Buenos Aires, 1950. After being falsely accused of war crimes, Bernie Gunther—like the Nazis he has always despised—has been offered a new life and a clean passport by the Perón government. But the tough, fast-talking ex-Berlin detective doesn’t have the luxury of laying low. The local police pressure Bernie into taking on a case in which a girl has turned up gruesomely mutilated. What’s more, her murder just might be linked to a missing German banker’s daughter and a long-unsolved case Bernie worked back in Berlin before the war. After all, the scum of the earth has been washing up on Argentina’s shores—state-licensed murderers and torturers—so why couldn’t a serial killer be among them?
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BUENOS AIRES, 1950
THE BOAT WAS THE SS Giovanni, which seemed only appropriate given the fact that at least three of its passengers, including myself, had been in the SS. It was a medium-sized boat with two funnels, a view of the sea, a well-stocked bar, and an Italian restaurant. This was fine if you liked Italian food, but after four weeks at sea at eight knots, all the way from Genoa, I didn’t like it and I wasn’t sad to get off. Either I’m not much of a sailor or there was something else wrong with me other than the company I was keeping these days.
We steamed into the port of Buenos Aires along the gray River Plate, and this gave me and my two fellow travelers a chance to reflect upon the proud history of our invincible German navy. Somewhere at the bottom of the river, near Montevideo, lay the wreck of the Graf Spee, a pocket battleship that had been invincibly scuttled by its commander in December 1939, to prevent it from falling into the hands of the British. As far as I knew, this was as near as the war ever came to Argentina.
In the North Basin we docked alongside the customs house. A modern city of tall concrete buildings lay spread out to the west of us, beyond the miles of rail track and the warehouses and the stockyards where Buenos Aires got started—as a place where cattle from the Argentine pampas arrived by train and were slaughtered on an industrial scale. So far, so German. But then the carcasses were frozen and shipped all over the world. Exports of Argentine beef had made the country rich and transformed Buenos Aires into the third-largest city in the Americas, after New York and Chicago.
The three million population called themselves porteños—people of the port—which sounds pleasantly romantic. My two friends and I called ourselves refugees, which sounds better than fugitives. But that’s what we were. Rightly or wrongly, there was a kind of justice awaiting all of us back in Europe, and our Red Cross passports concealed our true identities. I was no more Dr. Carlos Hausner than Adolf Eichmann was Ricardo Klement, or Herbert Kuhlmann was Pedro Geller. This was fine with the Argentines. They didn’t care who we were or what we’d done during the war. Even so, on that cool and damp winter morning in July 1950, it seemed there were still certain official proprieties to be observed.
An immigration clerk and a customs officer came aboard the ship, and as each passenger presented documents, they asked questions. If these two didn’t care who we were or what we’d done, they did a good job giving us the opposite impression. The mahogany-faced immigration clerk regarded Eichmann’s flimsy-looking passport and then Eichmann himself as if both had arrived from the center of a cholera epidemic. This wasn’t so far from the truth. Europe was only just recovering from an illness called Nazism that had killed more than fifty million people.
“Profession?” the clerk asked Eichmann.
Eichmann’s meat cleaver of a face twitched nervously. “Technician,” he said, and mopped his brow with a handkerchief. It wasn’t hot, but Eichmann seemed to feel a different kind of heat from that felt by anyone else I ever met.
Meanwhile, the customs official, who smelled like a cigar factory, turned to me. His nostrils flared as if he could smell the money I was carrying in my bag, and then he lifted his cracked lip off his bamboo teeth in what passed for a smile in that line of work. I had about thirty thousand Austrian schillings in that bag, which was a lot of money in Austria, but not so much money when it was converted into real money. I didn’t expect him to know that. In my experience, customs officials can do almost anything they want except be generous or forgiving when they catch sight of large quantities of currency.
“What’s in the bag?” he asked.
“Clothes. Toiletries. Some money.”
“Would you mind showing me?”
“No,” I said, minding very much. “I don’t mind at all.”
I heaved the bag onto a trestle table and was just about to unbuckle it when a man hurried up the ship’s gangway, shouting something in Spanish and then, in German, “It’s all right. I’m sorry I’m late. There’s no need for all this formality. There’s been a misunderstanding. Your papers are quite in order. I know because I prepared them myself.”
He said something else in Spanish about the three of us being important visitors from Germany, and immediately the attitude of the two officials changed. Both men came to attention. The immigration clerk facing Eichmann handed him back his passport, clicked his heels, and then gave Europe’s most wanted man the Hitler salute with a loud “Heil Hitler” that everyone on deck must have heard.
Eichmann turned several shades of red and, like a giant tortoise, shrank a little into the collar of his coat, as if he wished he might disappear. Kuhlmann and I laughed out loud, enjoying Eichmann’s embarrassment and discomfort as he snatched back his passport and stormed down the gangway and onto the quay. We were still laughing as we joined Eichmann in the back of a big black American car with a sign, VIANORD, displayed in the windshield.
“I don’t think that was in the least bit funny,” said Eichmann.
“Sure you don’t,” I said. “That’s what makes it so funny.”
“You should have seen your face, Ricardo,” said Kuhlmann. “What on earth possessed him to say that, of all things? And to you, of all people?” Kuhlmann started to laugh again. “Heil Hitler, indeed.”
“I thought he made a pretty good job of it,” I said. “For an amateur.”
Our host, who had jumped into the driver’s seat, now turned around to shake our hands. “I’m sorry about that,” he told Eichmann. “Some of these officials are just pig-ignorant. In fact, the words we have for pig and public official are the same. Chanchos. We call them both chanchos. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that idiot believes Hitler is still the German leader.”
“God, I wish he was,” murmured Eichmann, rolling his eyes into the roof of the car. “How I wish he was.”
“My name is Horst Fuldner,” said our host. “But my friends in Argentina call me Carlos.”
“Small world,” I said. “That’s what my friends in Argentina call me. Both of them.”
Some people came down the gangway and peered inquisitively through the passenger window at Eichmann.
“Can we get away from here?” he asked. “Please.”
“Better do as he says, Carlos,” I said. “Before someone recognizes Ricardo here and telephones David Ben-Gurion.”
“You wouldn’t joke about that if you were in my shoes,” said Eichmann. “The soaps would stop at nothing to kill me.”
Fuldner started the car and Eichmann relaxed visibly as we drove smoothly away.
“Since you mentioned the soaps,” said Fuldner, “it’s worth discussing what to do if any of you is recognized.”
“Nobody’s going to recognize me,” Kuhlmann said. “Besides, it’s the Canadians who want me, not the Jews.”
“All the same,” said Fuldner, “I’ll say it anyway. After the Spanish and the Italians, the soaps are the country’s largest ethnic group. Only we call them los rusos, on account of the fact that most of the ones who are here came to get away from the Russian czar’s pogrom.”
“Which one?” Eichmann asked.
“How do you mean?”
“There were three pogroms,” said Eichmann. “One in 1821, one between 1881 and 1884, and a third that got started 1903. The Kishinev pogrom.”
“Ricardo knows everything about Jews,” I said. “Except how to be nice to them.”
“Oh, I should think, the most recent pogrom,” said Fuldner.
“It figures,” said Eichmann, ignoring me. “The Kishinev was the worst.”
“That’s when most of them came to Argentina, I think. There are as many as a quarter of a million Jews here in Buenos Aires. They live in three main neighborhoods, which I advise you to steer clear of. Villa Crespo along Corrientes, Belgrano, and Once. If you think you are recognized, don’t lose your head, don’t make a scene. Keep calm. Cops here are heavy-handed and none too bright. Like that chancho on the boat. If there’s any kind of trouble, they’re liable to arrest you and the Jew who thinks he’s recognized you.”
“So there’s not much chance of a pogrom here, then?” observed Eichmann.
“Lord, no,” said Fuldner.
“Thank goodness,” said Kuhlmann. “I’ve had enough of all that nonsense.”
“We haven’t had anything like that since what’s called Tragic Week. And even that was mostly political. Anarchists, you know. Back in 1919.”
“Anarchists, Bolsheviks, Jews, they’re all the same animal,” said Eichmann, who had become unusually talkative.
“Of course, during the last war, the government issued an order forbidding all Jewish immigration to Argentina. But more recently things have changed. The Americans have put pressure on Perón to soften our Jewish policy. To let them come and settle here. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more Jews on that boat than anyone else.”
“That’s a comforting thought,” said Eichmann.
“It’s all right,” insisted Fuldner. “You’re quite safe here. Porteños don’t give a damn about what happened in Europe. Least of all to the Jews. Besides, nobody believes half of what’s been in the English-language papers and on the newsreels.”
“Half would be quite bad enough,” I murmured. It was enough to push a stick through the spokes of a conversation I was starting to dislike. But mostly it was just Eichmann I disliked. I much preferred the other Eichmann. The one who had spent the last four weeks saying almost nothing, and keeping his loathsome opinions to himself. It was too soon to have much of an opinion about Carlos Fuldner.
From the back of his well-oiled head I judged Fuldner to be around forty. His German was fluent but with a little soft color on the edges of the tones. To speak the language of Goethe and Schiller, you have to stick your vowels in a pencil sharpener. He liked to talk, that much was evident. He wasn’t tall and he wasn’t good-looking, but then he wasn’t short or ugly either, just ordinary, in a good suit, with good manners, and a nice manicure. I got another look at him when he pulled up at a level crossing and turned around to offer us some cigarettes. His mouth was wide and sensuous, his eyes were lazy but intelligent, and his forehead was as high as a church cupola. If you’d been casting a movie, you’d have picked him to play a priest, or a lawyer, or maybe a hotel manager. He snapped his thumb on a Dunhill, lit his cigarette, then began telling us about himself. That was fine by me. Now that we were no longer talking about Jews, Eichmann stared out of the window and looked bored. But I’m the kind who listens politely to stories about my redeemer. After all, that’s why my mother sent me to Sunday school.
“I was born here, in Buenos Aires, to German immigrants,” said Fuldner. “But for a while, we went back to live in Germany, in Kassel, where I went to school. After school I worked in Hamburg. Then, in 1932, I joined the SS and was a captain before being seconded to the SD to run an intelligence operation back here in Argentina. Since the war I and a few others have been running Vianord—a travel agency dedicated to helping our old comrades to escape from Europe. Of course, none of it would be possible without the help of the president and his wife, Eva. It was during Evita’s trip to Rome, in 1947, to meet the pope, that she began to see the necessity of giving men such as you a fresh start in life.”
“So there’s still some anti-Semitism in the country, after all,” I remarked.
Kuhlmann laughed, and so did Fuldner. But Eichmann remained silent.
“It’s good to be with Germans again,” said Fuldner. “Humor is not a national characteristic of the Argentines. They’re much too concerned with their dignity to laugh at very much, least of all themselves.”
“They sound a lot like fascists,” I said.
“That’s another thing. Fascism here is only skin-deep. The Argentines don’t have the will or the inclination to be proper fascists.”
“Maybe I’m going to like it here more than I thought,” I said.
“Really,” exclaimed Eichmann.
“Don’t mind me, Herr Fuldner,” I said. “I’m not quite as rabid as our friend here wearing the bow tie and glasses, that’s all. He’s still in denial. To do with all kinds of things. For all I know, he still holds fast to the idea that the Third Reich is going to last for a thousand years.”
“You mean it isn’t?”
“Must you make a joke about everything, Hausner?” Eichmann’s tone was testy and impatient.
“I only make jokes about the things that strike me as funny,” I said. “I wouldn’t dream of making a joke about something really important. Not and risk upsetting you, Ricardo.”
I felt Eichmann’s eyes burning into my cheek, and when I turned to face him, his mouth went thin and puritanical. For a moment he continued staring at me with the air of one who wished it was down the sights of a rifle.
“What are you doing here, Herr Doktor Hausner?”
“The same thing as you, Ricardo. I’m getting away from it all.”
“Yes, but why? Why? You don’t seem like much of a Nazi.”
“I’m the beefsteak kind. Brown on the outside only. Inside I’m really quite red.”
Eichmann stared out the window as if he couldn’t bear to look at me for a minute longer.
“I could use a good steak,” murmured Kuhlmann.
“Then you’ve come to the right place,” said Fuldner. “In Germany a steak is a steak, but here it’s a patriotic duty.”
We were still driving through the dockyards. Most of the names on the bonded warehouses and oil tanks were British or American: Oakley & Watling, Glasgow Wire, Wainwright Brothers, Ingham Clark, English Electric, Crompton Parkinson, and Western Telegraph. In front of a big, open warehouse a dozen rolls of newsprint the size of hayricks were turning to pulp in the early-morning rain. Laughing, Fuldner pointed them out.
“There,” he said, almost triumphantly. “That’s Perónism in action. Perón doesn’t close down opposition newspapers or arrest their editors. He doesn’t even stop them from having newsprint. He just makes sure that by the time it reaches them the newsprint isn’t fit to use. You see, Perón has all the major labor unions in his pocket. That’s your Argentine brand of fascism, right there.”
Excerpted from "A Quiet Flame"
Copyright © 2010 Philip Kerr.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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