Excerpt from the novel
Paralyzed, with a spinal fracture and internal injuries, he was lying in a tent of a field hospital. A pretty clumsy and callow orderly, whose round face featured a thin moustache, tried to pour lemonade down his throat – yes, a lemonade, probably the same way Sub lieutenant John Pollard nurtured Admiral Nelson after the battle with the French. Given the serious condition of the patient, the taste of sweetened water with a couple of drops of half-rotten lemon could barely reach captain Peter Meier, only touching his lips and dripping down his blood-soaked chin.
Why are heroes’ last wishes so trivial, so bloody typical in their shallow poignancy? It is almost as if at the very last moment those people were trying to connect with lost ideals through a seemingly marginal detail such as Admiral Nelson’s lemonade, to get somehow the final confirmation on what had just happened. They know it all too well – although the realization sinks in too late – that every goal they helped achieve and sealed with their blood has the exact same amount of glorious feeling of victory that it takes to squash the thick armour of a cockroach that stains the soles of their army boots with its grey-green insides. Deep down inside – somewhere in their gut, not their hearts – they feel that each goal they helped accomplish, strangely enough, managed to lose its purpose. The eyes of doctor Viktor Tausk started to tear up: in spite of it all, he admired people like Peter Meier.
A faint sound of artillery fire was coming from the outside. Still conscious, Peter asked the doctor, should he be the luckier of the two, to go to Pölah, a nice little place by Lake Fuschl in the Province of Styria and deliver to his fiancée an object of great value to her. Captain Peter Meier was practically cut in two with a knife-sized shrapnel between the second and third vertebra. In fact, the piece of metal stuck in his spine was longer, heavier and more massive than a regular blade of a bread-knife.
During examination of the torso, pronounced twitches in the knees. When pinched on the inside of his thigh, the patient’s leg stretched fully, accompanied by reflux urinary and bowel discharge. We regret – the end of doctor Tausk’s medical report said – that the circumstances did not allow investigating plantar reflux and clonus.
Among Peter’s possessions, the doctor had no trouble finding what he was supposed to take to Kristina Egger in Pölah. It was a smallish metal box without ornaments, which did not look like a jeweler box and, at first, it was not quite clear what it was for, only that it contained a dear keepsake. He could not resist: he opened the lid. There was a small plaque inside, with a pattern of tiny meanders, metal dashes and dots, no bigger than a headpin. What he saw was more precise than a watch mechanism, and yet, it most surely did not belong to any watch.
* * *
“Where did you come across that information?” Tvrtko asked, with an expression that carefully disguised his interest. Both of us were fascinated by Viktor Tausk’s life story and decided to investigate it, each in his and her own way. It started like this: I was on a train to Vienna, and as always, I had bought all the daily newspaper. Among the heads of politicians and columnists, a big, round face of a friend who had celebrated his 25th career anniversary beamed at me. If he weren’t a passionate explorer, he would be a scientist. While reading, I could not help but laugh out loud – he is like a love-struck youth – he leaves the spheres of boredom to university professors, but does not manage to hide his obsession. Tvrtko’s nature is passionate, he skilfully relates any issue to whichever current preoccupation he might have on his mind, and sometimes, he inadvertently slips the name of his new “love”. In this way, he puts his cards on the table for the journalists and the general public who have so often been seduced by scumbags from the infamous chapters of domestic history while forgetting its heroes. There are some interesting topics to write about, he muses, and there are people who remain unknown despite the fact that, supposedly, everyone knows about them.
“And little is it known what they have done for us,” he said.
Why are certain deserving and exceptional ghosts despised by the quiet stepmother, that is, the past, where their unconventional fate only awakens a flash of interest here and there in people such as Tvrtko and I? These sparks of desperate recognition get devoured by darkness in a blink of an eye – immediately after they delineate the zigzagging of a brilliant mind – as though even to recall such a mind only confirms its absence, because another name etched in vain on the black billboard in the sky has disappeared for good.
Perhaps Tvrtko could explain the reasons – given the time he spent in prison, on several occasions, when not only did he remain keen on various manifestations of life, but he also stretched his natural curiosity to its limits, while his social scrutiny became as sharp as a knife – and tell us what kind of material is used for the universal fixer-upper that, with time, exterminates all the great figures unsuitable to small social environments, those same great figures who lived in foreign cities where they were highly appreciated, but their traces have been lost in the metropolis of the “universal” spirit.
This happens because they always come from “somewhere”, and when they die, there is no one left to defend the qualities that established their greatness in the first place, the same qualities that were worthy of attention while they were alive, which made them the citizens of a world much broader than a herd of sheep from the idyllic plateau of the old country.
“On whose behalf did they act upon? Whose people are they anyway? Where did they come from? To whom does their work belong?” And finally – “Does anyone really need their work?” – these are the main topics covered in their eulogies.
“The mourning of foreigners is a scene with a mother missing; the bloody mother country,” I say.
“Of course, you know how he killed himself; you found out exactly how he killed himself?” Tvrtko asks.
I found it out all right, and now I keep imagining his suicide over and over again.
A bottle of homemade brandy in the middle of the table, cigarettes and bacon lying around. Viktor was writing to his youngest sister: “Thank you for reminding my palate of the old country.” Then, he sealed a couple of envelopes with a few beautifully written letters, which he wrote when certain restlessness, somewhat close to remorse, came over him. After that, he began listing his possessions. Inflation had rendered worthless almost everything he owned. Maybe not the books, he thought. They should definitely be included in the inventory of nonsense. How many boxes to pack and take? Twenty? Or less? The books are staying put. In boxes, if need be. For the future.
When he finished, he took his officer’s pistol from the bottom drawer, got up, opened the curtains and looked at the street. A brief lull after a raucous night, it will be dawn soon, shortly before waking up to a new day at work, but for now, the people of Vienna were asleep. The pigeons between the beams of a loft in the building across the street were also asleep. A boyish smile crossed his face for a fleeting instant before it was ironed out with numb indifference. The weather was very agreeable that early summer morning, around four o’clock, Thursday, July 3rd 1919. The street was wet: it had rained for a little while that night. He made a noose from the rope of the curtain, tied it around his neck, climbed the window, put the pistol to his temple and fired. The burden of Viktor’s brain scattered across the carpet, curtain and window, finally relieved of its mind frame, leaving behind material proof of his last, and possibly only free decision. The twitch of a half-blown head pulled down the weight of the rest of his body. In his suicide note to Doctor Freud, Doctor Tausk said that killing himself was “the healthiest thing” to do in his “wasted” life.
And it could have been a day like any other; just a hint more typical than a typical July 3rd in the life of Viktor Tausk, PhD! In the early afternoon, he went to the tailor’s to pick up a suit for a wedding, without even realizing how depressed he actually was, how he could not care less, as a matter of fact. He thought he had to be walking like an old horse, blindly trying to find his way back to the stable, and noticed that his quick-paced, businesslike steps were outside of his control. Goal-oriented, self-sufficient, smug, you could even say, Viktor’s legs were ploughing on, taking him to the tailor’s. Most unexpectedly, this created space for his tired soul to wander aimlessly, somewhere near or rising above the mechanic discipline of the body to the light-blue sky above the Austrian capital, where the wind whipped the tiny white clouds they call sheep, trying to chase them into a corner. Viktor missed his homeland, the whiff of a country that he could call his own in moments of weakness and scuppered sentimentality. Was it a mistake to come back to Vienna? No, there was no other choice: he had to come back. Was it a mistake to leave Kosa, after a mute fight in which he could not express his feelings? Kosa Lazarević knew better than anyone what he needed, what he wanted and what troubled him. He was speechless. She knew that when he left after rough sex, which was only a desperate disguise of exaggerated, seemingly passionate movements designed to hide the fact that he was fed up. He was not fed up with Kosa’s body; he was fed up with the city. He did not like Belgrade. In fact, he could not tell what he did or did not like anymore or when he stopped wanting something and began wanting something else. Does he want Hilde now? Did he leave Kosa Lazarević for Hilde Loewe? Or did he still love Kosa, if he had ever really loved her? Does anyone in 1919 have the moral right to ask himself or herself or anyone else: what is love, really? What is it nowadays? Tausk’s spiritual wanderings were abruptly anchored when he thought about ending a patient’s treatment, whose records he kept only under a first name and an initial, Natalija A. He thought she was the last in a long line of deranged patients, a thirty-year old of Latvian origin, former philosophy student, charming and totally deaf due to an illness she suffered as a child, serious problems with “ego boundaries.”