's twenty years older than I am, you know.
Are you her husband?
Companion. She's a widow, you understand. My predecessor was a hard man, I can tell you. He treated her badly. Just took advantage of her. But then, you know the way it goes, one fine day-gone. In bed. Think of it.
After that it took her a while to see that it works better with two together. My Linde is not the quickest. She never was. But when you have something to get through together, you see, it pulls you together. Then you begin to grow together. And she simply couldn't do it on her own anymore, just look at her. But what am I saying? If you were alone, Linde, you'd see how well off you'd be then.
Frau Sonner. What do you want to say?
Nothing, she will say nothing, you understand, not another word, Linde. She is now completely at rest. Right, Linde?
Frau Sonner. When were you born?
Nineteen hundred. Thirty one.
Didn't I tell you that you can't speak with her? We're not going to speak with him anymore, Gerlinde, it appears that he simply doesn't understand. And don't say another word. What an insult, to keep pressuring an incapacitated person, reminding her of what you can see for yourself, that she can't speak. There will be consequences, you know. This woman had a stroke, can't you see that, you quack, this woman is a wreck, almost gone, nearly dead, you understand. This doesn't help at all, not in the least. And you talk to her like out of some book, without the slightest consideration, and you keep at her with your questions.
Do you get a kick out of that? Take a look at yourself, man, and then at her. It's lucky that I'm here, but what does he care? All he knows is that her name is Sonner and that she's a widow and has insurance. I mean, you transport her almost every day. But this time there will be consequences, you wait and see.
If you say another word, Linde....
Are you in pain?
No. For five years. I feel good. That's what I wanted to say. For five years. I have felt. Nothing.
There was no one there to witness their side of the story, so they tried very hard not to 'torment' the patients. And yet there were still complaints, and they would be summoned, called in over the loudspeaker, over the radio, in public, everyone able to hear it: Weyrath to the dispatcher, Weyrath to the central office. And not only Weyrath, for each of them was called in at one time or another, each in good time, like a regular timetable. This meant stopping in at the central office and clearing things up so that nothing more could come of it, and in such a manner that they didn't bother you for a while longer.
You were in the hands of the patients or their companions, and when there was a complaint, this meant asking forgiveness as if you were a child in order to come to an understanding with the one who filed the complaint, admitting to what had happened and offering your apology, even though what the accuser said might not be entirely accurate. But to him, that's the way it was, that's what you have to understand, remember the shock and the fear, try to understand how he feels.
So you stood there looking small and subservient. And if you didn't think your offense that serious, you were still reminded of your vocation, Rescue Worker, which meant that you were part of a higher order.
This kind of blackmail was petty and narrow-minded, and it brewed rancor, for they knew what kind of thinking lay behind this phony exchange.
So you remained on your guard as you hovered above them, trying to ensure your own safety through their repeated thanks, spoken yet again and again, carrying with it potential forgiveness for your actual or alleged offense, the one that in any case they would claim you had committed against them.
In this manner they were made to feel deeply guilty. Anyone who accepted this ritual was broken and would remain at the station for good, for then they had you and could count on you no matter what happened.
The higher ups hardly cared about the rancor that resulted from this, for all that mattered to them was that you listened to what you were told and then made sure to do it.
It's been reported that you were rough with Frau Sonner, someone would say. Were you? How did it happen?
Who said so?
Let's just say I've had some information. Nothing more, for now.
The police were regular guests in the central office. Listening to the tapes on which the calls were recorded. Checking on the time it took between the initial call and when the wagon got there. Though nothing could be proved, ever.
Or if there was a snarl-up which couldn't be explained, and it was obvious that there was someone at the scene who had to wait for them while someone was dying, then it was as if they were being called to task for the first time once again.
And that had to be explained and in fact could be explained by the police who listened to the tapes, for which you were grateful.
But I know already that I'm not coming back. Don't try to fool me.
Why then did you do it, why were you still there, always? In the face of all the nastiness on the part of your superiors and all the outrage of the family members--how did you cope? Accidents had begun to get to him and gave him bad dreams, though he was as addicted to accidents as he was to the talk about them, for accidents were also his occupation.
Weyrath had an instinct for accidents. When he was on call and there was an accident, they always sent him. None of the others took the call, for they knew 'our Weyrath' would do it, and he did, and he did it well.
And so goodbye to my bed. Goodbye room. Are you taking me to heaven?
Museumstrasse. An accident. Brother Bertram, seventy-eight. Drunk, in the entrance to the bank. Two crutches.
No way I'll go with you, and as for what's broken, I know myself, and you're wrong, the leg is fine, nothing is broken, I've already told you, and the one who called you, but where are you taking me, that's what I want to know, just help me get up, be so kind, it would be such a help, you understand, nothing is broken, just simply slipped on the ice, it could happen to anyone, you know it could, it could happen to anyone, even you, and that's no reason to bother someone, for I don't need you, just help me up and then off with you, I beg you, don't lift my foot, it's really nothing, there's nothing wrong, I say, nothing that has to do with you, I insist that you go, you'll see me burn in Hell if it comes to that, if it need be known, by God I'm telling you, no one will stand for it, mind your own business, let me mind mine, not in the monastery, no, let me be, I'm fine, it's already better, just help me up, why do I need to go to the clinic, I don't want to, I don't need to, I'm a healthy man, nothing is wrong with me, I swear there isn't, I'm feeling better, no, don't admit me, you must understand, they'll throw me out, they'll have my head, do you understand, I have work to do there, my friend, if it comes to that, don't create a scandal, you're good people, what have you got against me, why take me to the hospital, what have you got against me, I ask you, you don't have anything, it's only your job, but it will finish me, it will be the end of me, I tell you, you can't do that to me, what's your problem, help me up this instant, and let me be, it would be nice if one could simply fall, as one often does, and not have to be disturbed, and then taken to the clinic, if it comes to that, I tell you, but what's going on, let me go, I can walk, I won't do it anymore, I promise you, I'll never do it again, I'll stay put, I promise you, I won't go out anymore, so nothing more can happen, is that all right, is that enough of a vow, I beg you, let me go, it will be the end of me, if it comes to that, you have to understand, young man, I don't have any insurance, do you understand, the pain is already going away, that's not the problem, I have to be in the kitchen, I have so much to do, if it comes to that, and it will come to that, because I'm already late, I'm the cook there, I have to go now, please understand, I kept it a secret, I'm guilty of that, but it won't happen again, I promise you, don't be like that, what after all will I do in the clinic, they'll laugh in my face, the old father once again, you again, have we had another little nip, and no insurance, don't you see the crutches, those I got the last time, just five weeks ago, the same thing happened, and the ambulance came as well, so terrible, I tell you, terrible, like I'm up against the wall, I'm seventy-eight years old and do what I want, you can't tell me what to do, no, don't take me to the monastery, you have no idea what you're doing to me, no idea what it means, twice sick in the last five weeks and twice with an injured foot and twice drunk, I'll die, I'm serious, that's nothing to laugh about, or maybe it is, maybe you're right, really it is something to laugh about, so don't laugh about it only among yourselves, I'll laugh as well, why not, for it really is funny, now I see, we understand each other, now let me be, please don't tell them in the monastery, don't say a word to anyone, I beg you.
Something hidden, something buried, nothing less than everything, and nothing said about it, for it was what couldn't be talked about--the way that one comes and goes alone--if it comes to that, I beg you, say nothing, and it does come to that.
Wolkensteinweg. Plunging from high above. A man.
Not that he deserved better treatment than the others, for they never went that far, but he used to earn a lot more, and that meant something, and in any case he was there, and if you ignored his eagerness to attend to accidents, he fit in well with the rest.
An engineer, educated and well-off, so why had he given up an existence that so many others would have wanted for themselves? A career in which you could sit back and let others do the running for you. Why give that up only to be a lackey to others whom you didn't know and had no ties to, and all that for half the salary that you could pull down without having to haul rotting bodies and dead weights out of this or that bed in order to sit them in a chair or carry them on a stretcher, God knows, how many floors up or down? One could conceive of it on a voluntary basis, but as a profession, just to earn a bit of money, even though you didn't need it, forced to bend like a hunchback over this incessant begging, that was what was strange and hard to imagine.
When someone died it meant he had the decency to pass on. And decency was what they attributed to those who paid a tip or fare, something they looked forward to as much as any kind of praise.
And yet after some months he was a regular member of the crew and left behind the peculiar history of his earlier life as an engineer. It was only talked about when someone new was hired, the story functioning only as a means to make the new colleague feel welcome.
The station opened at eight. That was when they left.
Monday, Wednesday, Friday--dialysis. Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday--therapy. The list was long and, despite the common diagnoses, there was no lack of imagination on the part of the patients in describing their symptoms. Monday, Wednesday, Friday. Three times a week, and in this way they got to know one another. But just as with themselves, there was no contact with the sick except on the job. No contact with the other camp. They are our customers, we make our living from them, though that doesn't mean we have to live with them.
And should it happen that one of them got to know one of the sick in private and it got around, he suddenly found himself sitting before the commissioner without a chance to even offer an excuse: What do you want from Kramer, you know he's half dead.
Private contact with the sick was a type of mischief that tempted them, and which they succumbed to whenever they didn't restrain themselves. Only a few of them didn't stick to the rules, and Weyrath was one. Once more and it will cost you your head, Weyrath.
For it was true, again and again he got to know the patients. They weren't his customers and their histories were too interesting to ignore simply because of an imposed superstition.
Weyrath, Kobat is dead. You knew him. Do you know anything more?
Antos, Konstantin. Registration number 7531. Greek, Station House West, taken to Hall Psychiatric Hospital.
'Psychotic disturbance, walking in place (Parkinson's?), found at Bozner Square. Condition: delusional. Admitted to the Telfs nursing home, missing after three days, left the home with only a knapsack. Patient categorically refused to be taken back to nursing home. Says he wants to visit his family in Greece (at 82!). Clearance requested.'
Hall Psychiatric Hospital: Take Herr Antos to Room 10, please.
Room 10. Greece.
The Hall Psychiatric Hospital is huge and has a large number of beds, and there are many who go there or are taken there. You are easily admitted without much fuss, right in front of everyone, but pleasantly. Walking in place, psychological disturbance, condition delusional: off to Hall Hospital, Room 10. A woman, women and children, women with small children, especially on the bridges, what are you up to there? If the answer was 'I don't know,' then off to Hall Hospital, Room 10.
Hall has many rooms and even more visitors who are afraid of the hospital and don't want to enter it, and who leave it as soon as possible. Some disappeared right before their eyes, just like those others, as so often happens.
I'm crazy, a loony, do you understand, mad? I won't do it anymore, do you understand, it doesn't matter, I insist, mad, loony, crazy. Look at my father, how ashamed he is, poor little father, how ashamed you are. No matter. I won't do it anymore, I've had enough, I tell you, no more without my say-so.
My poor father is such a good father, just look at him. Do you want me? Do you want me? Latch onto my lovely thighs, tight thighs, pale flesh, look, it must please you. All of it belongs to my father, you know. He can have me, my sacred father. No one but my father, you understand, so we'll have to ask him. What would the guests in the hotel say if someone simply showed up and wanted me? We'll have to ask father.
Daddy, we're being taken to the asylum, the loony bin--away with the girl, quick, the little slut. Maybe she won't be let out again, which would be a joy, which means we could wash our hands of it. Then mommy wouldn't have to be mad at daddy anymore. The loony bin, off with her, the silly goose. Filthy slut. Idiot daughter, the loony. Look, Daddy, here we are.
Over there: Hall Psychiatric Hospital. My school was right next to it. Look at the fence. During recess we used to feed the crazies. Look at the loony birds, we said, laughing at them. Totally mad. Daddy, look at them, look. Will you visit me?
We shoved our afternoon snacks through the fence or threw them over it when there was something nobody wanted. See how they look? It's still the same. Look at that one, that kid there, how he keeps gawking at us.
Hansel and Gretel ran off into the woods.
Here we played Hansel and Gretel. We shoved the bread through the fence. When you are fat enough, I'll eat you. Stick your finger through the fence, show me how fat you are. Hansel and Gretel. Father is taking me into the woods.
The loony bin was our zoo. Feeding the animals was forbidden. And yet we fed them every day. They waited for us, in fact, for it meant that they'd get something that didn't taste like the institution. They even learned to say please after a while. And will you be good? Yes, a good girl, I was good. May I, may I, and of course thank you. Good day. Well, here we are. The doctor, this is the doctor. Daddy, tell him you are ashamed. Are you ashamed? Tell him.
What's going on? he asks. Forgive me for asking, please understand, but where are we now, I mean exactly which ward? What am I supposed to say when someone asks how she feels and where she is exactly? I mean, is it isolation, is this the isolation ward?
The loony bin, Daddy. Hello again.
Please understand, I'm only asking. What am I supposed to say?
Hall hospital is huge, and people are afraid of it.
Some, however, want to be admitted. The homeless in winter. You know, the drugs they give you there warm you up, two months, three, and just to get a bed you flash a smile, just for a bed you play the crazy for a time, just for a bed you swallow the sun and beam away day after day, two months, three, because you are sick, but really because of the winter's cold, and for two, three months you're dry, no fix, clean, weaned of the habit and the cold and those people you can't escape, you understand, without a roof over your head.
Where do you live?
It's always green under the trees. On the banks as well.
No loitering is allowed in the old city, no loitering anywhere. Otherwise the tourists' pictures might look dirty.
Under the trees the roof is always green. Except in winter. In the cold.
The only solution then is to head towards Hall, to summer and to the warmth of the drugs they give you. Some admit themselves, saying take me with you, others just take off, saying leave me alone, you creep.
Eight o'clock. Someone dressed as a cook with a white shirt. A badge pinned to his chest with a number on it. Please call 8353. Station V.
They disappear right before your eyes, constantly. And who's to blame, who is responsible, Weyrath, and for what, if one turns up, like that time, you remember, ten hours later, six in the morning, the West train station, the call: a man, frozen stiff, frozen to the tracks, found by a switching engine.
The names are checked, the transport numbers. Yes, that one took off yesterday. Weyrath to the dispatcher, Weyrath check the tapes.
Wagon 5, 8:09 PM, the patient has disappeared.
Shall we look for him?
Yes. You have to.
8:36 PM, Number 5, we haven't found him.
Not a trace.
And so at night you keep looking for him, even in your dreams. It's January, and at night in the cold, without any sun, you know what can happen, you know how it can end, and because of that you keep looking, even while lying in bed, inside your mind as you sleep, and you get up, return to the station, and then, at six in the morning, over the radio, the call: West train station. A man, on track 7.
Frozen, while you looked for him in your dreams, though in the dream he doesn't die, and in the dream no one runs away, though that's of no help.
The police are already there, and you need a witness. Yes, of course, we looked. He needed to use the toilet and got out. We waited for him, but he was gone, and then we looked everywhere, and not just us, but the other wagons as well, yet he disappeared right in front of us, as if into thin air.
That happens all the time, yet you still need a witness. It happens, constantly. We know our customers, and there's nothing you can do when someone simply doesn't want to go on.
What can you do when someone just doesn't want to go on, when you sit there on call in the O-Village, waiting, not for him, but for the order that you have to go after him?
Who's to blame, Weyrath, if no one is found? You bring them in. Hall Hospital, Innsbruck, Room 10, and you bring them back again, out of Hall and into the facade of some other building. And then nothing, you simply forget them. And then you find them again, in the O-Village, in the Inn River, in a lake, washed up on shore, somewhere, saying yes, I know him, we've seen that one before. Unknown, that's what it's called on the radio, an unknown person in the Inn River.
Someone jumps, someone has jumped: proceed to Inn River, an unknown person.
Firemen. Rescue crew. Passers-by.
Melting snow. March, April, May, the water level rises. Soon they'll be swimming again, at Karwendel Bridge, University Bridge, washed up or still floating, Freiburger Bridge, Muhlauer Bridge, the next day's paper saying a man, a woman with her jacket pulled over her head, washed up, with a wound to her mouth, found in the Inn.
High water, full of branches. Bodies, driftwood to the crew, by April the river deep enough to swim in, the Inn Bridge, Sill Bridge, Weiherburg Bridge.
We are fishers of men, Khal says.
Fishing for bodies. Resuscitation.
As for where they jump, when it's not within the city, it's to the west. The ones who jump there and float the whole way through the city are the real swimmers, Khal says.
Only because they cannot be disturbed while swimming.
But those that jump in public, the artful divers, expect applause at the end. Blue, bloated, and pale. Scratched up, scraped by the stones, washed up or still floating, unknown and yet known.
The firemen haul them up onto shore. The police. You breathe into them until there is life again.
And then the paperwork.
Now that they are known, you'll know who they are next time.
What they head toward is the needle's warmth. You've rescued them, you are a rescuer, though what did you really do? They hunt you down, time and time again, floating or washing up in your dreams, accusing you, for to them you are to blame, what you have done, any number of people having crossed over those bridges, beneath which you rescued them, but for what and what for?
Table of Contents
|Translator's Note and Acknowledgments||xiii|
What People are Saying About This
[Hotschnig] constructs a novel that is not only suspenseful, but also contains complex characters whose psychology is powerfully convincing.