If you want an insight into Austrian humour (and let’s face it, who doesn’t?) then this is the perfect book. I mentioned to the Austrian friend who gave me the book that it would be a nightmare to translate into English, whereupon he noted that it would be a nightmare to translate it into German. And there lies the rub – this book deals with an outlook on life, politics and a world view that is specifically Austrian. As such, the novel is very, very funny and totally absurd; and it is this very Austrianism which may make the novel as mystifying to the average German, who in theory speaks the same language, as it may be to the average Brit.
The basic premise of the novel is that Austria is suffering from a prolonged drought – the great heat of the title. A top bureaucrat, Herr Legationsrat Dr Tuzzi, is given the task of resolving the drought by setting up negotiations with the local dwarves. An undertaking that seems to have sent the previous bureaucrat tasked with this assignment insane. In other words, it’s the everyday story of a government official who can only save his country from natural disaster by talking to mythological creatures. Yes, that old chestnut. Dr Tuzzi of course, like any right-minded man of the world, does not believe in dwarves but as a conscientious Austrian bureaucrat he feels obliged to continue with his assignment nonetheless. “I will continue to work on this crazy assignment. I do it because otherwise I would have to consider all my principles and my confidence in the legitimacy of my profession as done and dusted.”
The novel is in the great tradition of other Austrian writers – in fact two of the main characters are named after characters from other major Austrian works of literature. Tuzzi is a character in Robert Musil’s great opus Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man without Qualities) and Trotta from Josef Roth’s masterpiece on the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Ratetzkymarsch.
The author, Jörg Mauthe, was a political journalist and had a keen insight into the workings of the political machine in Austria. The inspiration for the chancellor figure in the book is no doubt Bruno Kreisky, one of Austria’s most able chancellors. In the novel, the Chancellor is in charge of a coalition government, rare in British politics, not so uncommon in Austria; and in effect the Chancellor is in charge of a coalition of Catholics and Socialists who despise each other.
It’s true that if you haven’t experienced the unique delights of living in Austria then you might not get some of the humour or simply fail to appreciate how real to life some of the apparent absurdities in the book is – the importance of titles for example.
Although Austria is a county where officially at least titles (at least those of royalty and nobility) are banned in the interest of a more equal society, social codifying is just as important and banal as anywhere else in Europe. In Austria official and educational titles are important. This is a country where though royal titles are banned, the title Hofrat (Counsellor to the Royal Court) still exists despite the monarchy and said court being non-existent for almost 100 years; where until recently you could still become a Dr. Dr. Dr. and put up a nice brass plaque outside the door to your building to let everyone know. This is also a country where wives with husbands who are Drs are referred to as Frau Doktor and receive the same respect from bureaucrats and shopkeepers as if the qualification is their own. I have a friend who puts Magister (Bachelor of Arts) in his email address. If you did that in Britain, you’d be considered a wanker. In Austria it’s perfectly acceptable. Tuzzi is not only a Legationsrat but a Legationsrat First Class. And this codifying seems to percolate down to all levels of society including those gatekeepers to power, the porters. Tuzzi is met by a porter with a silver band on the porter’s hat which, we are reliably informed by the narrator, indicates one of the upper levels of porters.
As a stylistic device, the book is divided not only into chapters but interchapters – chapters which contain background information to the actual story. The narrator, apparently torn between carrying on telling the story in a linear fashion and providing the necessary background information for the more inquiring reader, comes up with that most Austrian of solutions – a compromise. He gives the reader a choice – you can either read the interchapters or just skip them and carry on with the story. The importance however of history when telling anything specifically Austrian is underlined by the narrator who states “in everything Austrian the past’s share is at least just as great as the present. That is unavoidable.”
One of the interchapters deals with the various ways you greet someone in Austria and the vital importance of the wording you use when you meet someone to indicate the social standing of each speaker in relation to each other. This is most clearly a thorny issue when various bureaucrats from different departments and at different levels meet. To the outside eye, this might at first glance seem absurd. To any Austrian it’s probably just stating the obvious. As the narrator notes: “In Austria (and in particular its ministries) greetings and how you reply to greetings have developed over the years into a method, by whose most refined use two individuals meeting each other are able to establish the societal, economic, social and private position of one with regard to the other with utmost precision.” The narrator is only too aware that these subtleties may be lost on a non-Austrian and conversely be old hat to his countrymen so introduces this particular interchapter with the proviso that “Austrian readers can skip over this interchapter, as they will learn nothing new. Non-Austrians should face the challenge of reading it but with no hope of understanding it.”
Other stylistic conceits include the point towards the end of the novel when Trotta in conversation with Tuzzi mentions “at that moment, when the book that is currently being written about us, is being printed…” When questioned by Tuzzi about what he means by a book, Trotta replies “Oh, that’s just one of my quirks. Sometimes I imagine I’m not actually living but that I’m just a figure out of an unfinished book.”
Legationsrat Tuzzi is a bureaucrat par excellence. He is helped in no small part thanks to his upbringing by his diplomat uncle, who took on the role after Tuzzi’s widowed mother “stumbled” to her death while being interrogated at Gestapo Headquarters during the Anschluss. His mother had been brought there for questioning following her insistence on boxing the ears of any Nazi official who tried to interfere with her playing on the piano the former Austrian national anthem by Haydn.
As a child, his uncle had given Tuzzi invaluable advice about the essential requirements for being a diplomat. “Above all, when you, as I hope, want to be a good diplomat, you must never go into anything too deeply. Take things, my dear, as they are, and never try to understand them. Their causes are always too confusing, unclear and sometimes dangerous for those who are looking to understand them. The secret to being a true diplomat is that he refuses to try and really understand anything.”
At the start of the novel, Tuzzi is working for the Inter-Ministerial Committee for Special Matters. The Inter-Ministerial committee is in essence the epitome of Austrian bureaucracy: “Although it was never actually formalised, it has grown wonderfully and entirely organically to its current scale in the twilight zone between ministerial remits, into a Musilish temporary permanent institution, which in a certain sense doesn’t regard itself as existing – in that all its numerous officials, even after long service, are still employed by the various ministries who delegated them to the special committee.” It’s no coincidence that a writer such as Kafka grew up in the Austrian Empire and amid Austrian bureaucracy.
It is clear Tuzzi’s work is of vital importance, tasked as he is, with providing the written protocol of the meetings. This, as any bureaucrat would appreciate, entails not actually writing down what has been said but is more about providing an accurate translation, whereby all the human elements are expunged in order for it to be published for posterity.
At times the novel comes across as an Austrian take on Yes, Minister with Tuzzi, a very able equivalent of Sir Humphrey. Take Tuzzi’s official reporting of a conversation between the Chancellor and the Foreign Minister about how the latter’s meeting in Brussels went.
“The usual,” said the Foreign Minister, “the French don’t like the Germans and definitely don’t like the English. The English neither like the French nor the Germans. The Italians aren’t bothered about anything and don’t like the Germans nor anyone else.”
“And the Dutch and the Belgians?”
“Nothing to report apart from the fact they don’t like the Germans”.
“Um, um”, said the chancellor. “And the Germans?”
“Are unhappy, because they can’t figure out why nobody likes them.”
“Um, um”, said the chancellor. “And us?”
“God”, said the Foreign Minister, “of what interest are the French and English to us? We kind of like everyone and habeat with it all.”
“Even the Germans?” asked the chancellor.
“There are no problems in our current relations” said the Foreign Minister who really was a diplomat of high standing.
The translation by Tuzzi is a great example of a bureaucratic take on the conversation while still managing to be accurate. “The Foreign Minister gave a short, detailed report on the international situation with particular reference to the position of Austria within the European community”.
Things are however about to change for our hero, Tuzzi. The wily chancellor realises that the drought is having serious ramifications and “as a seasoned tactician saw the time had come to delegate responsibility or find someone to blame.” Therefore after 32 months he finally asks the most pertinent of questions which is: who is actually responsible for water?
Examples of throw away Austrian humour permeate the book. Tuzzi for example doesn’t like his colleague Brauneis. He’s not sure why exactly but meditates that one of the reasons could be “his almost unnatural keenness for such a low-level official”. Brauneis later disappears. An attempt to report his disappearance to the appropriate ministry that he’s on secondment from fails. Primarily due to the fact that no one can discover which ministry it is which seconded him in the first place.
The narrator has a keen eye for his countrymen’s traits. “Humans have an exceptional ability to adapt, above all, when they are Austrians and as such possess a particularly high survival potential thanks to their glorious and miserable history.” The narrator believes his countrymen place no value on what they do; they lose winnable battles out of tact while regularly win hopeless ones; they have irresistible charm, have a love of administrating and thanks to a combination of these qualities can enjoy great success abroad much to the amazement of their fellow countrymen. Tuzzi is not only the archetypical Austrian bureaucrat but the archetypical Austrian in that when he needs to have a good think about something and doesn’t want to be disturbed by the phone ringing (the book was written before mobile phones), he doesn’t stay in his office but goes to a café instead aided by a Brauner (a not so milky coffee). This trait has enabled Austrians to turn coffee culture into an art form in complete contrast to the coffee chains which now plague our high streets.
The narrator also notes that Austrians have a certain ease, are lazy and thick-skinned. He freely admits cynicism may appear more often than not among his compatriots but concludes this is because Austrians have actually learnt something from their history. He feels that neither the present nor the future hold little interest to an Austrian rather it is their history which beguiles them. He believes Austrians are above all fascinated by a past that in reality never existed and which is in fact only “a myth, a legend of gaiety and dignity, where human and the divine were indistinguishable from each other”. Despite the fact that this past never existed, the narrator feels Austrians want to see this past restored. Or rather, they don’t really want it but according to the narrator it’s what drives them on. After all, as the narrator states, every historian knows that Austria is the legitimate heir to Ancient Greece. The latter statement is of course nonsense and brings us to another major trait of any decently educated Austrian – the tendency to propound theories they know from the outset to be absurd.
In my experience Austrians have a keen eye for the absurd in life. This is due in no small part to Austria’s history which saw the Austrian-Hungarian Empire rule vast swathes of Europe under one emperor but in theory with two monarchies and two governments and around a dozen official languages. This meant the small German-speaking minority was at the heart of an empire that at various times ranged from the Low Countries to Galicia in the East to parts of Italy in the South. That something so unworkable lasted as long as it did was no mean feat and a testament to Austrians’ healthy distaste for logic and their ability to carry on regardless.
A throw away remark, made by the Cardinal during his conversation with Tuzzi, highlights the absurdities that such a system threw up and the ability of Austrians to adapt and work their way round that system. An ability which most Austrians don’t seem to have lost. The Cardinal mentions that Tuzzi’s uncle was a Freemason who, along with his masonic brothers, had to go to Masonic Lodges in Preßburg (now Bratislava) rather than Vienna before 1918. This was because Freemasonry was banned in the Austrian part of the Empire i.e. Vienna, but it was legal just a short journey away in the Hungarian part of the Empire. Thus, like many of his peers, Tuzzi’s uncle would simply make the short trip to Preßburg and thereby legally pursue an activity which was illegal a mere 20 miles away in another part of the Empire.
Therefore it’s no surprise that Austrians seem to take a delight in the absurdities of life, for example, when describing a meeting taking place in what is termed the “small boardroom” the narrator notes that it’s called that despite the fact a bigger one doesn’t exist. Or when it comes to describing an acquaintance who has wanted to be a TV director for 15 years, the narrator is convinced he will never attain his goal. As the narrator reliably informs us, “In Vienna you can have any career except for the one you really want.”
When Trotta and Tuzzi discuss – in apparent seriousness – the nonsensical idea of dividing Europe into mini multi-national states, the old Austrian Empire of course being the original model for this, Tuzzi asks what will happen to Salzburg. Trotta replies dryly that it will remain a German enclave (which many Austrians already regard it as being) and as for Vienna, it would remain just as it is as none of these multi-national states could govern in their own countries and would have to have their government seat in Vienna, just as in the good old days.
A major absurdity in the novel (aside from aiming to save your country from natural disaster by talking to mythological creatures of course) is the brief the Inter-Ministerial Committee for Special Matters have been given by the Foreign Minister of reporting back on a quote by the Pope where he stated “Austria is an island of happy people”. The Foreign Minister is hoping that this statement can be used as a basis for a state doctrine; the Minister having concluded that though they have a number of state doctrines in Austria already, most of them cannot be formulated properly or even be put into words. As a result, numerous committee meetings follow to discuss this – to the untrained eye seemingly innocuous – statement. As Ministerialrat Haberditzl informs Tuzzi, although they can probably come up with a definition for happy, they are at a complete loss as to how to define Austria. Thus several meetings are held as to what exactly Austria is and whether you can refer to it as an island given that it is a land-locked country in the middle of Europe. The issue throws up a surprisingly number of questions for a country linguistically connected to its bigger neighbour to the North, Germany, but which has close familial ties to other parts of Europe. For proof of this, you only have to look at the names of some of the committee members such as Dr. Benkö or even Tuzzi or in the old days, when telephone directories still existed, an old Austrian telephone directory. Its pages would be lined with numerous Polish, Czech, Slovak and Hungarian surnames. But even saying Austria is linguistically similar to Germany throws up issues for various committee members. SekR Tuppy refutes any similarity when it comes to the spoken language (if you’ve ever been to Vorarlberg you may willingly concede his point).
In fact Tuzzi admits that one of the reasons he has a penchant for Ulrike, a German, is because of her use of the imperfect tense when she speaks. (A noticeable trait of speakers from Germany but something Austrians don’t tend to do and to the Austrian ear it does sound hysterical). I guffawed out loud when I read that but unless you speak Austrian German, you’ll probably just find it an odd reason to like someone rather than realise it’s supposed to be humorous.
Then of course there is that most Austrian of words the Schmäh. Schmäh is difficult to translate exactly. It’s used to describe numerous rhetorical devices but in its most basic form, it is wit, whereby the speaker does not take life, the world or himself too seriously.
The Austrians have a great love of words, the turn of phrase, the register, the phrasing and most of my Austrian friends are more than adept at using the German language in a way which is very comical, amusing and most entertaining. Then there is their “cryptic logic” as referenced when the young woman Tuzzi meets en route to Mariazell says to him: “Jesus, you look lovely”, a phrase only used by Austrians, the narrator explains, when the person being so addressed looks as if they are at death’s door. The intricacy of language and its mastery is vital to any self-respecting Austrian. As the narrator notes: “Every Austrian, but in particular every Viennese can speak at least three dialects, namely that of his own class as well as the next class up and down, moreover for the most part a sort of Austrian vernacular to be used in a neutral context.”
The Viennese are famed for their charm – particularly among the Viennese – but it’s primarily thanks to this wit and the accompanying intellectual rigour which lies at the heart of it. I’ve seen at first hand Austrians discussing something which is clearly a Schmäh and their German counterpart not having the faintest idea what is going on and taking everything that is being said as gospel. It is exactly in this situation that Tuzzi meets the German Ulrike in a Heurige (a bar where new wine is drunk). Ulrike is among a group of Austrians, not really understanding the word games that are going on around her. As in true German fashion “Ulrike, coming from an area where by far and away it was more customary to take seriously what was being said seriously.”
Like many an Austrian, Tuzzi is charming and Ulrike is totally sucked in by his charm. And talking from experience, it can be most effective, particularly on non-Austrians. I think partly because you can’t believe the guy has the balls to say what he’s saying and still keep a straight face. In a weird way, you kind of admire it. If anyone was to try the same modus operandi in English however, you’d probably refuse to have anything to do with them.
Tuzzi declares however that it’s not language which separates the Austrians from the Germans and vice versa but their attitude to reality. He feels if you were to ask a German how many sides a coin has, a German would answer two. An Austrian would however answer numerous sides taking into account it’s historical, chemical, aesthetic and geometric side etc., etc.
Another theme of the book is the narrator’s belief in the Austrisization of the world, hence the image of the double headed eagle towards the end of the story, the symbol of Austria and the Austrian empire. The chapter that deals with this theory is a great example of a Schmäh – a seemingly serious thesis but one that is clearly nonsensical but put forward most articulately and with great wit. In expounding on his theory, the narrator concedes it may take centuries before the Austrisization of the world is complete but notes that in things Austrian time of course plays no big role. This apparent Austrisization is characterised, according to the narrator at least, by outright vagueness and aimlessness. We are reliably assured by the narrator that this Austrisization starts with the realisation that everything is of equal importance or in other words is equally unimportant.
One of the narrator’s main proofs for the Austrisization of the world lies in the gradual growth in the practice of walking away from confrontation by bringing up a myriad of seemingly unsolvable problems in its place, a once unique technique perfected by Austrian bureaucrats since the time of Emperor Maximillian II during the religious wars of the late 16th century. Emperor Maximillian II’s predominately Czech civil servants would use misunderstandings and translation difficulties to stifle any on-going conflicts. This technique enabled Austrian bureaucrats over the years to dissipate major problems into small difficulties whereby any conflict would be swallowed up by bureaucratic procedures, queries and drawn out policy briefs. A technique, notes the narrator, also used by Austrians when dealing with their northern and western neighbours.
As a true Austrian bureaucrat, Tuzzi continues with the task at hand: “Out of a pure sense of duty I set out to find someone to negotiate with in whose existence I didn’t believe.” It is no surprise then that when he finally enters the dwarves’ underground world, kilometres below the Ötscher Mountain, he is encouraged by the fact that his mode of transport is grander than others that he sees. He reassuringly concludes from this that it too is a codified world and that there must be civil servants here too. And as he wanders through the honeycomb labyrinth of this underground world, where old dwarves look intensely occupied with unrecognisable objects, others whisper with each other or stare intently into the distance, Tuzzi realises he is coming closer and closer to the heart of a considerable bureaucracy which in turn reminds him of the labyrinthine corridors of the Federal Chancellery or the government buildings on the Stubenring in Vienna.
However rather unsettlingly for Tuzzi, his dwarf guide assures him that they don’t have civil servants in their world. As a true Austrian, Tuzzi assures him in return that he must be mistaken as you always need civil servants wherever several creatures of the same species are living together in order for a community to survive. How, he asks, can their civilisation exist without people whose job it is to plan, to order, to delegate, to check and to confirm decisions? As far as Tuzzi is concerned, the civil service is a law of nature. It turns out that the chief dwarf is Tuzzi’s subordinate from the Inter-Ministerial Committee for Special Matters, Brauneis or Braons as he’s known among his fellow dwarves. This of course explains the keenness and efficiency of his former subordinate. He wasn’t actually Austrian.
The novel is a great read and for any Austrians abroad or non-Austrians who have ever enjoyed spending time over there, it’s a warm reminder of the humour and banter you no doubt experienced living there. Some of the most fun evenings of my youth were spent talking nonsense with my friends in the Café Hummel in the Josefstadt or in various Beisls (bars) round the corner. Admittedly not very rock and roll but much better for my German. In fact my German evolved into a mix of Viennese and Upper Austrian which meant I even sounded weird to Austrians. Quite an achievement. I recall during the opening of an underwear shop on the Josefstadtstraße an Austrian even thought I was from the Vorarlberg and/or Tyrol and was just trying – and failing miserably – to speak proper German. To many native German-speakers that would be considered an insult, as a Brit, I took it as a compliment. In fact, when I returned back to the UK, my Austrian accent was so thick the German language assistant almost fell off her chair laughing when she heard my accent for the first time. The thick accent has long gone, though the Austrian intonation is still there as is my love for the Austrian wit, culture and humour that this book so wonderfully evokes.