By Michal Hvorecký
Translated from Slovak by Eva Hudecová and Mark Lencho
‘Danube in America’ tells a non-linear story, with the events on a river cruise triggering reflections on the history, culture, and personal experiences of an intellectual coming of age in post-communist Eastern Europe. The novel’s protagonist, the Slovak literary translator Martin Roy, is unable to make a respectable living translating classic works of Italian literature. He supplements his income by working a cruise ship as tour coordinator for an American firm at the forefront of the global cruise ship industry. With his hands already full catering to a group of helpless and self-important American retirees who are working their way down the Danube River and across central Europe, Martin is surprised by an old love interest and childhood sweetheart, Mona Mannova, who steals herself on board in rather desperate shape, with nothing but a suitcase that seems empty and a desire to rekindle a relationship with her former friend. There is something both bold and shady about the new Mona. When Martin, in a fit of pique, throws her suitcase overboard, it springs open and a stash of money seems to flutter away and disappear into the Danube.
As the story develops, Martin’s tenuous control over the ship, jeopardized further by new distractions from Mona, is completely overthrown when one of the ship’s young service women is found dead with multiple stab wounds. Plot complications hinge on whether the crew should investigate or cover up the crime. Caught in the middle, Martin tries to maintain a semblance of order, but when the killer turns his attention to Mona, Martin launches a desperate attempt to save her, before becoming hunted in his own right. The devastation turns general when the cruise ship is set on fire and is threatened with sinking. Martin survives, but it remains unclear how Mona is implicated…
When Martin woke up three hours later, America had already passed the garishly picturesque villages of upper-Austria and the lock chambers of Aschach and Ottensheim. The landing maneuver at Linz (mile 1326) had just started. Still sleepy, he looked out of the window and saw a deckhand throw a rope above his head. The captain turned the electronic steering wheel one more time. The ship approached the dock, gently bumped against its metal side and was secured to a pontoon. The main motors were turned off, and only the auxiliary system, which ran the air conditioning, the electricity, and the water circulation, remained on.
The shapeless sky’s color was reminiscent of a piece of paper covered with a black layer of soot. The water surface reflected the multi-colored lights of Lentos, a gallery of modern art. The museum’s night time light show was impressive. Black ducks with their heads thrust under their wings sat on the water not too far away.
Martin didn’t sit by Mona at breakfast because he didn’t want to attract attention. The restaurant was busy with the cacophony of clinking dishes, the sound of espresso machines and conversations. Breakfast consisted of similar offerings as the day before, supplemented by the specialty of the day. The water kettle softly and melodically whistled and sighed. Ashley was going on interminably about her six granddaughters, who lived in six different places. He nodded whenever he could and quickly ate his cornflakes with milk.
“You don’t say! Really! Excellent!” he babbled. “What a story! You must have a wonderful family. Thank you for sharing your experiences with me.”
He hoped the woman wouldn’t test him about anything specific she had said, because he had no idea what she had been talking about. Before 9 a.m. he stood outside and greeted the passengers. The tourists didn’t need buses in the small town of Linz; they could move around on foot.
“Welcome to Austria, dear friends. As you can see, our trip is continuing in a promising fashion. By the way, this is Austria, not Australia! Don’t forget to sample the famous Linzer torte, the only dessert in the world that has an operetta composed about it. More walking awaits us today, but believe me, you won’t regret it. You will get to take the tram, too, so that you can try the town’s public transportation. We will divide into groups again. Your tour guides are looking forward to meeting you.”
“Hi, Arthur! Hello John. Good morning, sir!” she called out. “I wish you a pleasant day! Well, sir, I have to admit that you look wonderful today!”
“Your friend is fantastic, Martin. You should give her a job!” said John Stansky. “She’s a true talent,” Jeffrey Rose chimed in. “And she dances incredibly well!”
“It’s too soon to judge, but it seems that she’s talented. But I don’t make the decisions; I just try to be an example to her and help her. She still has to learn a lot. The company has experts. Highly experienced professionals make these kinds of selections,” said Martin, dodging any decision-making.
“Mona, if you’d like a recommendation, let me know, I will write to Chicago!” Jeffrey suggested.
“Thank you, you’re charming!” she flattered him.
Martin couldn’t believe his own ears. Mona had all the men on the ship wrapped around her fingers. He would be happier if the tourists were complimenting him, but he conceded that so far they didn’t have anything to compliment him on – he had never before slacked off at work this much. He was worried that if Mona stayed on board longer, she would literally steal his tourists.
The group spread out and continued to the bridge, where it turned left. Peddlers mixed with the Americans, illegally hawking souvenirs, maps of the town, and overpriced brochures with panoramic photos. Usually they were successful in selling a few things. The Literary House of Adalbert Stifter stood across the street. The poster with the monthly program reminded Martin of his former career. How many books could he have translated during the time he spent on ships? What new authors could he have introduced? What new stories could he have conveyed? He had spent the past few months secretly translating at night in his cabin. But then Mona came, and he couldn’t get around to Calvino’s book.
He heard the tour guide’s narrative in his headphones. He was supposed to be keeping tabs on her to make sure that she wasn’t forgetting anything important. The woman was complaining about modern architecture and contemporary art. Most of the Americans agreed with her. Martin clenched his teeth but didn’t say anything; he wasn’t allowed to. The Austrian tour guides must have been schooled in hatred. Whether it was Thomas Bernhard, Erwin Wurm, or Franz West, they all got offensively criticized.
The Celts had called Linz “Lentia,” which meant a bend in the river, but it also was the name of linden trees. He could see buildings from the Romanesque and Gothic times, but most were from the Baroque era. He would really like to go see the current exhibition at the Ars Electronica Center on the other side of the Danube, but he didn’t have enough time. The group continued down the Landstrasse, and from the looks of the locals it was obvious that they didn’t like seeing the Americans, but still they needed money. After an hour’s walk, Martin stood at the head of the group and, along with the tour guides, passed out copies of the recipe for a Linzer torte which he had downloaded from the web. These kinds of details earned him extra points, even though he knew that most of them were going to immediately lose the piece of paper, or else they were going to forget about it. He didn’t even know whether it was really possible to bake a torte out of almonds, jam, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, butter, eggs and salt.
“In the Linzer torte you will find everything that the Baroque cuisine considered tasty and valuable. It is only the right proportion of the ingredients that transforms them into a successful result. Ladies, don’t hesitate to take this souvenir from Linz with you to America. You don’t have to worry about the expiration date. Experts say that the longer the torte sits around, the better it becomes!”
The group went to see an exhibition of Danube photography in the Ursuline courtyard, where they also saw a short documentary about the town’s history. Martin stayed outside and took care of some phone calls. He always made sure to be one day ahead during the cruise. While the ship was still anchored in Regensburg, he was finalizing the program in Passau; in Linz, he was taking care of Vienna, etc. When he was done, he looked over towards the Niebelung Bridge and the 1600-foot high Poestlingberg hill. This hill could be toured via the steepest rail-route in Europe. He bought a group ticket, and when he looked at the Danube, he was reminded of Karl May, who spent some time in Linz in 1902. The writer lived in the hotel Chez Red Lobster, where he got into a fight with the photographer Adolf Nunwarz. The portrait photographer threw 101 negative prints of Karl May into the Danube, just like Martin had done with Mona’s money.
He watched over the passengers as they got into the tram. They were all white. The company steadfastly refused African Americans. In his whole career, Martin had only seen two, and whoever let them on board got fired. Research showed that the white passengers didn’t want them on their vacations, and President Barack Obama didn’t change anything about this attitude. Rumor had it that the call center workers had to go through special schooling where they learned how to distinguish white voices and accents from black ones. The location from which the customers called was of great importance, too – the travel agency had the US mapped out down to the smallest details, and race was one of the key criteria. The trips were mostly sold via telemarketing, and when there was a suspicion that the callers were African American, they were told that the cruise was sold out. Their households didn’t get the company’s catalogues, even though the company printed them in the tons and forced them on all of white America. “We’re not interested in who it is, we’re interested in how much he’ll pay,” was the motto of the marketing experts at ADC, but there were some exceptions.
Martin wondered whether recent circumstances would affect the racist company strategy. Much like the book market, during the last couple of years, profit margins for the travel industry and ADC were underwater. Due to the economic crisis, ADC had canceled several of its routes – several of its ships got docked indefinitely in Dutch harbors because they couldn’t be filled with passengers. The number of deckhands was reduced, the bar band left, as did the massage therapist and the magician. Martin also had less money for the itinerary than he used to. Despite these impediments, he thought that the cruise was surprisingly smooth so far – if he didn’t factor in Mona. After an hour, the group returned from their excursion.
“I’m sure today’s walk was challenging even for the fittest among you. But I am convinced that the excellent lunch will restore your energy. You will sample the Austrian specialty tafelspitz, which is a beef tip cooked in vegetable broth with potatoes and vegetables, served by our head chef with an apple-horseradish sauce. If you like, you can also have some spaetzle, which are local dumplings with cheese. Enjoy your meal, and you will be able to find me by the ADC counter in the afternoon. Our kind tour guides have taught you the basics of German, so we can say “good bye” to them!”
“Auf Wiedersehen!” the tourists called out, and it sounded like “Off Wilder Stan.”
People boarded the ship with smiles on their faces. They had figured out the layout of the main deck by now – they had gotten to know the amenities and took full advantage of them.
“Willkommen home! Good Nachmitag ueberall! Hallo hallo, have a schoene day!” the captain offered his greetings.
“Thank you, yes, we feel at home here!” the Americans responded.
To Martin they gushed about the impressive beauty of the upper-Austrian town. Everything seemed “awesome” to them, great, and in the next several days it was Martin’s task to transform that “awesome” into “excellent.”
He stood by the company counter the entire afternoon.
“What can one see in Mauthausen – is it pretty there?” Jonathan asked.
“That is a former concentration camp not far from Linz. About 300,000 people died there.”
“Really? During Communism?”
“No, during the Nazi era.”
“Stalin was an ass, I’ve always said that.”
“Have you heard of Anne Frank? She wrote a diary…”
“Is that a girl from the crew?”
“Did they fire the poor thing?”
“You could say that.”
“Hi. What are you doing?”
“I’m reading Harry Potter.”
“Where did you get that?”
“From the library on board.”
“Which book is it?”
“I don’t know.”
“How come you don’t know? There are many of them.”
“Really? I had no idea.”
“There’s at least seven of them. Maybe eight. Maybe there will be even more of them. Some series are continued after the death of the author. They develop endlessly: Dune. Twilight. Lord of the Rings.”
He desired her: her breasts, her thighs, and her warm hips. He took her hand. He asked her to talk about herself, but she was evasive again. He wanted to kiss her, but he was interrupted by a knock on the door. That happened very rarely. His colleagues usually let him be. If someone urgently needed him, they would call his cabin or his cell phone.
“Martin, open up!”
He recognized the voice of the first officer, the Hungarian Tamas. He jumped out of bed, straightened up a little, and cracked the door open.
“What’s going on? Come back later, I’ve got a visitor!”
“I saw everything,” Tamas exclaimed, white as a ghost. “Everything!”
“Let me in, please!”
Tamas’ voice changed from insistent to pleading. He tried to keep his tall figure upright. He had worked on rivers for the last 20 years and he often carried a lot of responsibility on his shoulders. His face was distorted with terror.
“What is happening?” Martin asked.
Tamas averted his look and moved his sweaty hair from his forehead. He advanced a bit into the cabin.
“It’s very bad…death…”
“Who? Arthur Breisky? I suspected as much…I knew it from the beginning, when I first saw him in Munich!”
He was reminded of everything that needed to be taken care of in case of a death. He had some distasteful paperwork ahead of him. If the tourist had died right at the airport in Munich or Bucharest, it would be the airline’s responsibility, which was an elegant solution. But anywhere else in Europe, ADC, which really meant Martin Roy, was responsible for the body. He felt sorry for the poor old man.
“No, Mr. Breisky is fine. I saw him at the bar with his oxygen mask just a moment ago.”
“Then who? I don’t understand…”
“It looks like a crime was committed.”
“Was something stolen?”
One time, a hotel manager disappeared with the entire crew’s tips, 6,000 dollars. Another time in Passau, two cooks broke into the ship’s safe, and they were never caught – they escaped to South America.
“This is worse. It’s about one of the women on the crew – Venera! It’ll be better if you see it with your own eyes.”
“What? Venera? That pretty Romanian? That’s not possible! Only yesterday…” Mona added.
She was sitting with her hair stuck to her face, and her eyes were bulging with fear. She was gathering her hair pins from the night stand, and trying to compose herself.
“You two don’t know each other,” Martin mentioned. “Mona, this is Tamas Kiraly. Tamas, my friend Mona.”
The thin 40-year-old Hungarian was from the Slovak town of Salka, a settlement on the right bank of the Ipel iver. He was excellent at tolerating exhaustion, and he spoke four languages. He was full of energy and was a dependable worker. As a confirmed bachelor, he didn’t need to take care of a family. An officer’s salary took care of a nice standard of living, though he did dress a bit sloppily. He started working at 6:30 every morning, met with the suppliers, and monitored the deliveries of goods and gas, in general looking after the ship’s management.
“Tell me first what happened!” Martin demanded.
“They probably killed her…”
“I’m coming with you!” Mona declared.
Martin didn’t really have room to run, but he hurried anyway, briskly passing the hallways of the below-deck with his aching leg. He passed by cabins filled with the sounds of sighing and endless conversations about money, the lack of which deprived everyone of happiness. A small crowd was gathered at the end of the hallway. Martin was panting as if he had just finished a marathon. The deckhands made way so he could enter, which surprised him, because he usually had to elbow his way through.
“The body was found inside, in the corner, behind the last washing machine,” said Dragan, the machinist.
Martin couldn’t have imagined the horror that he saw even in his most terrifying nightmare. The mutilated figure was sprawled out, completely indifferent to the hubbub around her. The naked woman looked like a victim, but at the same time also like a mute witness of a crime. Someone subjected her to a terrible butchery. They stabbed her stomach most cruelly, and cut up her face. He suppressed a wave of nausea.
“What do you think? When do you suppose she was murdered?” Tamas asked.
“How would I know? I’m not a doctor,” Martin snapped.
“But you studied…”
“Yes, Italian language and literature…”
He pointed out the tear-wounds. Venera had lost a lot of blood. A sticky congealed substance was soaking into the floor right in front of Martin’s eyes. The dead don’t have any privacy, and the most anyone can hope for is that they get treated with some dignity. It seemed inappropriate and offensive to him that he, a stranger, was gaping at this naked girl.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this before,” Martin stuttered and touched Venera’s hand, which still had some remnants of human warmth left in it. “Will one of you look for the number of stabs with me?”
Tamas leaned forward and illuminated the body with a flashlight.
“It seems that it was at least seven times, but the very first stab was probably already lethal.”
“This is obviously a crime; we have to call the police immediately!” Martin exclaimed.
“No!” Atanasiu responded forcibly. Out of nowhere, he was standing right behind Martin. “We won’t be calling anyone. It won’t help her anymore, and it would destroy us.”
“Which one of you did this?” Martin yelled and looked around.
“It could have been one of the passengers, too…” Loredana objected.
“I doubt it…”
No reaction followed. Martin looked inquisitively at all the faces that were gathered around him. The men and women in the dining room usually laughed heartily and ceaselessly, but now they were quiet. One of these men probably knew a lot more about the murder than the rest . . . or one of the women.
“First of all, you need to relax,” Atanasiu snapped. “Who are you to be asking questions here? You could have done it just as much as anyone else. I am the commander of this ship.”
“Excuse me, but this is beyond your authority. Only the police should…”
“How dare you tell me this even as you’re transporting a stowaway? I’ll pick up the phone, and you’ll be going back to Bratislava within three minutes! Would you like to?”
Atanasiu Prunea stood before the group.
“The company doesn’t wish to have an investigation. We all know this very well. The ship would have to stay here a couple of days. The voyage would be interrupted, or it could be continued by bus, but it would be extremely expensive – the hotels, the restaurant food, and so on. And not to mention the catastrophic ratings. Imagine that you pay for a luxury ship voyage, and then you end up being driven around in Hungarian buses. We liked Venera. She was a nice girl. But the police won’t bring her back to life. We will deal with this on our own. We’re not novices. America can’t fail.”
A stunned Martin said:
“I don’t agree, but I respect your decision. You’re the captain.”
“And you’re just a shitty tour manager, one of a hundred, so be quiet, don’t interrupt me and listen, because I wasn’t finished. If I find out who did this, I will ruin them. But the body has to disappear. Venera doesn’t have a contract; she could have been anywhere today. Her family wouldn’t get compensation. We have to make sure none of the guests find out about this. They have enough of their own worries in Chicago. According to their instructions, we even have to ignore high and low waters, which borders on illegality, so we have to just keep on going and work through it. The voyage continues as before. Whoever doesn’t like it can leave. Understood?”
His voice implied that this was a threat. Just a few days ago, he wouldn’t have thought of speaking like this to Martin. He clearly enjoyed the fear that was spreading.
“Yes, that’s right, exactly! That’s the way it is!” several voices called out.
Martin couldn’t believe his colleagues’ attitude. But he couldn’t pass over even one level of the company hierarchy, let alone several. He took a few steps back to better take in the entire scene. He tried to calm his breathing and organize his thoughts. The Romanian women were praying. He had no idea that they were raised in a religious fashion; their behavior usually made them seem quite unchristian.
“Maybe he attacked her, or they attacked her from the back and then knocked her out. Then they stabbed her. Probably with a large knife from the kitchen—the wounds are deep and wide. If we only had a weapon…”
“We searched here. Nothing was found.” Dragan responded.
“Did anyone hear anything? Who saw her last?”
No one answered. Martin moved Venera a bit to look at the victim from the other side. The corpse’s shoulders slumped forward – a limp movement that made it seem like she was alive again. Screams resounded behind his back. Even the captain crossed himself. Venera’s beauty didn’t disappear, it just changed. The marble whiteness of her skin was the most terrifying part. A white, foamy crumble dried up in the corner of her mouth; maybe she had just eaten or thrown up something. He wiped her lips.
“Did this poor thing have a sister or a brother?” he asked.
“No. May the Lord have mercy on her,” begged Loredana.
Martin examined the body as his heart settled down again. The girl’s disfigured features were terrifying; all that was left was a defaced simulation of a human face, deformed by the deadly struggle. However he looked at the situation, he could nonetheless arrive at only one satisfying conclusion – he could only rely on what he saw around him right now.
“Two more important things. First, Martin will take care of the body at night. Second, a spot has now opened up in the laundry room. If Mona is interested, she can start working there. If not, she will leave the ship. I’m declaring a crisis management situation. No visitors, no extra time off, and reinforced on-duty personnel.”
“I accept,” Mona announced, and Martin stared at her in disbelief.
“Do you really mean it?” he asked her.
“I was looking for work anyway…”
She was trying to look self-confident, but Martin noticed how nervous she was.
“Let’s go to the cafeteria,” the captain declared. “I need a drink.”
Martin followed the others. A mysterious force accompanied him during the passage through the gloomy hallways, a sinister force, heavy like a cover of grey fog lifting from the river and gradually solidifying. Evil came from who-knew-where, moved onto the ship, and clenched it in its embrace.
He introduced Mona to the rest of the crew in the cafeteria.
“I was hoping that there would be a more fitting occasion,” he said, “but things have developed this way. This is your new colleague.”
One after another, everyone made introductions with Mona. The men could not stop looking at her. Other men’s jealousy awakened Martin’s vanity. Mona didn’t mind the suggestive talk or gestures.
“We are all honored!” said Tamas.
Along with everyone else, Martin soon exclaimed: “To Venera! To her memory! My condolences. May she rest in peace!”
“To our Miss Director, Chairwoman of Housekeeping! ADC thanks her,” Atanasiu added absurdly.
“She was one of my best clients!” Dragan announced and let out a wild laugh, thus completely spoiling the somewhat mournful atmosphere.
The men found places to sit, rolled cigarettes, and smoked them all the way down to their rolled ends. They passed time by badmouthing each other, spreading ridiculous rumors, and stoking their fantasies.
“Did anyone notice anything unusual about Venera’s behavior? Was she afraid of something? Did she have any worries?” Martin asked the crew.
The discovery of the truth would need a lot more than the half-hour that he had spent at the crime scene, and it would need a different set of skills from the ones he had.
“No, I wouldn’t say that,” Loredana responded. “She had a ton of work…like all of us.”
“Who saw Venera last?” Martin insisted, but he saw that the others weren’t inclined to be forthcoming. “It happened in the middle of the day! Someone had to be around. Why isn’t everyone here?”
“Tomorrow. We will talk about it tomorrow. Now we all need to rest a bit,” said the captain, wanting to end the conversation.
He carefully studied their faces. Thirty crew members were squeezed into the room. He didn’t suspect the women, or the captain, or Tamas.
Suang announced that they only had an hour left to prepare dinner, and took his team with him.
“Do you remember how Atanasiu got drunk in Ruse, and he couldn’t find his way back to the ship? We went back to the harbor before midnight and…” started Tamas in a forcibly happy tone of voice.
Another saga about a party that never happened. He could easily finish Tamas’ narrative: they got hammered, looked for Atanasiu in all of Ruse, found him in a brothel on the shore where he couldn’t get it up and fell asleep on top of a prostitute that kept screaming, and finally two people had to get him off her.
“Let’s leave here!” whispered Martin to Mona.
“Wait a bit!” called out the captain.
Martin stiffened; Atanasiu leaned into him and said into his ear:
“At four in the morning, when the ship starts moving…”
He nodded and returned to his cabin. He had had his fill of everything.
“What did you do in the afternoon? Where were you?”
“I was in bed reading Potter.”
“What page are you on?”
“Hundred and twenty.”
He took the volume in his hand, paged in it for a while, and threw the very thick book in the corner. He regretted that he didn’t know the book and thus couldn’t test her. He lay down on his side of the bed and couldn’t sleep a wink. His brain was working overtime. Mona had possessed him again, even though he tried to defend himself.
At four, he did what Atanasiu had ordered. Venera seemed heavy to him, really heavy, but not so much with bodily weight as with the weight of what he was doing with her. His feet slipped a couple of times on the slick deck. When he threw her body over the back shipboard, darkness enveloped him. There was a splash and a few drops landed on his chest. A current took hold of Venera; she turned around twice underwater and disappeared.
Born 1976 in Bratislava, Slovakia, Michal Hvorecký is the author of seven books of fiction that have been translated into five languages (German, Italian, Czech, Bulgarian and Polish). He studied art history in Nitra and was a fellow at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. He works at the Goethe Institute in Bratislava and is a contributor on culture and politics to various daily papers and magazines in Slovakia and Germany. He lives with his family in Bratislava.
Eva Hudecová was born in Bratislava, Slovakia, and has received a PhD in Comparative Literature with a minor in Germanic Studies from the University of Minnesota. She works in eastern and central European literature and culture, concentrating on the working through and reflection of totalitarian regimes. She speaks and translates seven languages, focusing on texts that seek to relate personal experiences and stories from socialist regimes and their aftermaths for the western reader.
Mark Lencho is an Associate Professor in the Department of Languages and Literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he teaches linguistics, general humanities, and composition courses. His recent publications explore linguistic comparisons of Slovak and English, including the problematics of translating from Slovak to English. In 2006/2007 academic year, he taught as a Fulbright scholar at Constantine the Philosopher University in Nitra, Slovakia.
This excerpt has been taken from chapter 10 of Michal Hvorecký’s novel ‘Danube in America’, and appears with kind permission from the author and the translators.
 Thomas Bernhard, a 20th century Austrian novelist/playwright, is known for his critique of post-war Austrian society. Erwin Wurm, a contemporary sculptor and photographer, is known for casting everyday objects from a displaced perspective to call into question the foundation of sculpture. West, a contemporary Viennese sculptor, has explored the relationship between art and everyday functions. It is tempting to see these allusions as suggestive of an attitude that Martin imputes to Americans – the inability to see the art behind their experiences on the trip (because of their lack of historical perspective).
 Karl May was a popular German writer known throughout Europe mainly for adventure novels exploring the Romantic theme of the noble savage. The improbable Apache Winnetou, the hero of many of May’s stories and later a cinematic fixture in the Red Westerns of the Eastern bloc in mid-20th Century, more than once occurs in Martin’s conversations and dreams.