On the three-and-a-half-hour journey to Innsbruck from Verona, through the Brenner Pass, a north German family of three shared our compartment most of the way. They had just spent ten days hiking south over the Alps. The only scary incident involved having to run from lightning to reach the next rest hut. The wife was a pigtail blonde, predictably a bit literal but kind and young in spirit. Early forties, I imagined. The husband mentioned seeing the Cliffs of Moher on the Irish west coast and then the only other occupant – an Italian woman – suddenly produced a picture of the cliffs on her phone. I hadn’t the heart to mention that they had become a notorious suicide spot.
My card worked without the pin at the hotel in Innsbruck. Nonetheless I needed to compile a few choice phrases for a review inspired by the Verona incident and the charmless reaction at the desk that morning. My mother and I had an OK meal in the Altstadt later but by the time we emerged the odd drop from the grey sky and foggy Nordkette had turned to rain. In the morning at a post office over the bridge I’d pick up €500 sent by my brother via Western Union.
It rained again in the late morning but then cleared up to make a sunny day. Seeing the last of the cloud lift off the Nordkette meant we went up to Hungerburg on the funicular in the afternoon. I made a panoramic short video of the view but stuck my own head into it and later discovered something dark had stuck between two of my front teeth during lunch so it only looked like a visit to the dentist was on the cards.
A lot of Italian could be heard below and a surprisingly large number of Spaniards were in town too. A few too many dogs. Canines. I didn’t think they were all local. Why do people travel with dogs? It was raining again in the morning. We had trouble finding seats on the train to Munich but eventually got in among two young blondes unfamiliar to each other. When a middle-aged English couple with too much luggage later boarded our carriage and couldn’t find seats, it led to talk in our compartment. These two Brits were in shorts and sun hats yet each had a big rucksack and a wheelie bag, each. They caused the good-looking girl at the window to roll her eyes at me as she retook her seat after a quick smoke on the platform. It was time to put some distance between us and the latest arrivals. “Ja, ich habe gehört,” I said, in reference to having heard the woman laughing hysterically and then swearing, at the end of the carriage (“Farking hell… This is farking ridiculous…” etc).
Die sind Englander. Wir kommen aus Irland.
The girl by the window was interested and happy to hear that, as was the gorgeous student with the pigtail and the anatomy book, near the door on my mother’s side. She beamed as she closed the book, took off her black-framed reading glasses and asked in German if I’d liked Innsbruck. I explained that I’d been there before too, on my own (2015), when the snowy landscape on the line from Salzburg was most enticing.
I’ll always remember the first time heading up Maria-Theresien Strasse at nightfall, with a royal blue sky reflecting off the white Nordkette. No camera can convey how the mountain chain towers over the city, where the shop fronts glowed though all were closed.
I went on to outline the Verona hassle to both of them. Was it Juliet’s revenge or Juliet’s curse? We didn’t go to see her bloody balcony but everything was going OK until I paid the hotel bill. We’d seen a lot that morning. There were lots of tourists there speaking German and French but not many Americans or Asians. Or Brits. Having passed the amphitheatre we crossed Ponte Pietra below the huge cypresses on the Roman theatre hill.
Back at the hotel a young Gianna Ten-Thumbs at reception pressed something she shouldn’t have and somehow locked my pin. She looked like she didn’t know what she was doing and a sweet one (a bit older) had to give some guidance before they were, eh, finished with me. My worries started when I went out then to get some cash. It was all hassle after that. I should have brought more cash but at least my mother still had €327 in her bag.
I’d thought I wouldn’t retaliate online but the dismissive attitude of the young manageress with the glasses quickly changed that. (Hotel S. later got a roasting.) The defensive aggression kicked off with her saying (a) it wasn’t nice and (b) it was a serious matter to make such an accusation. I wasn’t accusing anyone of a crime or deliberate wrongdoing. I said it was clearly a mistake but, given she wanted to talk about seriousness, my “Siamo nei guai a causa di questo” (‘We’re in trouble because of this’) was only met with another contemptuous, f*ck-you shrug.
I told them to be careful in case it happened again but didn’t rear up on the little charmer because I still needed to get the other (sweet) girl looking on to call us a taxi. It was pissing rain outside. There had been lightning in the night, in the distance. Early that morning, heavy rain had thumped some nearby roof or awning and that woke me at half past six. Once I got back home and simply changed the pin code at the bank, the card worked as normal. There was nothing wrong with it that hadn’t happened in Verona.
The two girls in the compartment on the train to Munich in contrast were very sweet and curious. The one beside me had lovely varnish on her toenails – somewhere between pink and orange – and expensive sandals. These ladies were open-mouthed again when I explained that we lived on the south coast and so I’d have to drive 200 km after Dublin. The girl with the anatomy book got off at Kufstein and sweetly said Auf Wiedersehen not just to us but also to the one beside me, who softly replied to her with Tschüss.
There was a chap in mountain boots on my left who never said anything except one whispered “F*ck” at his phone but he didn’t look like another Englander. He even smiled once or twice, for example when I had to stick my head through the compartment doorway to retrieve my mother who had walked past after a toilet break. We got off at Munich Ost and the girl at the window bade me farewell twice, to be sure, as I stood in the corridor with our bags, without swearing, waiting for the train to stop.
A lot of the Saturday morning train journey from Munich to Salzburg was spent talking to two young couples on the train. The Basque girls were from Bilbao, the Spanish boys from Madrid. They were all pleasant but there was something really mignon sweet about the dark girl who sat directly opposite. She smiled like we had a private joke, then she ducked her eyes or looked out the window. It was February and there was snow everywhere outside, though the sun was shining.
At the Staatsbrücke bridge over the Salzach two cops were checking their sub-machine guns and one popped a bullet from a clip out onto the ground as I passed. Having checked into the Hotel Mozart, I made my way back along Linzergasse towards the river. Then I slipped curiously up the narrow Steingasse to verify an address from the imagination of the Grimms. The house, in business since Mozart’s time, belonged deep in a wood. There was even a red button beside the heavy door.
Turning back I crossed the Salzach and went into the Zipfer Bierhaus for a grill and a drink. After dark I went down some stairs into the imaginatively named Shamrock pub to watch a match. The barman was from Cork and before he finished his shift at eight he asked would I still be there if he came back later. I assured him I would be. I was.
An afternoon customer who returned was a man from Yorkshire but anyway his night would end badly after he got into an argument with a little Arab at the counter. Over a stool, I think. One of the other barmen told him he’d had enough and, outside, he took a swing at a bouncer with a shaved head. That only earned him a bloody nose, which then necessitated an ambulance, which could be observed up on the quay, through the high windows.
The fact that a strawberry blonde in her early thirties later came over when I was full of drink in the by-then crowded bar (live band, Valentine’s night) must have meant that she liked the cut of my jib or else thought I was kind for having helped a disabled girl get through the crowd as far as the toilets and back. My arm was soon around her and her hair was in my face. She asked why I didn’t just speak English to her, when German aphasia was setting in. I can’t have been that bad, though, because when it was all over I stopped at the Würstelstand across Staatsbrücke for a bottle of water. It was very late.
The next day I tried the email address she’d provided along with a phone number. She had a six-syllable name, like that of a ski jumper or an opera singer. In the mail I explained my German was a bit better today and asked her to meet for dinner or a coffee oder etwas zivilisiert. I’d made a mess of her number the night before by putting the code for Ireland in front of it. She replied to the mail sometime in the afternoon. Das ist wirklich sehr charmant von dir but she was already on her way back to Vienna. It turned out she was a shrink. Up to their necks in bulimics and anorexics, who knows?
A couple of days later I ended up back in the Zipfer B., for the same grill. A young shoe salesman sat down at the big wooden table. By the time he decided to stay and find a hotel, I’d noticed he was very keen on the beer. He said he’d driven over from Bavaria that day to get away from Fasching (carnival). He also explained that one piece of their folk wisdom was enough if one wanted to understand Bavarians – the view that if something wasn’t a complete disaster then it should be looked on as a success.
I left him there after three hours but said I’d be in the Shamrock later. After another shower, back at the hotel, I fell asleep for an hour. On getting to the pub I didn’t notice him at first but then overheard the Bavarian Al Bundy nearby, putting his oar into a couple who seemed to be English. He was locked by then and I wanted him to drink some water but I ended up with it instead. Leaning over the counter to tell the Austrian manager there had been a misunderstanding – that the water was my recommendation for Al – helped to clarify the situation.
Es gab ein Missverständis. Das Wasser war meine Empfehlung für ihn.
The manager then leaned forward too.
He’s an annoying prick who won’t get served anymore.
After poor Al left, quietly at least, I got talking to that couple. The guy was English. He asked if I wanted to have a drink with them somewhere else and she nodded and smiled, so we went to O’Malley’s, which was right next door. These were the only places with any life, at least midweek. Though from Swindon, he looked Middle Eastern but the top-heavy and good-looking blonde was from the Dutch-German border. He got harmlessly drunk while moving his arms to the likes of Oasis and Stereophonics on the speakers and she told me she’d had a stroke eighteen months earlier, as a result of which she’d put on twenty kilos and lost her job. I told her she was lovely and added she was lucky she wasn’t dead. Or worse. He was with BMW and had a problem learning German, although, he claimed, knowing Turkish would have been more useful at work. Together eight years, she had two kids and they lived in Munich. This night was their anniversary. They were nice people. I drank very little.
In the morning nonetheless, Kapuzinerberg was still a tough climb, even forty-eight hours after waking up wrecked after Valentine’s Night, and even after the scrambled egg and scrambled rasher breakfast at the hotel, over which I could hear an Irish table, older than me, talking about hangovers. Kapuzinerberg was still worth it for the view of the river, the snow-covered city and the high castle. Then I crossed the river and took the funicular up to the Hohensalzburg fortress. The heights were even brighter and we seemed to be above the zero-degree haze.
Salzburg had a lot of well-wrapped beggars hunkered down. Most but not all were Roma but all seemed to call out cheerfully “Hallo!” or “Grüss Gott!” to passers-by. By the sound of them at least, they were the chirpiest homeless I’d ever come across. Overcast Munich was very cold the next day. One guy on the street asked for €2 for a coffee and then asked had I a heart but, well dressed as he was, he wasn’t even parked in a begging spot. I did give a euro to one with one leg, on Bayerstrasse. What is it, about Bayerstrasse? Another time I saw two beggars there without feet. One at least had knees, which kept him upright, like Toulouse-Lautrec. Then again, Munich’s Neues Rathaus is the most Gothic thing I’ve seen.
In August 2015, on entering Salzburg’s Mirabell gardens, where there had been ice in the fountain in February, my mother and I passed two very dark chaps with a clarinet and accordion, playing Stranger on the Shore. “Now they are gypsies,” I said. They looked very different from the conservatory student string quartet we had watched play a tango on Kärntner Strasse in Vienna the day before.
Another reminder that US citizens always like to catch a show came from a woman who keenly spotted a marionette theatre poster as we left the gardens. We walked to the Dom and then dined outside at the Zipfer. My companion became convinced that Salzburg was the classiest place, with the most stylish clothes. “Have you noticed how soft-spoken the people are?” I asked. After there it was a matter of a trail of churches plus the sight and sounds of a jazzy procession of bishops, skeletons and devils on their way to put on an Everyman (“Jedermann”) show for the crowd on the stand that had been erected on the enclosed Domplatz.
I had just a few in the Shamrock that night. D. told me about his most recent abstract paintings that might soon get some café exhibition space but, on a less abstract note, it seemed they had to put up with a lot of tourists messing, in and around the pub. He’d recently opened the door onto the quay well after closing time only to be greeted by the sight of an American girl rolling around on the ground, fighting another girl of unknown nationality in front of cops and onlookers. After there I crossed the river and walked up Steingasse, which was spooky in the dark. A warm red light was on over the magic door as I passed but there was a restaurant, clinking and nattering, right across the alley, though the few diners al fresco were shielded from the sinners by some plants.
For me the most atmospheric ancient lane is in Perugia. An open window on the weird Via Ritorta revealed a woman calling a guy a “fascista” but, if ever a street gave a feeling of being down a well, that was it. Later I had to go back and video it. At the other end, I caught some of a guy playing the Godfather theme on a concertina.
In August 2018, on the way from Linz to Munich, I last got off in Salzburg, if only for an afternoon. Though the thronged Getreide Gasse was the same as always (I gave it a miss), elsewhere is generally more relaxed and you can hear Mozart seeping out of windows, both chorally and instrumentally. I had two beers in the Zipfer B. Given the hot day, I sat inside at one of the round tables near the counter, where it was cool.
Most other customers sat outside the front entrance, the light at the end of the tunnel corridor with the stone floor. I was near the staff. They were particularly relaxed and friendly. Morale must be high in that workplace. There seemed to be a buzz around a shift change between three and four. Two of the women seemed to take particular notice of my harmless presence. The younger of the two, with glasses, was called K. She even turned to me too, before she left, for a Wiederschauen.
I had passed through Hitler’s hometown before I ever got out there. In a heat wave in August 2015 a Hamburg gentleman of about sixty spotted me at breakfast in Vienna, applying a serviette to my face. He came over, hoarsely repeating the German word for hell. Hölle! Hölle! On the train to Salzburg that day my mother and I got talking to a retired American couple who’d sold their house in upstate New York to move to Florida. I think Bob sold his mass of Waterford glass in the house on eBay. His wife had fallen off the train that had brought them as far as Linz. I didn’t ask why they had come by Linz. They were thinking of squeezing in the Sound of Music tour, despite the lack of enthusiasm of the holiday planner, their daughter.
We left our Salzburg hotel two mornings later. In the station a black vintage train pulled up at our platform. Uniformed serving staff jumped out to unravel short rolls of red carpet below each carriage door. Who could these passengers be? They were Australian casualties from Linz. They had to be practically carried off. One old lady was handed down a set of wheels like those that belong in a nursing home. The next woman out that door was a bit younger and had better pins but she sported a broken arm.
I got off in Linz that December. Down past Hauptplatz the bridge over the Danube crosses to the Urfahr end of the city. The car lights on the bridge shone through the murk as an icy mist blew up from the water.
Heading back to the main square I found a small and dark pub down a long tunnel that is typical of Upper Austria. The pretty young blonde behind the counter didn’t know what a hot whiskey was so I had a few bottles of Weizenbier instead. My eyes at times were stinging with the smoke, long banned in Ireland, as the place filled up.
The guy next to me at the counter wouldn’t have looked out of place among the crew of U-96 (Das Boot), down with all the scraggy beards and hunted eyes. He said the informal people of Upper Austria hadn’t much use for Sie, except with Polizei und Richter (police and judges). He ordered something that looked like a grilled slice of a large brown loaf, with some pizza toppings. He told me what it was called (Holzknecht) and then I had it too. It was a traditional meal for poor people working in the woods.
The next night saw a different barmaid there, a dark-haired girl with what I thought were some Italian features but also with rather exotic eyes. I got talking to a bespectacled young darts fan who was only into the darts on TV because some Austrian had qualified for the last whatever of the world championship. He wasn’t the only person during this trip to ask. Warum Österreich? As for why Austria, I paraphrased a quote from the actor Christoph Waltz.
Austrians tend to make their lives easier, so first of all they are very polite and second they don’t mean it… The difference between Austrians and Germans is very much like Irish and English.
In Michael Frayn’s Travels with a Typewriter, the penultimate piece finds him in Vienna in 1975. His acquaintance there with a mathematics student from Berlin “outraged by all this charm” makes him consider “these two German worlds” but the effort to reconcile them in his head proves disconcerting. Frayn is, after all, English, and the irony of Austria can be rather more spiritually familiar to an Irish person. That’s if it even bears thinking about.
On the subject of the unwillingness of the Irish to step beyond the English-speaking world, economically or culturally, it is true that most of them would rather go to the end of the world, say to some wasteland in Australia, even though Paris, for example, is just an hour from Cork. Then again, most cannot even be bothered with their own language.
One night in July 1961, Samuel Beckett’s Marne cottage at Ussy was the scene of a robbery. The burglars, as well as consuming all the food and drink they could find, stole his clothes, even his old underpants, but left a valuable painting untouched. As Beckett himself had once mused, in Murphy (1938), who knows what the ostrich sees in the sand? If any mystery haunts any cynic, it’s probably this one.
Michael Frayn also discusses the word Schlamperei (‘messiness’), which he often overheard in Vienna but which, in Austria, he observes, could only be in its infancy in comparison with Britain. Well, that’s something the English and Irish can and do share. Austria is clean. Aristocratic titles have furthermore been banned there since 1918 but Austrians compensate for this deprivation with comically excessive use of academic ones. Some people even use a different calling card (e.g. one that uses “von” in the name) when dealing with Germany, where such elaboration remains legal.
The down-to-earth impression made in contrast by Linz that first time brought me back for a couple of days in October 2017. While we were enjoying coffee and dessert in the elegant Café Traxlmayr at lunchtime, a pair of retired ladies chatting intently over a couple of tall beers attracted the attention of my wingman (JP).
Fair play to the two old dears, tanning the pints in the middle of the day.
Linz is also a handy base for visiting very scenic places like Steyr or, in Bavaria, the town of Passau. The Inn is very scenic near Passau. High wooded banks continue for several miles. The warm sunshine there contrasted with the fog in Linz. Having gone down the left bank of the Inn to the peninsula tip where it meets the Danube, we walked back through the Altstadt and had a good goulash at a place called Bi Plano. It got cold at sunset but there were orange blankets on the backs of the chairs. Passau is very like Steyr but it’s a college town, whereas Steyr is known for making tractors and guns.
The train in 2015 had reached Steyr before dusk, having followed a bend on the Enns that there meets the river that gives the town its name. This place was like a fairy tale town. Schubert loved it and wrote the Trout Quintet there in 1819. Empty dark alleys were less spooky than dreamlike. There were seagulls there, in a landlocked country. The wind off the rivers was icy.
At a pub by the name of Sir Patrick, one had to press a buzzer to be let in. There, an inquisitive but very inebriated Opel agent of about sixty was unimpressed by any mention of Ireland. Sepp later gave up insisting I was an Englishman, also in the motor trade (“Du bist Agent?”) for the suggestion I was from Norway. A taxi finally took him away but not before he also enquired if I was looking for a fight (“Willst du kämpfen?”), though not necessarily with him.
Back in Linz after Passau, JP and I ended up in the small, dark place once more. The girl with the striking eyes was behind the counter. They were green; interesting; hard to read. A local Celtic fan with communist leanings told me her name. She wasn’t Italian. She became someone I would always know. I took a photo of a young chap buckled at a table where she kindly left a pint of water.
JP had earlier observed him sucking on a thick cigar, though the electric fan in the pub did make the smoke a lot more tolerable than it used to be. Another lad, who looked like an Arab, wanted travel advice about Ireland. He wanted to visit Kilkenny just because he liked the beer of that name.
On the train to Vienna in the morning, a row developed between the couple sitting at the table across from ours. She was on the phone for a long time first, a good-looking girl with faintly Asiatic features. Russian, I guessed, from a few words I could make out, such as mozhnó, droog and rabot. When he wasn’t eating (an apple, a banana, other stuff) or sleeping behind a hanging jacket, he spoke to her in English and his accent was Germanic (i.e. Austrian).
They had a weekend engagement in Vienna, so flowers and a present had to be bought for their hosts, but first he wanted to deposit her at the Albertina while he walked around for a while. Unfortunately for her, it seemed he intended for her to carry three bags around while at the museum. “I’m shocked,” she said, several times. She also observed that he was “the man in this couple”, which had Mr Sensitive asking how she managed whenever she was on her own. She countered with “But I’m not on my own now” so he offered to carry one bag.
When the train stopped at Wien Hbf he told her there was no need to get off immediately because it wouldn’t move on towards the airport for a few minutes but she really had heard enough by then and left the scene. He reluctantly followed. There would be nothing happily ever after in that relationship. She’d also got in a dig about him always finding the time and opportunity to eat, so it sounded like she was quite familiar with the various ways he would suit himself, if given half a chance.
Several times I went back to Linz to see the soft-spoken girl with the green eyes. The young man from Vienna who sat beside me on the next plane referred to it as an untypical destination. He added he’d been to Ireland sixty times through work. At the Hotel Wolfinger my fourth-floor room overlooked the Hauptplatz rather impressively. I could hear a clarinet by one of the cafés below my window. The trams rolled up and down through the long square with a steady rumble.
From the steps around the Trinity column, the girl pointed to a special little train idling nearby. Nächstes mal. Next time, we’d be running up that hill. The next time we took that little train up to wooded Pöstlingberg and wandered around there for an afternoon. It was a bit windy but we got something to eat and saw some deer up close. They were in a kind of dry moat. The little stag was munching leaves unperturbed, up by the fence, while the others came and went via a nearby slope. The eyes were wild. One of the lads from a nearby tree surgeon gang then threw the stag another branch of leaves.
She laughed when told about the whispering Americans on the train, the time I came via Regensburg in Bavaria. Ja is the German for yes, right, so what’s Jawohl? One of the two women across the table said she’d get a translation on her phone. A mechanical voice then broadcast, Jawohl! Jawohl! to the entire carriage before the phone screen coughed up the meaning. The two women went on to talk about restraining kids but it seemed to be part of their jobs.
It was a quiet Sunday night where she worked, the night an old nutter with a cravat and smelly feet marched in with his sunglasses on and started causing hassle about the service, the drink and the music. Diese Musik ist Gift für mich! Poison it may have been to him but it wasn’t even loud. Feeling a mixture of irritation and gallantry, I used du when telling him in exasperation to leave the girl alone and wait for his Guinness to settle. In a how-dare-you tone of voice he announced he had a doctorate (“Summa cum laude” blahdy blah). When I said that so did I (“Ich auch”), he then said he had two of them.
Then he called the cops to report the impudent Gast at the counter but he quickly paid up and fled when she told him she’d had enough of him and called the owner. Then two cops walked in, so we had to do a bit of explaining. Anyway, the Polizei seemed to be familiar with this character and they soon left us in peace. We did a gentle high five before she observed the nut-job wasn’t as bad as the Nazi who had thrown a pint over her, some other night.
It wasn’t the only place in Linz where I saw someone get barred. In Thüsen Tak the metal from the speakers was generally boring but it wasn’t too loud. One entrant to the pub was refused service. The rather pissed but well-dressed, middle-class gentleman was in a better state than many drunks at home. All he did to cause offence was bow extravagantly to the rockers at the low tables but, anyway, a good suit must be the new long hair, to be met with a frown and expulsion.
From midnight the other place often got busier as the smoke got worse. A Bono-loving lush wanted me to go on to a club. She insisted Austria was full of Nazis but I said so was Ireland and maintained Bono was a tax-dodging Heuchler, whereas at least Falco had never droned on about Africa.
The last time I made it to Linz, it was January and the landscape in Austria was snowy and icy. On the train an Elvis impersonator – der König – sat down with his kit bag nearby before I moved to the dining car, where the low drone of a deep American voice was a constant. It went on and on about a cookery class. The man’s hair, like the King’s, was a mite darker than it should have been at his age.
Having checked into the hotel, I had to get something quick to eat. The cold froze my arse in a heavy snowfall on the way down Landstrasse to the famous Bosner Eck hotdog stand. The lights of that long street looked wonderful through the brief blizzard but I was almost sick with the cold. Back at the hotel I donned a pair of pyjama-style long-johns before heading to the pub.
She had put a Reserviert card at my favourite end of the counter. It was there that weekend that I enjoyed a long conversation with a Stammgast named S., who remarked on the way she smiled when she looked at me. As the crow flies, Linz is a thousand miles from home. She had cooked for me and she had served up Holzknecht in the bar, and she had given free shots of tequila, but, in calmly letting her get on with her life in a land far away, it’s still best to remember some words of Pozzo in Waiting for Godot.
I have given them bones, I have talked to them about this and that, I have explained the twilight...
Anyway, S. told a story about getting his own back on some Russians who had spiked him with gherkins injected with vodka by spiking them with an Austrian elixir called Sturm, which also acts as a laxative. This was in the context of a major deal to build some heavy industrial plant in Ukraine. In his workplace he was “Herr Doktor”, of course, though he did amusingly describe the German managerial habit of shouting as useless for Austrian productivity. His face dropped a little only when I included Mauthausen in the list of all the Austrian places I’d been. Normally I omit that but this time I threw it in, for the hell of it.
On one of the trains I’ve taken out of Linz sat a retired nurse. After I put her heavy bag up on the rack we chatted all the way to Vienna. Her husband, a railwayman, had died in 2010. Her parents came from Steyr. She said they had never bought into the Nazi thing and added that her father had taken pleasure after the war in reminding those who did that they had done so. In Austrian culture it seems no one admitting to have cheered Hitler on Heldenplatz in Vienna in 1938 is the other side of the comic coin of the Irish all claiming to have been in the GPO for Easter 1916.
During a NATO summit in late 2002, a man dressed in a First World War uniform and waving crutches turned up at a Prague protest against the impending invasion of Iraq. Na Bagdád, paní Müllerová! His demand to march on Baghdad echoed an early scene in Hašek’s novel The Good Soldier Švejk. The version used here (1973) is by Cecil Parrott, who can be forgiven a certain English stiffness in translation and even the phrases in iffy Hungarian that remain scattered through the text.
In 1914, the interminable storyteller Josef Švejk gets the charwoman Mrs Müller to wheel him through Prague in a bath chair while he shouts, ‘To Belgrade, to Belgrade!’ The enthusiasm of this disabled veteran is still met with suspicion by the authorities. Corroboration of the barbarism Hašek next describes, even more comically, is evident from a Robert Musil diary entry written in Prague in 1916.
Faradization. Suspicion of shamming, the young lad is faradized [i.e. shocked] every day. “Hu, hu, hu, hu, ayaya, ya,” he wriggles. One warder and four nurses stand around him laughing, holding his arms and legs and pressing the contacts to his body. He pulls faces as if he were laughing.
In the sanatorium hut of the Prague garrison prison, Švejk explains to the other inmates that he’s got rheumatism. Even the dying consumptive, who was shamming tuberculosis, joined in the laughter (p. 63). It’s already a war in there between the malingerers and the medics. All the tricks and rehabilitation tortures are outlined, leading to few firm conclusions.
All those illnesses where you have to foam at the mouth are difficult to sham… In Vršovice there’s a midwife who for twenty crowns will dislocate your leg… The best thing to do… is to inject paraffin… My cousin was so fortunate as to have his arm cut off under the elbow...
When the dissolute atheist priest and army chaplain Otto Katz takes a shine to Švejk for weeping sympathetically at one of his sermons, Katz gets the judge advocate’s office to hand him over. It’s all a bit Brexity. Every state on the brink of total political, economic and moral collapse has an establishment like this. The aura of past power and glory clings to its courts, police, gendarmerie and venal pack of informers (p. 79). While Švejk is kept waiting at an office door for his transfer, he has a chance to look around.
There were photographs of various executions carried out by the army in Galicia and Serbia. They were artistic photographs of charred cottages and trees with branches sagging under the weight of the bodies strung up on them. Particularly fine was a photograph from Serbia of a whole family strung up – a small boy and his father and mother. Two soldiers with bayonets were guarding the tree, and an officer stood victoriously in the foreground smoking a cigarette… in the background a field kitchen could be seen in full operation. (p. 93)
After Katz sells a sofa for a song, to help fund wine, women and more song, he and Švejk have to track it down because the chaplain forgot he’d used its drawer to store an army field altar manufactured by a Jewish firm in Vienna. The paintings on the altar invite some detailed art criticism (p.131).
By and large the painter had been unable to ruin the dove. He had painted a kind of bird which could equally well have been a pigeon or a White Wyandotte [i.e. a chicken]. God the Father looked like a bandit from the Wild West… The Son of God on the other hand was… draped in something that looked like bathing drawers. Altogether he looked a sporting type. The cross which he had in his hand he held as elegantly as if it had been a tennis racquet.
Before long Katz gambles Švejk away at cards so Švejk becomes the batman of Oberleutnant Lukáš, who is described (p. 166) as a typical regular officer… The cadet school had turned him into a kind of amphibian. He spoke German in society, wrote German, read Czech books… He equated being a Czech with membership of some sort of secret organization, to which it was wiser to give a wide berth… He enjoyed the affection of his men because he was unusually just and was not in the habit of bullying anyone.
Complications set in after Švejk is told to obtain for Lukáš a particular type of dog. How exactly he is to do this is unspecified but anyway, it should be noted that both Gogol and Hašek (e.g. pp. 190-200) write of dogs in a similar way. They make them members of society, with their own perspectives, fears and weaknesses.
It is only in a school reader or natural history primer that a dog is a faithful animal… allow even the most faithful of dogs to smell a fried horse meat sausage and it is lost.
An old associate delivers a stolen dog to Švejk, who already slyly elicited its favourite food from the maid who walks the animal.
He and his accomplice then tie the dog to the kitchen table so they can discuss forging a pedigree and what new name to give it. This is how Fox becomes Max.
When it was untied, it made its way to the door, where it barked three times at the handle, obviously relying on the generosity of these evil men… [then] it made a little pool by the door, convinced that they would throw it out… Instead Švejk observed: ‘It’s a cunning one, to be sure, a bit of a Jesuit.’ He gave it a blow with his belt and dipped its muzzle in the puddle…
Unfortunately a colonel soon encounters Lukáš walking the dog (his dog) on the street. Lukáš and Švejk are transferred to a regiment at České Budějovice in southern Bohemia, as a prelude to being sent to the East. The second part of the book opens with the pair on a train, from which Švejk is removed after a mishap involving the emergency brake handle.
This incident recalls a story told to me by a Jewish Englishman in a Belfast pub on a snowy day in 1987, the year I first read The Good Soldier Švejk. In 1969, G. was on a train somewhere in Czechoslovakia, enjoying the luxury of a Cuban cigar, when a representative of state security slid back the door to tell him to put it out. The railways minister was in the next compartment and didn’t like the smell. After attempting to engage the minister in a fraternal socialist debate about the cigar, G. got thrown off the train at the next station.
After the fuss dies down and he buys a few beers for himself and a Hungarian with one good arm, Švejk has no money for a ticket and he can’t get a train pass because Lukáš has gone on with his documents. He wanders around the Bohemian countryside, encountering tramps and deserters and getting arrested as a suspected Russian spy before finally being put on another train to rejoin a horrified Lukáš, who hoped he’d seen the back of him. Then the battalion moves out, heading east by rail. The first stop is Vienna (p. 348) where a welcoming committee waits on the platform.
But it was not the same as it had been at the beginning of the war… Fatigue could be seen on all these faces. Troop trains passed through day and night, ambulance coaches packed full of wounded every hour… This went on from day to day and the initial enthusiasm degenerated into yawning…. Soldiers peered out of cattle trucks with an expression of hopelessness like people going to the gallows.
Švejk wangles his way into the staff carriage with Lukáš and the train moves on to the old border of Austria and Hungary (p. 351). In both towns… gypsy bands were playing, the windows of the cafés and restaurants gleamed with light, there was singing and drinking. The local burghers and officials brought their wives and grown-up daughters to the cafés and restaurants… Bruck an der Leitha and Királyhida were nothing but one giant brothel.
Full of drink, Lukáš gives Švejk a letter to take to a married woman in Királyhida. He has earlier observed her objecting to an obscene performance of an operetta in the town’s theatre. On his way the next morning Švejk meets the sapper, Vodička, whose pathological dislike of Hungarians sharpens over a few drinks. Švejk unwisely lets the sapper accompany him to the lady’s address, where the letter is handed to the maid. The outraged husband emerges but is thrown out of his own home by Vodička, in whose coat pocket the letter luckily ends up. A mass brawl erupts on the street, involving passing Czech and Hungarian soldiers. In the fight Švejk bravely wields a walking stick lifted from a civilian bystander.
Col. Schröder interviews Lukáš in the aftermath. Schröder dislikes Hungarians too and recalls the shambles they caused with their friendly fire at Belgrade. That was when they interrupted a nice lunch with vintage wine from the cellar of a local wine merchant hanged the night before. He explains the army has arrested the editors of all the Hungarian publications that named Lukáš in the affair. He also promotes Švejk to company orderly for claiming he wrote the letter as a joke and then eating it when asked to reproduce the handwriting. Nonetheless he and Vodička still have to appear before the divisional court (pp. 388-89) to have their cases quashed.
A volume of the legal code lay before him… On the table… stood a crucifix made out of imitation ivory with a dusty Christ, who looked despairingly at the pedestal of his cross, on which there were ashes and cigarette stubs… Ruller was at this very moment flicking the ash from another cigarette onto the pedestal of the crucifix. With his other hand he was raising the glass of tea, which had got stuck to the legal code. When he had freed the glass… he turned over the pages of a book which he had borrowed from the officers’ club. It was a book… with the promising title: Research into the History of the Development of Sexual Morals… He only pulled himself away from the reproductions when Vodička coughed.
Part three begins with the battalion setting off across Hungary and we see a crew of friendly characters begin to assemble around Švejk. These include the calmly cynical Quartermaster Vaňek, the occultist cook Jurajda and the anarchist Marek, the last of whom Švejk has known since they shared a cell in Bohemia. We are also introduced to the glutton Baloun (the new batman to Lukáš) and the idiotically enthusiastic Cadet Biegler.
The train stops at Raab (modern Győr) where the men are meant to be issued with Hungarian salami but instead get two postcards each. Another train carrying a German-speaking regiment goes through the station without stopping but one of its singing soldiers falls out of a wagon and is impaled on a points-lever, which gives the Czechs something to stand around and look at.
Before they move on, Lukáš’s superior Captain Ságner mocks Biegler’s military and literary pretensions so Biegler, already feeling unwell, gets very drunk (p. 493). He then dreams of floating through the universe in the front half of a staff car that has been hit by a shell. We’re flying to heaven, General, and must avoid the comets. When he meets the Lord, the Lord turns out to be Captain Ságner, who orders two angels to throw him into the latrines. A terrible smell fills the wagon where Biegler is sleeping just as the glow of lights over Budapest comes into view. He has contracted dysentery and is offloaded to a hospital where he is mistakenly diagnosed as a carrier of cholera.
In Budapest the theoretical issuing of cheese to the men is replaced by a box of matches, another postcard and the happy news that Italy has declared war on them. In the staff carriage, Biegler is replaced by the pontificating of Lieutenant Dub, a Czech reserve officer and informer who will soon prove to be the arch-enemy of Švejk.
The men are ordered to leave the wagons a second time, only to watch their train with its piles of army bread and sacks of rice get sprayed with disinfectant. Sent off with some money from Lukáš to get something to eat, Švejk buys a hen but not before he’s arrested and accused of trying to steal it. As he explains, all he did was pick it up to ask who owned it.
The feathers thrown out of the van attracted the attention of Lieutenant Dub… He shouted inside that whoever was plucking a hen should present himself and in the door appeared the happy face of Švejk. […] Švejk held the hen’s bowels and other intestines under Lieutenant Dub’s nose (p. 552).
Northeast of Miskolc, the unit finally gets some goulash at Sátoraljaújhely next to the Slovak border. This town also lies about 40 km west of Ukraine. The station is crowded with many different units and wagons can be seen loaded with shot-down aircraft and howitzers with smashed barrels. Lieutenant Dub is telling everyone this is war booty when the wreckage is clearly Austrian. In eastern Slovakia the next day (p. 573) there are signs of fighting on the landscape.
When… they reached Humenné… the men in the transport could in the meantime catch a glimpse of a public secret and observe how, after the departure of the Russians, the authorities treated the local population, who were related to the Russian armies in speech and confession.
Here Hungarian gendarmes beat and toy with civilian prisoners at will. In the staff carriage, most of the officers condemn this and only Dub fully agrees with the brutality and cruelty. Lukáš tells Švejk to go get him a bottle of cognac from a Jewish hawker behind the station, though this is officially forbidden. Dub follows Švejk and when the latter insists that the bottle visible inside his tunic is full of water, Dub tells him to down it all in one go. To Dub’s amazement Švejk drinks it all and flings the bottle into the pond across the road. Though he soon has to lie down for a few hours, he evades Dub’s clutches once more.
The train continues north towards Medzilaborce near the modern Polish border. On the way the signs of fighting get worse. The Carpathian hillsides are lined with trenches and there are huge shell craters on both sides of the railway track. The men see forests shredded by artillery fire and the gleaming white crosses of new army graveyards. In the rear wagons, the Germans from what history remembers as the Sudetenland stop singing.
Beyond the Lupkov Pass they reach Galicia, then the poorest province of Austria-Hungary but today divided between Poland and Ukraine. Frustrated at his inability to catch Švejk out in any way, Dub beats up his own batman, Kunert. In retaliation Švejk leads the dazed Kunert to the staff carriage to make a complaint. Captain Ságner assigns Kunert to the battalion kitchen as compensation for the beating.
As they near the Polish town of Sanok, ruins of villages became more and more common on the landscape. The sight of a wrecked Red Cross train at the bottom of an embankment is a topic of much discussion among Švejk’s crew before Jurajda produces a bottle of cognac he stole from the officers’ mess. Then they get down to playing cards, at which Marek quotes Scripture and proves invincible. Up to this, as battalion historian, he has spent most of his time in the wagon inventing heroic deaths for his comrades.
Just in case anyone might think Hašek exaggerates the fun on the train, Robert Musil is again instructive when his diary describes a transport of wounded. If anything, this suggests Hašek may actually have toned down the surrealism.
Coming from Poland… a goods wagon with cots carries the most severely wounded who are not expected to survive the journey. A man with a severe bullet wound in the lung, and another whose hip joint is smashed… One is Tyrolean, the other Viennese. The Viennese insists that the Tyroleans were no good at all in the war. The Tyrolean gets worked up about it. The Viennese with the bullet wound in the lung is constantly chipping away at him. Often the whole wagon can’t stop laughing. […} On arrival, the Viennese is dead. […] When the train stops most of them start to bellow like animals, feel unbearable pain, and relieve themselves. Officers and men.
At Sanok, Ságner goes to report their arrival to brigade staff. There he meets a Captain Tayrle who shows him how well they are geared for debauchery. He brings Ságner to a café that turns out to be a brothel, where Tayrle demands “Miss Ella”, who turns out to be busy upstairs with the drunken Lieutenant Dub. Ságner goes back to his men. New orders mean the battalion has to march east before nightfall. For a conference of officers, Lukáš tells Švejk to go and find Dub. Švejk knows exactly where he is and has to fight his way upstairs in the brothel because only officers are allowed up there.
The march to the east begins along dusty roads in summer heat. When they stop for a rest, Lukáš tells a small group including Švejk to drop their equipment and go ahead to find village billets for the others. They commandeer sleeping quarters from the well-off and the local clergyman. Only the poor have taken in other poor people who have lost their homes. From a crafty Jew they also buy an emaciated and un-cookable cow, on which Baloun breaks a tooth.
The next day just Švejk and Vaňek are sent ahead at midday to look for billets. At a crossroads they disagree on which way to go to their destination. Two ways are marked. They separate and Švejk comes to a small lake where he finds an escaped Russian prisoner bathing (p. 666). The prisoner flees naked.
His Russian uniform was lying underneath the willows and Švejk was curious to know how it would suit him, so he took off his own and put on the uniform… Švejk wanted to see his reflection in the water and so he walked such a long way along the dam of the lake that he was caught by a patrol of field gendarmerie, who were looking for the escaped Russian prisoner.
Part four begins with Švejk in a transport of Russian prisoners. In charge of their registration is a sergeant-major whose only qualification as an interpreter is that he once learned broken Slovak as a salesman of religious paraphernalia. In a conversation in broken German he mistakes Švejk for a Jew and gives him the thankless task of writing down the names of all the other – mostly Asiatic – prisoners.
In Przemyśl in south-eastern Poland it is discovered that Švejk is a Czech. The major who finds out wants to hang him at once but a captain present insists on a court-martial. At the court, General Fink von Finkelstein wants to hang Švejk without red tape too but one of the other officers suggests checking with Švejk’s unit with a view to rooting out perhaps a whole nest of spies. The next morning a telegram comes from Švejk’s unit with the instruction to send him to brigade headquarters without delay. General Fink von Finkelstein is enraged by being deprived of an execution. At the brigade staff headquarters, Colonel Gerbich is now in command. Gerbich suffers from gout.
At meals it was his favourite occupation to tell everybody how his toe oozed and continually sweated, so that he had to keep it in cotton wool, and that these exudations smelled like sour oxtail soup. (p. 719)
Otherwise he’s a jovial commander who doesn’t bother about discipline. When Švejk is brought before him, Dub happens to be in the office. Dub is only there due to a touch of concussion after being thrown from a horse, which greatly amused his fellow officers. At those times when Gerbich’s toe is quiet, his office is always full of various ranks to whom he likes to tell very old and dirty jokes.
Dub is ranting at Švejk when Gerbich’s toe suddenly acts up again. They all rush out, except Dub. When he says something, Gerbich throws an ink pot at him. When peace is restored, a relieved Gerbich gives Švejk a new uniform and sends him back to his battalion, which is now in a small Ukrainian town beyond Lviv. That place is full of artillery and baggage train encampments and soldiers of various regiments come out of every house (p. 724).
Like an elite among them all, Reich Germans were strolling about offering the Austrians cigarettes from their lavish supplies. In the Reich German field kitchens in the square there were even whole barrels from which they tapped beer for the men, who fetched rations of it for their lunch and supper. The neglected Austrian soldiers with their bellies distended by filthy concoctions of sweet chicory hung around them like greedy cats.
The thunder of distant guns can be heard. At the main headquarters at any hour of the day, this or that Jew is being battered on suspicion of spreading rumours. After Švejk tracks down his comrades, Vaňek tells him his old uniform was found at the lake so he’d recorded him as having drowned while bathing. Now the existence of two Švejk uniforms will cause an accounting issue, which may mean an inspection.
After 750 pages both Lieutenant Dub and Cadet Biegler have also returned to the battalion, this time at each other’s throats, but it is there that the novel ends, unfinished. Already seriously ill, Jaroslav Hašek died on 3 January 1923.
The French are always value for money in Vienna. On an underground platform on the way to the hotel I overheard some of a phone conversation that began with, Je sors du concert. C’était supérieur. Is this the only foreign place that cuts their mustard?
The plan was to look for something to eat at the Naschmarkt but, having passed the warmer and more inviting Café Sperl on the way down from Spittelberg, I went back after a quick walk around the lit-up joints with walls of glass and transparent plastic in the mass of dark, shut stalls.
I ordered Tafelspitz and a bottle of white wine (I avoid red) but it was a bit disconcerting to be presented with Schnitzel. I find even the sight of Schnitzel to be demoralizing and the waiter (in his fifties) was all apologies but I told him it wasn’t a disaster. The roast beef, potato and spinach were very tasty when the right plate got to the right table.
I still topped up with Sachertorte mit Schlagobers for dessert and, when I left, the wine gave a splendid glow. Wandering calmly and curiously on the underground, I learned a geography lesson. Unfortunately the Währinger Strasse U-Bahn stop is at the opposite end of that long street from the Ring and Charlie P’s. Then, when I finally got to the red door of that pub, a young beard from somewhere Down Under told me I couldn’t get in. A private function was due to end in half an hour, he offered, but I kept going with a shake of the head. Tell them they wouldn’t let in an Irish guy.
Molly Darcy’s in contrast was busy with a public function: serving customers like a public house. It sits inside the Ring on the corner below the doorway made famous by Orson Welles in The Third Man.
After two relaxing beers there I strolled back towards Spittelberg. Stopping for a Debreziner dog at a stand on the Ring, I handed over a tenner. Pocketing the fiver returned, I put the one eighty in coins back on the little counter. With a smile and a Danke, I left the man in the glow of the hut with a look of surprise on his face. I bit through the bread and cold sauce to get at the warm and spicy Wurst. My night was done. In the morning I had to go to Hungary.
On the Ring the sight of the Burgtheater recalls Thomas Bernhard’s at times grotesquely funny 1984 novel Holzfällen, which for a time turns into a rather good play, once the Actor appears, to ramble on and on about Ekdal in The Wild Duck, even while slogging through his dinner party soup. Suicide is a theme – the funeral earlier in the day has been for a woman who hangs herself, in some detail – but by then its treatment has turned blackly comic, as in when the host asks the Actor if working at Vienna’s Burgtheater wouldn’t give someone every reason to do that. Before the end, as if to stress the point, the host also waves his false teeth in the Actor’s face.
Behind the theatre can be found Harry Lime’s doorway in The Third Man (1949), where Orson Welles first appears by the smooth, sloping cobbles of Schreyvogelgasse. The first time I stood in, there was still daylight but lights shone from scattered windows. They reflected in others. Evening traffic hummed and rumbled on the nearby Ringstrasse, beyond which the university rose in the dusk.
After the Freyung square, on Herrengasse a drunk American woman (“I’m a human rights defender” blah blah) wanted “twenty or thirty euros for a hotel” (i.e. for more drink). You must be f*cking joking, I thought, before I walked on (“Eh, no”). Looking back I saw her simply waiting for the next man to pass.
Further down Herrengasse, the Café Central was in darkness for the night. One evening in that café, a young French girl came back to my table, blushing, looking for her annotated city map. I offered her mine but hers had “mes notes”, while another French girl, alone at the next table, read Freud. Trois essais sur la théorie sexuelle. I’d already read somewhere that France had six hundred thousand psychology students.
The French are always value for money in Vienna. On an underground platform, I’d only arrived in the city the last time when I overheard a phone conversation that began with, Je sors du concert. C’était supérieur. Is this the only foreign place that cuts their mustard?
It was a New Year’s Eve when I set off to find Berggasse and Freud’s apartment, even though I presumed it would be closed. It wasn’t. It was packed. A mixed French group pushed the street door ahead of me. Upstairs a stubbly Frenchman with a woolly cap didn’t bother going in. His wife turned to him. Tu restes au café en face? He chuckled and nodded. Il y a un sex shop en face.
The people jumping the ‘queue’ to swarm around the entrance desk had been more of an illustration of Alinsky’s key psychological principle – that people only push to get on a bus they think has limited seating – than anything Freudian. Schlange means both queue and snake in German but there, one couldn’t dream of either.
At the hotel that same night I ended up talking to the man from Kiev behind the desk, comparing the death tolls of the Irish and Ukrainian famines. He must have asked me something about Ireland for us to jump on to that topic but in fairness he was curious about Irish dancing as well. He imitated the arms held down by the dancers’ sides, a style I explained was ordained by the puritanical priesthood. Das war ein Befehl von den Priestern. Sonst, zu sexy.
He didn’t want to pin Holodomor on Stalin, just “die Moskau Regierung” (the Moscow government), and I wasn’t going to argue with him about the 1930s. Not on New Year’s Eve. My impression was that he missed the USSR. He was proud of Nikita Khruschev and Ukrainian generals and a nearby monument to the soldiers of the First Ukrainian Front. I’d have guessed he didn’t care much for Jews either, though all he did was express sympathy for the Palestinians. Woher kamen diese Juden? (‘Where did those Jews come from?’)
Though he’d claimed Rokossovsky was Ukrainian, that invited a later check. The Marshal was of Polish origin and spent almost three years as a prisoner of the State from 1937 until his release without explanation in 1940, during which time he somehow never signed any false statement. He later told his daughter that he always carried a revolver so they would not take him alive if they ever came for him again.
From Herrengasse one can get to Graben via Am Hof or via Hofburg and Kohlmarkt.
For me, the best book about Vienna is the German version (the English version is a travesty) of the extraordinary early diaries of Alma Schindler, before she married Gustav Mahler, who basically drove her cracked, as the Irish phrase puts it.
Take this example from 24 September 1899, which only appears in the German. Rosa Kornbluh was a friend who had a weird experience with Gustav Klimt on an Italian train, where he terrified her in a tunnel. That much is in Beaumont but on this day Alma details Rosa stalking her Italian fiancé. He had come to Vienna but hadn’t let her know. She ran into him on Graben and followed him into the cathedral, where she fainted. When she came around, he told her he’d thought she was in Budapest. Alma then describes two occasions watching the pair at the opera. The second time she sees them sitting together in a porch during an intermission. ‘He: sulky and silent. She: like a sleepwalker, excited, with glazed eyes. She must be crazy… He has my sympathy now… He cannot save himself from her, from her love, from her jealousy.’ Er kann sich ja nicht retten vor ihr, vor ihrer Liebe, vor ihrer Eifersucht.
Turning back south towards the Ring, I emerged at the back of the Opera House. In doing so I passed the junction of Führichgasse and Tegetthofstrasse. On 15 November 1961 Austrian television broadcast the hour-long dramatic monologue Der Herr Karl. It was set in the basement store room of a Viennese delicatessen. Therein a middle-aged character called Karl talked to an unseen younger colleague while intermittently replying to the voice of his female boss upstairs and helping himself to samples of the stock. The public response to the play about a Nazi Mitläufer (fellow traveller) was uproar but the hour had made the performer – Helmut Qualtinger – immortal.
Der Herr Karl was no invention from scratch. Another actor, Nikolaus Haenel, had worked in such a deli and with such a character just after the war. The establishment stood on the corner of Führichgasse and Tegetthofstrasse and the chap was called Max, though Haenel forgot his surname. Nevertheless he later drew a picture of a bespectacled and rather thin-faced figure, aged about fifty, with a moustache a little wider than Hitler’s. While going through the motions at work, stocking shelves and mopping the floor, this Man of the Crowd had told Haenel his life story.
Years later, Haenel became aware that Qualtinger was in search of a character with a Nazi past so he approached him with the idea of Max. Though Qualtinger was still in his early thirties and much heavier than the original, he was intrigued and the pair met in a restaurant over three or four days, wherein Haenel told him all he remembered and Qualtinger took copious notes, which he later turned into a script with his writing partner, Carl Merz.
One of my favourite images from the city’s history is of Qualtinger and Falco having a laugh at a bar counter. The Viennese humour known as Wiener Schmäh has been linked by Georg Markus to Vienna’s ethnic mix. He defines it as including melancholy, sarcasm and a little malice. It’s more than ten years now since my first night in Vienna, when I got talking to two Austrian chaps in a bar. They asked if I spoke any German. It was rusty then. I know the words of Rock Me Amadeus. They said Falco was a hero, in death. He’d undergone a posthumous resurgence in popularity at home, as the things he’d said had come to make more sense. The autumn day I found Falco’s grave in the sunshine and falling leaves of the huge Zentralfriedhof, the main cemetery, it was peppered by the smell of sewage wafting up from the shores on the lanes.
Despite Claudio Magris’ Danube being largely pretentious verbiage, he couldn’t ruin everything with his waffle. Some of the material is just too strong. The funniest part of his book is set in the early hours in the Zentralfriedhof, in the company of one Herr Baumgartner and his shotgun. The weapon is used, for example, on the hares that have a “passion” for tearing up and eating the pansies left by mourners. It is not quite a free-fire zone, though, as Herr Baumgartner has to answer for any graves or offerings damaged or shattered or bloodied or peppered by stray buckshot in the dark.
In one sense immortal after the dramatic monologue Der Herr Karl (1961), Helmut Qualtinger died in 1986 soon after giving a memorable film performance as the heretical monk Remigio da Varagine in The Name of the Rose. Apart from his career as writer, actor and cabaret singer, he was also a genius mimic and hoaxer, sometimes at a serious personal cost, at least before he developed his art of mischief.
One thing he craved professionally as an adult was to be taken seriously as a writer. His case echoes in part the jailing of Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton in 1962 for their campaign of altering London library books with funny collages and false blurbs. Reports on their trial included a banner headline in the Daily Mirror (“Gorilla in the Roses” referred to a monkey’s head pasted to the cover of the Collins Guide to Roses) and news of it even made it as far as the pages of the Reader’s Digest. As Orton’s biographer John Lahr wrote
Rejected by the literary world, they made a spectacle of published books and the public that evaded them. They turned the library into a little theatre where they watched people reacting to their productions. It was one way of getting into print and making their statement.
Qualtinger’s desire to turn the world into his playground began much sooner. Quasi, as he was later known, was a lonely child but he got a puppet theatre as a present and entertained other kids with it while on holiday in Styria. There he’d perform fairy tales but, like the anarchist he already was, he omitted the moral lessons at his own whim. Back in Vienna, some envious classmates ambushed him on the street, smashed the lot and broke his hand in the struggle, having earlier warned him not to bring it to school anymore.
Not yet seventeen, he made his first real public appearance in Vienna in May 1945. He wore a large red star pinned to his chest and a red armband with Cyrillic letters sewn onto it. This was part of an attempt to pass himself off as a ‘culture kommissar’ while improvising Russian-sounding gibberish and carrying a poorly forged letter of recommendation. He was still only sixteen, after all, and was soon imprisoned for three months for commandeering a villa in the suburb of Währing as a base for his proposed communist theatre. By the time his mother returned to Vienna and got him out, his weight had dropped to seven and a half stone.
Nonetheless he wasn’t finished pretending to be a Russian. When a friend couldn’t get paid by a newspaper editor, Quasi ‘borrowed’ a Russian officer’s uniform and marched boldly through the American sector of Vienna towards his quarry. Improvising more Russian mutterings, he confronted the editor in his office. The guy quickly grasped the mentions of Siberia before paying up on the spot.
In 1951 Qualtinger pilfered some stationery from the Austrian branch of the international writers’ association PEN. On it, he notified the press and radio about the imminent arrival in Vienna of the famous Eskimo author Kobuk, whose Greenland trilogy Nordlicht über Iviktut was being filmed by MGM as Of Ice and Men.
On the rest of Kobuk’s impressive CV, it is something of a pity that the masterpiece sometimes rendered as The Burning Igloo was actually two separate classics. These were Brennende Arktis (‘Burning Arctic’) and Einsames Iglu (‘Lonesome Igloo’) but how nobody in Vienna copped on to the incongruity of the title of Kobuk’s drama, The Republic of the Penguins, remains a mystery.
At any rate, a crowd of reporters gathered on 3 July 1951 at Vienna’s Westbahnhof. Instead of the great Kobuk, it was Quasi himself, concealed by a fur jacket, a fur cap and sunglasses, who got off the train. Asked for his first impression of Vienna, he broke the spell by answering the throng in Viennese dialect. “Haaß is’!” (‘It’s hot!’).
Perhaps his most god-like prank played out over thirty years later in America. Quasi, still in Vienna, phoned the celebrated Austrian psychiatrist Friedrich Hacker, who spent most of his time in California. Pretending to be Ronald Reagan’s private secretary, Helene von Damm, who was also Austrian, he told Hacker that the President had suddenly gone mad and needed his help. Hacker got on the next plane to Washington and reported to a mystified Frau von Damm at the White House.
Our last anarchic moment does not really involve Quasi at all, except that he got on the phone to God about it afterwards, in total admiration. It concerns the aftermath of an evening at the Gutruf bar, when his friend Otto Kobalek turned up at a performance of Waiting for Godot. In the theatre Kobalek suddenly appeared on stage, with a plastic bag in his hand. It held a copy of an old futuristic novel, set in that same year. The future had finally become the present.
Waving the contents of the bag, he addressed the astonished actors and audience. Godot ist da. Sie müssen nicht mehr warten (‘Godot is here. You mustn’t wait any longer.’) Then he vanished back into the wings. A tickled Qualtinger called Samuel Beckett himself in Paris with the news. Beckett turned out to be very happy to hear it and sent his warm regards, as he too had always been waiting for this to happen.