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ISBN-13: 9780312422707
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 03/03/2004
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 5.38(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.55(d)

About the Author

Ignacio Padilla is the author of several award-winning novels and short story collections, and is currently the cultural attache at the Mexican Embassy in London.

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Franz T. Kretzschniar
Buenos Aires, 1957

My father used to say his name was Viktor Kretzschmar. He was a pointsman on the Munich-Salzburg line and not the type to decide, on the spur of the moment, to commit a crime. His apparent rashness in adversity concealed an extremely calculating mind, an ability to wait years for the right circumstances to hit a long-cherished target. So, while apparently taciturn, he was privately given to unforeseeable outbursts of rage, which made him a time bomb on a short fuse. These were not spontaneous impulses, but the product of that endless soliloquy he pursued with his defeated self, as one who, I'm sure, could have drilled a tunnel through basalt rock driven by the hope of one day recovering the light which was snatched from him in his youth. I once saw him hide for more than ten hours awaiting the reappearance of a famished hare which had dodged his first shots of the day. It was night-time before the animal finally surrendered to its executioner, finished off with a flurry of kicks which soon reduced it to an inedible lump of blood and snow.

Years later, while my father halfheartedly denied the railway tribunal's accusations, I asked my mother if she remembered that story of the hare, but she could not or would not answer me. Since the accident she'd locked herself into an impenetrable silence in solidarity, I thought at first, with the family's disgrace. Later, however, when she heard the judge's verdict, my mother sighed deeply, dropped her head and let out a wail of relief, freed at last of a burden that had poisoned every second of her existence. My words of consolation, offered from the depth of my own confusion, barely calmed her. Then, as if making an indirect reply to my question about the hare, she pointed at my father and muttered, 'That man, my son, is called Thadeus Dreyer, and he despises trains from the bottom of his heart.'

At first I thought my mother was delirious, referring to someone else — as if a perverse shadow had suddenly appeared behind Viktor Kretzschmar, the cause of all his misfortunes, and especially of the disaster that was likely to keep him in prison for the rest of his days. But my mother's gaze was unequivocally fixed on her husband's anxious face. She had decided to reveal to me the true nature of the actions and torments of pointsman Viktor Kretzschmar.

I'd known since I was a child that my father's real name wasn't Viktor Kretzschmar and it hadn't in the least sullied my blind admiration for him. For me, it had always been a closely guarded family secret, permeating my existence and giving rise to a boyish conspiratorial pride. On the other hand, this unexpected declaration of his hatred for trains had the frisson of a revelation which cut the cord between childhood and maturity. As far back as I could remember, I'd always thought my father had adored trains, ever since the day when, on board one, he'd staked his destiny on a game of chess and won. That someone could doubt the importance of a pointsman or the grandeur of those imposing metal beasts plunged him into endless depression. His eternal devotion to everything to do with railways had taken up his entire life; now I think his existence was, in some way, dedicated to demonstrating that his peculiar way of procuring the pointsman's job was more than an anecdotal whim of fate. He'd believed the game of chess on board a train heading for the eastern front in the war of 1914 was the culmination of a plan hatched by a compassionate demiurge, sparing him from certain death.

For a long time I'd imagined that historic game played in a sumptuous smokers' compartment packed with officers and high-society ladies. The gloved hands, swaying crests, ivory pieces and aromatic pipe-smoke flooded my childish fancies for years, and my parents never bothered to disabuse me. After the accident, however, I heard from my mother that things had happened quite differently.

My father must have been younger than I thought, though not young enough to avoid the 1916 levy that shook the outer rims of an Austro-Hungarian Empire intent on reinforcing its eastern front. Somewhere I still have a photo of my grandfather — a peasant from Vorarlberg about whom I know next to nothing — in the village station bidding farewell to the last of his uniformed offspring. The old man is wearing a satisfied smile, inconceivable in someone surrendering his son to a war which would soon be a lost cause. The young recruit doesn't seem to share his father's enthusiasm; he's looking the other way, his smile forced, wanly embracing my grandfather as if about to faint in the middle of the station. It's almost as if he's waiting for a chance to run out of the photograph and vanish into the mountains, where the whistle blast from the train about to carry him before the cannon of the Entente won't reach him. I reckon he's barely twenty, no more, and his face betrays the fear of a young man discovering, perhaps too late, the value of his short life which was suddenly under threat. I imagine my grandfather had to order him to smile for the camera and perhaps felt it necessary to push him towards the train with the unrelenting energy of an old peasant whose greatest satisfaction in life, according to my mother, had been to sacrifice his two eldest sons to the fatherland. Whatever the truth of that, the fact is my father didn't find the nerve to head for the mountains, and was left cowering in an old, dilapidated compartment, completely unlike the carriage of my fantasies. There he must have sunk into a moribund lethargy, his cadaverous hand waving goodbye to his family through the broken window which brought in an ominous gust of wind and the locomotive's infernal smoke. My young father must have sat there some four hours before his opponent, the real Viktor Kretzschmar, entered the coach.

I find it difficult to understand why I always imagined Kretzschmar to be an impeccable Victorian gentleman, maybe a retired officer whose mere presence would have instilled in the recruit a mixture of panic and respect. Perhaps my father once described him like that in his desire to hide the pathetic reality of the scene and its tragic consequences. Or perhaps it was simply the unruly engine of my imagination. Years later my mother cut that image down to size. The man on the train, she confessed, sobbing, as we left the courtroom, was just one more young man from the provinces who had contrived to use a distant uncle's influence to avoid conscription and get a job as a pointsman in the Salzburg district.

Copyright © 2003 Ignacio Padilla

Table of Contents

IShadow Without A Name 19571
IIFrom Shadow to Name 194847
IIIThe Shadow of A Man 196089
IVFrom Name to Shadow 1989133
Coda 1999189

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