The Great War

The Great War


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781908236203
Publisher: Owen, Peter Limited
Publication date: 01/01/2016
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 4.90(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Aleksandar Gatalica has published five novels, including The Lines of Life, winner of the Miloš Crnjanski Award, and The Invisible, winner of Stevan Sremac Award. He has also published five story cycles, including Mimicries and Century. Gatalica has published translations of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound; Sophocle's Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus; and Euripides' Alcestis, Iphigenia at Aulis, and The Bacchae. Gatalica is also active as a music critic and writer. As a music writer he has published six books, including Rubinstein Versus Horowitz and The Golden Age of Pianism.

Read an Excerpt

The Great War

By Aleksandar Gatalica, Will Firth

Peter Owen Publishers

Copyright © 2014 Aleksandar Gatalica
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-908236-60-9




The Great War began for Dr Mehmed Graho when he was least expecting it, just when he was told that 'two important bodies' would be brought to the mortuary in that June heatwave. But for Dr Graho, hunched and ageing but still hale, with a bald head and prominent flat pate, no bodies were more important than others. All the corpses which came under his knife were waxy pale, with cadaverously gaping mouths, often with eyes which no one had had time to close, or had not dared to, which now bulged and stared away into space, striving with their lifeless pupils to catch one last ray of sun.

But that did not disturb him. Ever since 1874, he had placed his round glasses on his nose, donned his white coat, put on long gloves and begun his work at the Sarajevo mortuary, where he removed hearts from within chests, felt broken ribs for signs of police torture and searched the stomachs of the deceased for swallowed fish bones and the remains of the last meal.

Now the 'important bodies' arrived, and the pathologist still hadn't heard what had happened out in the streets. He didn't know that the Archduke's car had been backing out of Franz Joseph Street and that there, from out of the crowd on the corner near the Croatia Insurance building, a little fellow had fired two revolver shots at the heir to the Austrian throne and the Duchess of Hohenberg. At first, the bodyguards thought the royal couple was unharmed and it looked as if the Archduke had only turned and glanced away in the other direction, to the assembled crowd; the Duchess resembled a doll in a Vienna shop window, and a moment later blood gushed from her noble breast; Franz Ferdinand's mouth also filled with blood, which trickled down the right-hand side of his orderly, black-dyed moustache. Only a little later was it established that the important persons had been hit, and within fifteen minutes the male of the couple had become an 'important body'. Half an hour after that, the important female person hadn't awoken from her state of unconsciousness, lying in the umbrage of the Governor's residence, and she too was declared an 'important body'.

Now the two important bodies had arrived, and no one had told Dr Graho who they were. But one glance at the male corpse's uniform with its breast full of medals and one look at the long, trailing, silk dress of the female body told him who had come under his scalpel. When he had undressed them and washed their wounds he was told not to extract the bullets from their bodies but just to mix a plaster slurry and make casts of their faces. That is probably why he didn't notice that the Archduke had a small malignant tumour in the oral cavity and that something had been killed together with the lady which could have been a foetus in her womb.

Just put the plaster on their faces and take their masks. And that he did, while shouts out the front of the mortuary mingled with the warm summer wind from the River Milyacka and the distant sound of sobbing. Just a little further away, in the street, a crowd set off to lynch the assassins. Discarded weapons were found beneath the Latin Bridge. In the panic, informants spread various rumours, mixed with copious perversion and lies, while Dr Graho stirred the plaster dust and water in his metal basin to make sure the mixture wouldn't start to set before he applied it to the faces.

First of all, he covered the noblewoman's rounded forehead with the crease in the middle, then her slightly stubby nose with flaring nostrils. He filled the nasal cavity well, spread plaster between the eyelashes and carefully, like an artist, shaped the eyebrows, applying the paste almost lovingly to every hair. This was fitting preparation for the Archduke's countenance and his black, handlebar moustache, which had to be faithfully preserved for posterity and the many bronze castings which — so he imagined — would grace every institution of the Dual Monarchy for decades to come. Was he afraid? Did his nerves show? Did he perhaps feel a little like a demiurge, crafting the posthumous image of what until just half an hour ago was Austria-Hungary's most powerful to-be? Not at all. Dr Graho was one of those people with no loose thoughts buzzing around in their head. He didn't daydream, nor was he plagued by nightmares. The souls of the dead from his day's work didn't haunt him when he closed his eyes at night. If it were otherwise, he wouldn't have been able to become Sarajevo's main pathologist in 1874 and receive deceased Turks and the dead of all three faiths day in, day out.

Nor did his hand tremble now. He modelled the plaster beneath the heir apparent's lower lip, painstakingly shaped the dimple in his cleans-haven chin, covered his eyelids and attentively devoted himself to the moustache. First of all, he removed the tallow which gave it body and then did his very best to ensure that every black moustache hair was given its coat of plaster. When he had finished, two limp, completely naked bodies with white face-masks lay side by side beneath his hands. Now he had only to wait; but then something strange happened.

First one word, then another.

Had someone perhaps come into the mortuary? One of his assistants, or a policeman? He turned around, but there was no one nearby, and the words were coalescing into a whisper. What language was it? At first, he thought it seemed a mixture of many languages: Turkish, Serbian, German and Hungarian, all of which he knew, but they were intermingled with others — Asian, he thought, African, and extinct ones like Aramaic or Hazaragi. But no, he must be fooling himself. This doctor, who never dreamed, sat down quietly on the chair; still unmoved by fright. He looked at the bodies to ensure they weren't moving; yet even if by some chance they did, it wouldn't have surprised him either. When the anima leaves, the body can go wild and twitch in a frenzy. He had seen this back in 1899, when one poor wretch kicked and shuddered almost a whole day after death, as if he had electricity running through him, and very nearly fell from the dissection table. Or take the woman, perhaps in 1904 or — that was it — 1905, who seemed to breathe all evening. Her beautiful, youthful breasts, which no child had suckled, rose and fell evenly before the eyes of Dr Graho, as if her dead mouth still drew breath; but it was all a trick of the eye and the doctor later documented the case in a well-received article for a Vienna medical journal.

The Archduke and Duchess could even have embraced and it wouldn't have surprised him. But they were speaking ... the words wrested themselves from regional idioms and made their way to him articulately and clearly all in German. He tried to tell where the whisper was coming from and quickly established that it was the mouths beneath the plaster masks which were articulating them. Now he was alarmed. This was far from physiologically predictable and would hardly go towards a convincing lecture before the Imperial Society of Pathologists. Franz Ferdinand and his Duchess were speaking to each other. Dr Graho leaned his ear right up to Franz Ferdinand's mouth, and from beneath the plaster mask he heard one muffled but still discernible word:


'Yes, my dear?' immediately came the reply from the Duchess.

'Do you see these lands, this forest, whose leaves grow and fall as fast as if the years flew by like minutes?'

In reply, there followed only the Duchess's: 'Are you in pain?'

'A little,' the important male body answered. 'And you?'

'No, darling, but there's something firm over my mouth, and it's not the clay of the grave.'

Mehmed Graho recoiled. The plaster casts hadn't yet set on the faces of the royal couple, but at hearing the Duchess's words he set about removing them with trembling hands. He was fortunate that the plaster didn't break because that would certainly have cost him the position he had quietly held ever since Ottoman times. With the two, mercifully intact death-masks in his hands, he looked at the splotchy faces of the wax-pale figures on his table. The lips were moving, he could swear to it now.

'I'm naked,' said the male body.

'I'm ashamed. You know I've never ever been nude before you,' the woman replied.

'But now we're going.'



'What will we leave behind?'

'Grief, a void, our dreams and all our pitiable plans.'

'What will happen?'

'There will be war, the great war we've been preparing for.'

'But without us?'

'Actually, because of us ...'

At that moment, a man dashed into the mortuary. He addressed Dr Graho in Turkish:

'Doctor, have you finished? Just in time! The new uniforms are here.' He continued in German: 'My God, how terrible it is to see them naked, and their faces messy with plaster. Wash them quickly now. The court delegation will be arriving any minute. The bodies need to be embalmed and taken by express train to Metkovich harbour, from there to be shipped to Trieste. Come on, doctor, snap out of it! It's not as if they're the first dead bodies you've seen. Once they've stopped breathing, the Archduke and Duchess are just bodies like any others.'

But the voices, and the war, the great war ... Dr Graho was about to ask ... but he didn't say a word. Dead mouths don't speak after all, he thought, as he handed the plaster casts to the stranger, without knowing if he was a policeman, secret agent, soldier, provocateur, or even one of the assassins. Afterwards everything went the usual mortuary way. The bodies were dressed, a new coat was quickly put on over the Archduke's breast, new, imitation medals were attached in place of the old, bloodied and bent ones, a new gown almost identical to the silk one in pale apricot was slipped on over the Countess's chest (no one thought of underwear now), and an evening came on just like any other, with that gentle breeze in the valley which cools Sarajevo even in summer.

Dr Graho was on duty in the days that followed. None of the bodies on his table moved and none of them said a word, but 850 km to the north-west the entire Austrian press was firing verbal salvos at the Serbian government and Prime Minister Nikola Pashich, whom German-speaking journalists had always despised. The reporter, Tibor Veres, worked for the Budapest daily Pester Lloyd, whose editorial office was housed in a dark, altogether diabolical building on the Pest side of the city, right by the Danube. Veres was an ethnic Hungarian from the border province of Bachka, and since he had a knowledge of Serbian he was entrusted with monitoring the Serbian newspapers. The Great War began for Veres when he read in one of papers: "Vienna, where diligent Serbian businessmen have invested for years, is becoming a bandits' den, and the slander of Austro-Jewish journalists more and more resembles the baying of dogs." Veres flew into a rage. He later admitted to a few colleagues that he was offended not so much as a Hungarian Jew (which he pretended to be) but as a journalist (an exaggeration, because he was an ordinary hack). And over a mug of black beer at the local tavern he snarled: 'I'll get them for this!', and the drunken company took up his words in a boisterous chorus: 'Hurrah, he'll get them for this!'

As a cheap scribbler in the big city, who just yesterday was writing about fires in the buildings of Buda and the chamber pots which some city folk still emptied out of the windows on the heads of passers-by, what could he now do but believe that the exhortation of the jingoistic crowd in the pub put him under some kind of obligation. But to do what? a few days later, the editor gave him a new assignment which struck him as journalistic providence: all the junior staff of the Pester Lloyd who didn't have columns of their own — which included young Veres — were given the daily task of writing and sending threatening letters to the Serbian court.

A seemingly futile job; yet not for he who until recently had been reporting on the measles epidemic in the gypsy ghetto on Margaret Island. The new task demanded loyalty and patriotism, but above all a style of writing adaptable to lampooning. And Veres put his mind to it. He was loyal, and resolute in the extreme. He himself came to believe he was a Hungarian of Israelite faith, with a heightened sense of patriotism. And his style — he had no doubt he'd make the grade. The first letter addressed to H.R.H. Alexander, heir to the Serbian throne, turned out beautifully. Tibor had the impression not of writing it, but of shouting directly at that impertinent prince who had kindled a fire beneath old, civilized Europe. Two sentences in particular were to stick fondly in his memory: 'Stupid swine, you can't even wallow in your own pen,' and 'Son of a polecat, you've fouled your own den with your vile stench'.

When the Serbian press, which he continued to monitor, reported that hundreds of absurd, abusive letters from Pest and Vienna were arriving at the court in Hungarian and German every day, full of the vilest insults to Crown prince Alexander and old King Peter, Veres took that as encouragement to carry on even more resolutely (the editor himself even read one lampoon and told him something like 'you'll make a good capital-city journalist'). But then something strange happened to him, like it did to the pathologist Dr Graho, albeit nothing with quite such Gothic portent as at the Sarajevo mortuary. Tibor simply started to lose control of his words. He couldn't say how it came about.

He began every new letter with an extremely insulting form of address. He'd think up a very impudent characterization of the Serbian king and Serbia as a nation, then develop the idea like a good journalist does, finding shameful examples in history, and in the end embellish it all with thinly veiled threats. When Tibor wanted to show one such letter to the editor and fortunately decided to reread it first, he was greatly surprised. The words he had written seemed to have played games on him, right there on the paper. It was a real free-for-all, a grammatical kingdom without a king. Nouns stole each other's meanings, nor did verbs stay aloof; adjectives and adverbs were right little bandits and contrabandists, like real-life pirates who smuggle booty and slaves. Only numbers and prepositions were partly immune to this supercilious game, the result of which was that everything he wrote ultimately resembled praise of the Serbian Crown prince, rather than an insult to him.

At first, he tried to rewrite the letter, but then he realized it was quite stupid to try and rephrase a panegyric of Serbia when he had actually wanted to write the complete opposite. He decided to change language and switched from Hungarian to German. He dredged up heavy German words from his memory; vocabulary with lumps and bumps and excrescences — words blind and deaf to morality and any vestige of self-consciousness. From this syntactic rubble, picked up off the streets and slapped together with petulant jargon, our little Budapest chronicler would again compose a letter, and once more it seemed quite beautiful, if that can be said of lampoons; but as soon as he had finished, it began to change its meaning before his very eyes and impudently polish itself up. Gering (trivial) simply switched to gerecht (rightful), and when he wanted to write 'Das war ein dummes Ding' (that was stupid) it turned out his hand had written 'Jedes Ding hat zwei Seiten' (everything has two sides) as if he wanted to enter a debate with the impertinent prince rather than defame him. And so it continued. Words which had smacked of devilry and human excretions now seemed to have bathed and doused themselves with perfume. A profanity became an ordinary little reproach, and a reproach morphed into words of acclaim.

He thought this might be because he was writing on thin, journalists' onion-skin paper, so he asked the editor for some thicker stuff. He also changed his fountain pen and swapped blue for black ink, before he was finally relieved of his torment. His hate mail now remained as he intended: a devastating storm with hailstones the size of eggs. The editor liked his letters too, and Tibor thought the secret lay in the paper, pen and black ink. He even felt like kissing his mischievous pen, with which he had gone on to write a whole host of shameless letters to the Serbian court during the summer of 1914. But he didn't know what was happening in the mail.

The sordid letters now realized that they shouldn't change before the eyes of their bloated, sleep-deprived creator; instead, they resolved to change their meaning in the postbox or the luggage van of the Austro-Hungarian mail service, which carried letters all over Europe, including to Serbia. One journalist thus saved his job shortly before mobilization began, and the Serbian court was surprised that among the hundreds of lampoons from Pest there was also the occasional eulogy, and they mistakenly took this as a sign that some common sense still existed in Austria-Hungary.


Excerpted from The Great War by Aleksandar Gatalica, Will Firth. Copyright © 2014 Aleksandar Gatalica. Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1914 – the Year of the Pathologist,
Prologue: Two Revolver Shots,
A Long Hot Summer,
Letters of Life and Death,
First Wartime Christmas,
The Typhus Situation,
1915 – the Year of the Trader,
The Smell of Snow and Forebodings of Doom,
The Man who Did Everything Twice,
War and the Sexes,
The Father of all Gothic Doctors,
Best Wishes from Hell,
Defence and Ultimate Collapse,
1916 – the Year of the King,
The Valley of the Dead,
Far away, to the Ends of the Earth,
Miracle Cures and Other Elixirs,
Delusions as Broad as Russia,
Corporals, Chaplains and Helmsmen,
1917 – the Year of the Tsar,
Betrayal, Cowardice and Lies,
Their Time Has Passed,
Death Wears no Watch,
The Revolution Travels by Train,
1918 – the Year of the Criminologist,
The End – Kaput,
The Pandemic,
Silent Liberation,
I am now Dead,
Wishes for the New World,
Epilogue: Dreams Made of Dreams,
The Author,
The Translator,

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