Geoffrey C. Howes translating Lilian Faschinger

(Stadt der Verlierer. Hanser, Munich, 2007)

Part I, Chapter 2

It was around eleven a.m., early June, the sun was burning in a pale-gray sky, and the heat laid a veil of haze over everything so that the hills in the north of Vienna were discernible only as indistinct contours. Dr. Emma Novak was wearing an ultramarine-blue, short-sleeved linen suit with a white batiste handkerchief inserted in its breast pocket. Under that was a light-blue silk top, around her neck was a chain of irregular Japanese cultivated pearls that shimmered pink, and on her feet were black sandals with four rows of thin straps and narrow, moderately high heels. She was trim, well groomed, and discreetly made up, in short, just the way a well-dressed private detective should look.
​       Emma parked her savannah-beige Beetle in the Burggasse and walked toward the Neustiftgasse, where her office was located. The cell phone rang in her purse.
​       “What were you thinking,” said her mother without further preliminaries, “inciting your son against me and my work as a reincarnation therapist?”
​       Emma held the cell phone a little farther away from her ear. She had a hard time dealing with her mother’s voice. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Mom. Why would I incite my son against the grandmother he loves?”
​       An older woman whose fat arms hung over the sill of a mezzanine window in the Kirchengasse nodded approvingly at Emma’s words.
​       “That’s right, why?” she said. “The institution of the family is on its last legs anyway. And I know what it means when blood relatives fight each other to the finish.”
​       Emma slowed her pace and turned her head toward the woman.
​       “That’s right, go ahead and look,” said the woman. “I’ve been fighting my brother in court for fifteen years for the inheritance I rightfully have coming to me, an allotment garden in Floridsdorf. You can’t imagine how—”
​       Emma really couldn’t have imagined it, since she was already out of earshot of the woman and was also trying to concentrate on what her mother thought she had to tell her.
​       “Sometimes I wonder whether you are up to the responsibility of parenting,” said her mother. “Have you no compassion for your son, who is displaying every sign of serious aquaphobia?”
​       “Oh come on, Philipp just doesn’t want to wash, that’s normal for adolescents. He doesn’t have any aquaphobia.”
​       A young man in a yellow T-shirt that said Angels Dance Upward, who was pushing a classic rusty old black bike and coming toward her on the sidewalk, stood still.
​       “What’s aquaphobia?” he asked with interest.
​       “A pathological fear of water,” answered Emma, moving past him.
​       “Don’t make fun of me,” said Emma’s mother, “you know I know what it is.”
​       “Aha,” said the young man, “thanks.”
​       “Cautiously regressing your son to one or two of his past lives would definitely reveal the causes of the illness,” said Emma’s mother. “I don’t understand your dismissive attitude. Philipp is an outgoing young man with a positive outlook, and he would not only get through a marginal experience like that without a problem, he would even enjoy it, I’m sure of that. Afterward he’d be a new person.”
​       Since Emma had a hard time ending telephone conversations with her mother, she decided on a white lie.
​       “I have to go. The exhibitionist I have under surveillance just came out the door.”
​       An older lady, who was pulling behind her a little shopping cart made of a checkered material, caught up with Emma.
​       “I don’t want to be nosy,” she whispered into her free ear, “but which door are you talking about? You know, I’ve never seen an exhibitionist.”
​       Emma pointed to a young woman who had come out of the front door across the street.
​       “That’s him.”
​       The older lady clutched her chest in shock.
​       “Of all things,” she said before she crossed the street with her checkered cart in the direction of the young woman, “then this person is also a transvestite! There’s no limit to perversions these days.”
​       “Are you still there, child?” asked Emma’s mother.
​       “Yes,” said Emma.
​       “Exhibitionist,” her mother sighed, “that’s so awful! What kind of company have you gotten into? I am distraught by your change of career. It’s a mystery to me how somebody can give up a position as an adjunct lecturer at the University of Vienna to become a detective. A dubious business.”
​       “Mama, I have to get going with this surveillance. I’ll call you tonight,” said Emma, and switched off her cell phone.
​       Oh my, her mother. Shortly after she retired as a civil servant in the Vienna city government, Department 51, area of jurisdiction athletic affairs, a dream had directed her to her true purpose, which had nothing to do with sports. The Indian elephant god Ganesha had appeared to her and had communicated to her that her true area of jurisdiction was leading humankind to more love and light. She had taken this task seriously and surfed the Internet until she had hit upon a suitable educational opportunity, offered by an esoteric therapist from Bavaria, who was guaranteed to have had several conversations with the Dalai Lama and whose photograph immediately awoke in her a feeling of karmic connection. Since basic astrological knowledge, which her mother possessed in sufficient measure, was the sole requirement for successfully completing the course and the consequent certification to practice reincarnation therapy, she decided in spite of the considerable expense to travel three times, for a week each time, to Berchtesgaden, to the mountain inn “Watzmannblick.” There she acquired relevant knowledge about rebirthing, various trance techniques, white and black magic, alchemical soul processes, providing services as a medium, and a variety of other things. All this was under the direction of the Bavarian therapist and his highly evolved — at least in the ethereal sense — assistants Saskia, Désirée, and Thorsten. The investment paid off: her mother’s confidence-inspiring morphic field had meanwhile produced a solid customer base, so that she was now performing at least two regressions a day in the villa in Pötzleinsdorf, and was earning roughly four times as much as she had earned while a city employee.
​       Emma went into a small storefront in the Neustiftgasse with an attractive wood entrance, above which a sign was attached with the inscription Hammerl & Stylists. Mick Hammerl, her assistant, sat at his computer and stared at the screen with red, watery eyes.
​       “It’s high time we got rid of that sign,” said Emma.
​       “Just take it easy, we’ve hardly even gone into business yet. Good morning, by the way. And thanks for your compassion.”
​       “Good morning. What kind of pollen is in the air today?”
​       “Spruce, fir, juniper, Scotch pine, and grasses. Among other things.”
​       “May I inquire how you’ve already had contact with them this morning, in the seventh district of Vienna, one of the Viennese districts with the least amount of green space and without any appreciable Alpine tree growth?”
​       “Unlike you, I’ve already been working,” said Mick, blowing his nose in a tissue. “I was tailing the guy who’s always on sick leave. Slipped disk. His boss suspects him of being fit as a fiddle and working for another company. He’s assuming that his technician is out to get fired so he can get severance pay.”
​       “And?”
​       “The guy turned onto Böcklinstrasse and parked his car there. Right by the Jesuit Meadow, which is full of grasses.”
​       “And?”
​       “I got out of the car and followed him.”
​       “And?”
​       “Zippo, nada. He was going to his family doctor.”
​       “Well then, we’ll just have to keep surveilling him. Anything else?”
​       “Not a thing. It’s discouraging. Oh, yeah, there was something—that woman who called yesterday. She made an appointment for eleven o’clock. Frau Mautner.”
​       Emma looked at her watch.
​       “It’s quarter after eleven,” she said.
​       “That’s discouraging. I’m sure she’s not coming. But now that you’re here, can I just run home and take my antihistamine?”
​       Emma nodded, and he got up and left the office by the back door to go upstairs to his apartment. Her assistant wasn’t far from home. He lived right over the hairdresser’s salon he had formerly owned, and which had been a private detective agency for three weeks now. A girlfriend had recommended the salon to her two years ago, and she had been a faithful customer of Mick’s, even though his skill extended only to one short hairstyle and one style for longer hair, neither of which looked particularly good on her. Emma sighed and once again regretted her dependence, as excessive as it was inborn, on people, places, and things. Iris, Mick’s sole employee, a pretty blonde from Bregenz who was always in a good mood, had not been so faithful and had quit when a coiffeur in the city center had offered her a higher salary. Mick continued alone, full of confidence that he would soon find a new hairdresser, but business got worse and worse, since most of the other customers didn’t like the two styles either and, less loyal than Emma, they switched by and by to the new salon that had opened a boutique across the street. Thus dwindled Mick’s hope of hiring another coworker, and then his hope of being able to keep his salon going much longer gradually dwindled too.
​       “I don’t get it,” he said to Emma in his empty shop, brushing the brunette hair clippings from the dark gray cape and then holding a hand mirror so she could see herself from the back. “It’s disappointing. You know, the ladies even complained about me sneezing. As if I could do anything about my pollen allergy.”
​       He indicated the open glass door across the street, from which soothing New Age sounds were coming. The inside was crowded with customers.
​       “I just don’t get it. His prices are horrendous. A make-up artist and hair stylist, that’s what he calls himself. Face artist. Body painting. He has a website. Trained in Los Angeles and Barcelona.”
​       “Yep, that’s how you do it these days.”
​       Emma examined the back of her head.
​       “Mick, the hair on the left side is longer than on the right. That doesn’t look good.”
​       “Nonsense. It’s your shoulders, they aren’t the same height. – And just listen to that music!”
​       The tall, thin, bald-headed hair stylist, who was wearing a black sleeveless t-shirt, a wine-red sarong and long, glittering earrings, and wielding a blow dryer, looked over through the store window and winked at them.
​       Afterward they were drinking a glass of Grüner Veltliner in the little sidewalk garden in front the Café Nepomuk, gazing at the towers of St. Ulrich’s church.
​       “I love that church,” said Emma.
​       “You’ve never told me what you do professionally.”
​       “I’m unemployed.”
​       And so she was. She’d been an adjunct lecturer in the Department of Ancient Studies at the University of Vienna, and for years, she’d taught the lecture courses “Alexander the Great: A Typical Macho?” as well as “The Administration of the Kingdom of Urartu from a Feminist Perspective.” But much to her surprise her contract hadn’t been renewed. In response to her inquiry, she was informed that the number of students enrolling had dropped so much in the past two semesters that continuing the course could not be justified, for reasons of academic respectability. After her last lecture, Frau Univ. Prof. Dr. Sonja Traugott-Swoboda hosted a little drink in her office. Besides her and Emma, it was attended by Herr Dozent Dr. Möstl, a specialist for Greek papyri, Dr. Georgios Tsatsos, newly arrived from Thessaloniki to regale the students with a discussion course on Thucydides, Herr Gfrerer, the alcoholic librarian, and Fräulein Freisinger, the secretary given to emotional outbursts. The party lasted twenty minutes.
​       “I hope you’ll stop by from time to time for a coffee,” said Fräulein Freisinger with a trembling lower lip, before Emma closed the department door behind her. “I’m going to miss you a lot.”
​       Then she jumped up, hugged Emma, and started to cry vigorously.
​       Fräulein Freisinger was the only one who would miss her. It was the end of an era. Emma had finished her doctoral dissertation, on prophetesses in ancient Byzantium, relatively late and could hardly keep her head above water with the money she earned from those two lectures and private tutoring in ancient Greek. So she decided to start a relationship with one of her language pupils, an overstrung but not unattractive bachelor of independent means and with aesthetic interests, who came from a Viennese family that had owned an insignia factory in the Leopoldstadt district for a hundred and fifty years. She gave him a double lesson every Wednesday in the café of the Hotel Imperial, and in return for her attentions, she now and then demanded a small financial compensation, which the aesthete did not deny her. Her parents were proud of her academic distinction and her position at the university. Hence, for a long time, Emma did not have the heart to admit to them that she was no longer engaged in this occupation.
​       “It’s looking pretty much like I won’t have a job much longer either,” Mick remarked. “What does a person do with their time when they’re unemployed?”
​       “I read mystery novels, watch cop shows on TV, and rent DVDs of movie mysteries. Besides that, I have a son.”
​       “Really? Well, as far as I’m concerned, I love Simenon. That’s a little old-fashioned for a twenty-eight-year-old, I know.”
​       “Do you know Ian Rankin’s books? I think he’s great.”
​       In the sidewalk garden of the Café Nepomuk, they had chatted for two hours about mystery stories and mystery writers, and then Emma told Mick that out of pure interest she had recently completed her second detective course at the Austrian Economic Development Institute.
​       “All I’d have to do now is take the qualifying exam and I could open my own detective agency.”
​       Mick blinked toward the sky.
​       “Yeah, that church is wonderful,” he said, “but the plaster’s coming off on the righthand tower — do you see that?”
​       He was silent for a while, then he came out with an unexpected suggestion.
​       “Why don’t we start a little private detective agency, what do you think?”

Emma Novak switched on her computer and looked through the want ads in the Kurier online. She had put an ad in the classified sections of the Krone and the Kurier, and Emma located her ad right away among a mass of advertisements from hostesses, clairvoyants, and shady loan agencies. In the week after the ad first appeared, several people had called. Of these, three inquiries could be taken seriously: one from the boss who suspected his employee who had taken medical leave was healthy as a horse; one from a bank that was concerned about ascertaining the whereabouts of a debtor; and one from a woman who was looking for her son. One of the others had been a crazy man, and two more couldn’t even come close to affording the fee they were charging.
​       Mick came back in through the front door, startling Emma. He was nibbling on a rice cake and had the rest of the package in his other hand. His eyes and nose had taken on their normal coloring again.
​       “Much better,” he said contentedly. “An outstanding drug. Stabilizes the mast cells and blocks the histamine receptors, among other things.”
​       He sat down on one of the high revolving chairs of metal and black plastic, and smiled at his reflection in one of the two huge mirrors that took up almost the entire wall. Emma had suggested removing the mirrors, but Mick had been against it, arguing that it had been an expensive custom job.
​       “What do we need mirrors like that for, in a detective agency?” Emma had asked. “They’re only a distraction. I bothers me to see myself every time I look up.”
​       “It doesn’t bother me,” Mick had answered. “They’re staying. Those mirrors were the highlight of my business! It wasn’t easy to transport them here and mount them on the wall.”
​       Emma had acquiesced.
​       “One pack of these whole-grain rice cakes has three hundred eighty-five calories,” said Mick. “There are thirteen cakes to a package. That makes —”
​       He quickly typed something into the computer and then turned toward Emma with his chair.
​       “That makes twenty-nine point six one five four calories per rice cake. In other words, almost thirty. Not quite. Regardless of whether the rice cakes contain sea salt or not. Does that make sense to you? You’d almost think that if it contains sea salt, it’d have more calories.”
​       He gave Emma a questioning look.
​       “But it doesn’t.”
​       Mick was trying to lose weight because his girlfriend Asli had threatened to leave him if he didn’t. Mick was short and plump.
​       A woman with a black bouffant hairdo and sixties-style sunglasses in a short, light-colored linen dress walked past the agency. She was wearing orange shoes with very high heels and had a slight limp. Mick spun around.
​       “Did you see her? Beehive hairdo. Like Brigitte Bardot. Fabulous.”
​       The woman came back, stood still, propped herself up with one hand on the pane of the display window, slipped off one shoe, shook it out, and put it back on. She noticed the sign over the doorway, took a slip of paper out of her purse, looked at it, and raised her head again. After she had studied the poster with the black-and-white portrait of Humphrey Bogart that was hanging in one of the two small display windows, she came up to the glass door, took off her sunglasses, squinted her eyes, and read what was printed there on a small white card, hardly bigger than a business card: Dr. Novak & Hammerl. Private Detective Agency. Hesitantly, she opened the door.
​       “Excuse me, but are you—”
​       “Yes, that’s us,” said Mick.
​       “I wasn’t sure, you know, the sign—”
​       “But we’re sure,” said Mick.
​       “There used to be a hair salon here,” said Emma.
​       “Oh, I see —”
​       The woman took a quick look around. The door to the next room was open and her eyes lit on two hair dryers standing by the wall.
​       “That’s an infrared lamp from Wella with a tubular stand,” Mick explained. “The Athos Speed fresh air hood on casters has two fan settings. I imported them from Zurich, excellent quality, it really paid off to get them.”
​       “But that doesn’t matter anymore,” said Emma.
​       The woman looked at herself in one of the mirrors and cautiously touched her tower of hair, which surprised Emma, because it looked like not even Hurricane Floyd could have any effect on it.
​       “My name is Mautner,” she said, extending her right hand to Emma. “I’m sorry that I’m late.”
​       Emma took the manicured hand. It was surprisingly firm. The fingernails were long, curved like claws, and were polished violet. On her ring finger, she wore a ring with a large, oval, beautifully polished, light-blue stone that looked, and might actually have been, genuine.
​       “That’s all right,” said Mick.
​       Frau Mautner ignored him.
​       “I want you to find my son,” she said to Emma.
​       “The initial consultation is free of charge,” said Mick. He took another rice cake, bit into it, and held out the package to the woman.
​       “Do you want one too?”

In the course of the next half hour, Greta Mautner told Emma a few things about herself and everything she knew about her son, and that wasn’t much. She had been employed in the hotel and restaurant industry her whole life, and owned a restaurant and a bar in the city center.
​       “I am extremely busy,” she said, “otherwise, I would look for my son myself.”
​       She had brought the child into the world at sixteen. The father was the same age. Mick, evidently concentrating totally on internet investigations into the whereabouts of the debtor, interrupted his work.
​       “Oh, first love!” he said wistfully.
​       Frau Mautner looked at him irritably and continued with her concise report.
​       Her parents, who ran an inn in a tourist town in Carinthia, first noticed their daughter’s pregnancy when she was in her sixth month and there was no longer any question of an abortion. They demanded that she put the child up for adoption.
​       “What?” Mick once again interjected. “You put up resistance, I hope?”
​       Again Greta Mautner turned angrily toward him before recounting that her parents had put her in a private clinic in Klagenfurt, where the birth took place without causing a stir. She had never laid eyes on her child.
​       “No? That’s terrible!” said Mick.
​       “Isn’t there some way you can get your assistant to keep quiet?” said Frau Mautner to Emma.
​       “I won’t say anything else,” said Mick. “I’m only human, after all.”
​       Her parents took up contact with Child Protective Services, who initiated adoption proceedings.
​       Emma looked at Greta Mautner. A hard-working businesswoman. Hard-boiled. No money problems. No illusions. Probably lived alone; at least she was not wearing a wedding ring. She had told her story briefly, without noticeable emotion.
​       “How old is your son now?” she asked.
​       “Twenty-nine. He was born on September 23, 1973.”
​       Emma took down the date.
​       “Do you know his name?”
​       “The adoptive parents’ name is Karner. According to Child Protective Services, he was christened Matthias.”
​       “Matthias Karner. Have you ever been in contact with him?”
​       “No.”
​       “Do you have a photograph of him?”
​       “No.”
​       “Not even a photo,” mumbled Mick.
​       “What do you know about his whereabouts?” Emma continued questioning.
​       “Five years ago, I spoke on the phone with his adoptive mother, who informed me that he left the Karner family years ago after experiencing differences with his adoptive father, and went to Vienna. His sister, that is, I mean the biological daughter of the adoptive parents, stayed in touch with him for a while longer, but then they heard nothing more from him.”
​       “Might we be able to contact the adoptive parents again?”
​       “No, by no means, the meeting didn’t go well. Besides, they don’t want to have anything to do with him anymore, that much was clear to me.”
​       “Or Child Protective Services?”
​       “There’s no point. Except for his name, his birth date, and the name of his adoptive parents they don’t know anything either. It was a long time ago. The people who were working in the adoption office at the time are no longer there. I checked into it.”
​       “Do you have any other kind of information about him? Anything that could get us started? An address? People who knew him? Did he work anywhere?”
​       “His sister met him two or three times in Vienna. That must be seven or eight years ago. At that time, he was living with a woman friend in the Brunnengasse.”
​       “Do you know the house number?”
​       “No.”
​       “That’s in the sixteenth district,” Mick interjected. “My girlfriend lives there too, on the Yppenplatz. Nice neighborhood. Firmly in Turkish hands.”
​       “Do you know the name of this woman?” asked Emma.
​       “No. She was an artist, a painter.”
​       “Is there anything else?”
​       Greta Mautner thought for a moment.
​       “No, that’s all I know.”
​       Emma leaned back in her chair.
​       “It’s not much to go on. Do you want us to try it anyway? Our fee is fifty euros an hour. Regardless of results. If there’s surveillance requiring a car, the travel costs are additional, one euro per kilometer.”
​       “Agreed,” said Frau Mautner.


“The first one who’s accepted our asking fee without batting an eye,” Mick said, after Greta Mautner had left.
​       “She’s got money. You can tell.”
​       Mick sighed.
​       “I can understand the woman. She’s probably been thinking of her son constantly for almost thirty years. That makes —”
​       He turned to the calculator on the computer for help.
​       “That makes ten thousand eight hundred and forty-two days, just imagine!
​       He typed some more.
​       “Plus seven leap days. For almost eleven thousand days, she has woken up every morning yearning for that child!”
​       “Bah, yearning! It’s sure to bring her nothing but pain and sorrow. She probably feels guilty.”
​       “But she can’t do anything about that! She was forced into it! By those heartless, money-grubbing, inhuman Carinthian restauranteurs.”
​       “Even so.”
​       “I’ll ask Asli about the artist. She knows a lot of people in that part of town.”
​       Asli was a designer who designed and tailored her creations in a loft on the Yppenplatz, for Mick as well, who enthusiastically wore her caftan-like shirts. On each piece of clothing she designed, Asli printed a word, a phrase, or an entire sentence. The swamp-colored shirt that Mick had on today said, in tree-frog-green letters: A ship will come. Emma was embarrassed by his get-up; she pictured a detective’s assistant dressed differently, but she would have found it inappropriate to impose a dress code on him.
​       “Can I leave a little early today?” asked Mick. “In half an hour? I’ve got to go to the Islamic Educational and Cultural Center. There’s an important program there. An Islamic-Christian roundtable discussion about exemplary living and living examples.”
​       Emma rolled her eyes.
​       “It’s alright with me. But don’t make it a habit.”
​       Mick felt attracted by Muslim culture and intended to convert to Islam. Asli was born in Vienna, but her parents were Turks. Officially she was a Muslim, but she did not practice her faith. The fact that Mick was fascinated by her religion annoyed her.
​       “What do you go to the mosque for? I never go. You’re a Christian! I think your interest goes too far.”
​       “You don’t understand. I need structure. My mother lived for years in the Otto Mühl commune in the Burgenland. I was born in Friedrichshof. She has no idea who my father is. On my birth certificate, my first name is Warhol, and my middle name is Jagger. Asli, my name is Warhol Jagger Hammerl. Calling myself Mick is a compromise. When she was pregnant, my mother constantly kept a portable Sony cassette recorder with a built-in speaker pressed to her belly, so that I would sense the vibrations of Velvet Underground and become a better person.”
​       Asli laughed.
​       “You laugh. But I am a child of sin. And when you convert to Islam all your past sins are forgiven.”
​       “Child of sin,” said Asli. “What a bunch of baloney.”

Geoffrey C. Howes

Geoffrey C. Howes has published widely on Austrian literature and translated a number of writers, mostly Austrian. His translated books are: Robert Musil, Three Women (2014); Jürg Laederach, The Whole of Life (2014); and Peter Rosei’s Metropolis Vienna (2009) and Ruthless and Other Writings (2003).

Lilian Faschinger

Lilian Faschinger is an Austrian novelist, poet, and literary translator from the English. Her novel Magdalena Sünderin (1995) was translated into 17 languages, including two English translations as Magdalena the Sinner, by Shaun Whiteside (1995) and Edna McGowan (1997). The novel Wiener Passion (1999) was translated as Vienna Passion (2000) by Anthea Bell.