“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.