From: The City: Discoveries in the Interior of Vienna/The Plan/The Mountain

From The City: Discoveries in the Interior of Vienna


I Crept Down into the Cellars

I have been exploring Vienna since 1986. For several years, I wrote essays for the ZEIT– and the FAZ magazine respectively that later appeared in book form under the title “A Journey to the Interior of Vienna.” Since then I have focused on other Viennese locations, for example, the building at 7 Heumarkt where I have been living since 1988. I was particularly fascinated by the state of its decay. The building was originally a Palace where the Chief of the General Staff of the Imperial and Royal Army Conrad von Hötzendorf resided. Of course it also resembles a barrack. It has two courtyards with tall, old trees: chiefly chestnuts and plane-trees. The branch of a plane-tree grew-until it was cut back–directly in front of the window of my study, and in the end, it bumped up against the window pane and scraped quietly when the wind blew. At my desk I felt like I was sitting in the extended tree top and always found myself moved to write. The tree showed me the seasons better than any calendar, and I was not sucked into that abstract time-space continuum that I came to fear since my one-year stay in a house in Hamburg on Holzdamm: From my window there I could see only a brick wall with a clock and the writing “Normal time.” Since then there is nothing worse for me than a boring wall with a clock that constantly and without mercy registers passing and wasted time. A tree, in contrast, ages with me and with the seasons; it is not just death that is reflected in the changing and falling leaves, but also rebirth in its spring-like green.

The building at 7 Heumarkt, as I said, had fallen into disrepair, the plaster had peeled off, dampness had penetrated the ground floor, and it made for a neglected impression. Yet, I was comfortable living there; I had renovated my apartment and I enjoyed the view of the picturesque stains on the walls from the third floor, from the bird’s eye view so to speak. In the neighboring courtyard, Ingeborg Bachmann had lived for two years, and I also discovered a couple named Malina (the title of Ingeborg Bachmann’s eponymous novel) who lives across from me on the other side of the courtyard.

Not too far from the building there is a sleepy coffee house, Café Heumarkt, that knows only passionate visitors or passionate non-visitors. I count myself among the passionate visitors; at first I discovered the very object I had learned to hate at my window in Hamburg there: a clock from the fifties was hanging on one of its walls; however, it always read a quarter of twelve. That is a fine hour, and the combination of the interior from the fifties with the non-functioning clock gave me the constant impression of being safe. For this reason, Café Heumarkt served as a refuge for me for a long time. I didn’t write in my hide-out, but I read the newspaper, ate lunch, or I drank a few wine spritzers now and then with friends […]. But it was my regular hangout alone; no one came more than once (and never on a regular basis), which was fine with me. In my head I called it “Hell’s Ante-chamber.” On one of the days it was closed, I once interviewed the painter Günter Brus for an art journal there. The interview never appeared as was to be expected. The owner handed over the keys and allowed us to help ourselves; we just had to write down what we drank on a pad, and I’d pay the bill the next day. Of course the recording of the six-hour long meeting in the otherwise empty café turned out to be a document of the gradual onset of stupidity and the alcohol-induced compulsion to repeat oneself, but it suited the café even if it was not typical for the otherwise quiet atmosphere that was (usually) only interrupted by the creaking of the parquet floors, the clinking of the billiard balls, and the clattering of the metal trays on the marble tables.

I started photographing the damp stains of the building at 7 Heumarkt, roamed around the city on other days, observed the wall stains in Vienna’s different districts and the pictures hidden in them with growing enthusiasm, compared them with the background of paintings in the Museum of Art History, and eventually photographed them until I had constructed my own map of the Austrian metropolis. Some districts or buildings are immediately recognizable, for example Schönbrunn with its unmistakable yellow or the 2nd district with its melancholy grey. I was also fortunate enough to discover the beauty of rust stains on an iron door or on hinges, the enchanting grace of a chemical process which reminded me of lichens on tree trunks or rocks, and I slipped into many a Viennese house and again and again I got as far as the cellar where I studied beautiful stains until a fantastic atlas of imaginary maps gradually formed in my mind, bringing to light an enigmatic world.

As a rule the Viennese are a combination of sullenness and a bad conscience. Their joviality, which obviously only surfaces at the Heurige or in private, is dampened in everyday life by the drizzle of a chronically bad mood, which, on the other hand, resembles peeling plaster and therefore has its hidden charms. (Just like the moray eel looks like a dangerous fish whose meat is known as a delicacy.)

The question put to me on occasion by an unfamiliar caretaker of why and with whose permission I was photographing these–in her opinion–ugly walls, I was unable to answer truthfully. In all likelihood and despite the most strenuous efforts I would not have been able to convince her that they were beautiful, to be compared to a black-and-white photograph of the starry sky. Instead, I countered curtly asking how long the walls had been in such a condition and took another picture in passing. My brusque manner had the desired effect.  To be sure, the mistrust and bad conscience grew stronger, but the bad mood clearly was transferred from the speech to the physiognomy of the respective person. My opponent’s quietness and labored contemplation were the signal for a quick departure.

It was, by the way, a good thing that I started my research early on because the pictorial exhibition of wall stains is in danger of disappearing. For example, at 7 Heumarkt the entire building has been freshly plastered and completely renovated, and the rent was raised at the same time. Where once I had knelt down on the stone floor of the stairs enthusiastically to take a photograph, where I likewise had gone into raptures over a moldy piece of wall and then photographed it, now I just find interchangeable colors. I only sense something of the previous Cinderella-beauty of the building when I, absorbed in the nostalgic memory of the former magnificence of the plane-tree branch, suddenly realize that it is growing towards my study again, almost imperceptible, but nonetheless. And above all when during the winter the crows come and land in the snow in the courtyard. They caw and croak like wind-up toys. I study how the swarm continuously changes its movements. As an advocate of chaos-theory and an eternal student of fractal geometry which has influenced and inspired my writing and literary thinking since my novel “Common Death,” as an admirer of enlargements of marginal details and as happy observer of the self-same structure of the so-called almond bread batch, I can watch the swarms of crows for a long time, if not for hours. It is my intention to discover an unknown order in the swarm that, hopping, spreads out in the snow only to draw back in again like notes that have come to life on a white piece of paper. What kind of inaudible music are they composing? And if it were audible what would it sound like? And if they are not notes but animalistic hieroglyphs, scratched into air or carved into the hard winter ground while feeding, what are they proclaiming? And if they are drawings, what do they represent? Hidden in these swarms of crows is an enormous riddle that obviously doesn’t interest natural scientists or more precisely, ornithologists. From their arrival in November to their departure in February, from their seating order in the trees to their noisy approach of their place of sleep at Steinhof, the swarms of crows reveal an order, an inner knowledge that fascinate me. I once saw how a presumably sick crow stayed behind in the courtyard when the swarm set out for their return flight. Days later, a rearguard flew over the roofs several times, cawing loudly, and establishing contact with the sick crow. Two days in a row the scene repeated itself, this time with only two crows, until on the third day the crow flew away with the two other “guards” as I named them for myself.

I took hundreds of photos of crows in the courtyards, the shape of their wings at take-off and landing is a small science. Enthusiastically, I also photographed the crows’ tracks in the snow and the frost patterns on the windows of the unheated hallway of my atelier. These pictures are among the most stimulating that I took. What’s more, I do not have much opportunity any more to photograph, since the cold and snowy winters have become rare–the climate scientists have explanations for this. But in some strange way all the photos I described belong together: the wall stains, the crows, the frost patterns, even those of the old café that I took later on.

From The Plan


(The Expedition)

“Aso is a natural wonder. The circumference of the crater alone comes to one hundred forty kilometers, the diameter at its broadest point to more than thirty. What’s extraordinary about Aso, however, are the cities, roads, train tracks, farms that can be found inside the giant crater. And Aso-Gegaku as well, the active volcano mountains. I’ve shown you a map once before.”

Professor Kitamura thought long and hard. “One of them, Nakadake, is devious. I am convinced, it is planning something,” he added.

[…]He took the lined windbreaker from the back of the chair, and went outside to a black Nissan Prairie. He had only rented the car this morning, but a bag with his equipment was already sitting in the rear. Next to it a blue safety helmet, gloves made of fire-resistant asbestos, a leveling instrument with a collapsible, portable tripod, and tongs for lava.

Feldt had brought Haru along. […] After they had left the suburbs behind them, green hills appeared in the distance, the edge of the exterior ring of the volcano, which surrounded the other rugged, snow-covered craters. A helicopter was flying high and ever so tiny over the massif. Behind the next bend a view of wrinkled mountains in different hues of brown and green opened up: light green, grass green, bottle green, brown green, and sandy-colored, the grey and white elevations behind them only barely visible.

Then anew, a giant cloud landscape presented itself as if the Aso-Massif was reflected from above as a ceiling fresco in the sky in different shades of grey and white with outlines, bays, and peaks, ruptured by radiant, silvery traces of light.

“Now Aso-san wants to impress us with magic tricks,” Professor Kitamura laughed. […] A band of sunshine crossed the hills. The ever-changing landscape possessed something stage-like; it reminded him of sheets inflated by wind machines that were used in the theater to represent water, only that they represented a seemingly endless chain of velvety undulating elevations that dissolved far away at the horizon. Shadows of clouds lent some of these hills the appearance of dark green of plants in an aquarium.

They stopped in front of a small, red observatory at the side of the road. Professor Kitamura distributed woolen hats because a bitter cold wind was blowing. They walked past the building to the giant edge of the crater and looked at the tiny villages, vehicles, geometrically subdivided fields of rice, at the forests and meadows and the winding river in the valley of the crater far beneath them. At the point farthest away, the inner cones of the volcano rose up, grassy green or ragged and snow-covered and purple from the cooled lava. It was so icy that tears ran down Feldt’s cheeks and his fingers and legs hurt. The sunlight touched the top of one of the snow-covered rocky inner craters. Freezing Feldt saw the ice crystals, which had become dirty in the grass. Finally, they went past the observatory back to the car again.

While they drove down the steep S-shaped curves to the crater, Feldt started talking about Dante’s Inferno, of the mythological and historical figures and Gustave Doré’s Illustrations. […]

Professor Kitamura had watched them in the rearview mirror and had listened attentively. From this elevated vantage point Feldt saw snow flurries in the valley, sunlight on the other side, and hazy fog in the middle. Buildings became visible slowly, schools, nurseries, bill boards, ornamental plants.

When they stopped at a tollbooth, an employee advised them not to go on. Nanadake, he said, had hurled out rocks, further up the road was already closed. He recognized Professor Kitamura, saluted, and lifted the barrier.


Again the road climbed and looped and soon the valley was lying far beneath them like before. The nearer they came to the crater the more each color gave way to white and grey. A man wearing a plastic helmet stopped the van, and only after some negotiations they were allowed to drive on.

From far away they already saw the cylindrical air-raid shelters in a snow-covered landscape of coal mounds. Fog, vapors, and smoke covered the opening of the crater. They stopped behind a locked-up house at the top. Professor Kitamura shouldered the leveling instrument with the tripod, produced a tape measure and gyrocompass (a compass with a “level”) from his pocket and went on his way. It was even colder than at the outermost edge of the crater. Feldt immediately perceived the smell of sulphur, pulled his scarf over his mouth and held his breath, but the wind continued to blow up dense vapors and sulphur fumes from the depth of the crater. Moreover, it was so cold that his bronchia and his lungs hurt. After a few steps they reached the edge of the crater. Just then two shadowy figures fled a white cloud from the interior of the volcano. Excitedly they waved at Professor Kitamura to stop.

Professor Kitamura waited until the vapors cleared away.

A steep precipice which was blocked off by wooden barriers opened up before them. Feldt put an arm around Haru’s shoulder, shivering they warmed each other.

Then suddenly the inside lay open beneath them, and they looked deeply into the abyss. A reddish fire was smoldering there in an apparent glacier with rifts and cracks over which Professor Kitamura limped awkwardly. He set up the leveling instrument, measured cracks, extracted samples. Again vapors and fumes rose, devouring the professor and descending on them, too. Panting, they waited for the volcano to calm down again. Professor Kitamura had moved even closer to the fire, he made sketches, returned to the leveling instrument, and, unmoved, measured the hole of the crater. It was eerily quiet.

Finally, he broke down his apparatus again, limped up to the edge with effort and led them on to the next entrance over icy steps which were hewn into the crater. It was as if they were looking at a cone-shaped pinnacle through a crystal, that’s how much the steep slopes, becoming ever more interlaced with each other, shifted into one gigantic, dirty iceberg, in which steps were hewn as if meant for a cult ritual.

Since Haru and Feldt were not equipped for the wintery mountain tour, they finally stopped and followed the professor with their eyes as he dove into the elongated, snow-covered landscape.

Freezing, they searched the ragged chasm for the way out, which led through a flume and was infused with smoke fumes so that they had to stop again and again and wait for better visibility. Eventually, they realized that they had circled the crater on the inside.

The professor was waiting for them already at the car; he had taken a short cut.

Without a word he drove back with them. Feldt was irritated by his silence, but he did not dare to ask a question. Again and again the lava-landscape opened and closed before them, giving way to new surfaces, plains, abysses, and elevations. And in the sky cloud massifs became visible again. They darkened the earth with shadows; sublimely they seemed to sail across the sky from a far away sphere as icy flotsam. Haru fell asleep immediately, but Feldt did not want to miss anything of nature’s spectacle. Now and then he reached for the whiskey bottle that the professor passed to him.  Contrary to his habit he drank with impatient expectation that the alcohol would have its effect. After some time, Kitamura stopped to take notes. As he was getting out of the car, Feldt saw a little “image” on the ground at his feet: a piece of black lava, half of it covered with snow, and some ash were protruding from the snow, surrounded by brown branches and dried blades of grass that looked like yellow brush strokes in the white surface.

From The Mountain

He asked the way to the nearby market, turned a couple of corners, and found the entrance to Modiano Hall, where meat was sold just as Avramis had described it to him. The midday heat intensified the smell of blood, and a light breeze blew the stench in his direction. A stationer’s store across from Modiano Hall reminded him that he wanted to take notes for his story, so he went in and bought three notebooks: two black ones and a red one. Back on the street he decided to use a black one first. As was his habit, he noted the date, time, and location, then stopped and started to describe the market. […]

Sheep, goats, and pigs were hanging in halves on racks with countless meat hooks. Their tails had been left on so that customers could convince themselves what kind of animal they were buying. Right next to them, Gartner saw half of an ox that made him think of Rembrandt’s still lifes. The sidewalk was covered with little puddles of blood swarming with flies. Just then, one of the workers started to hose them off. Gartner continued walking on the pavement, entering the dark market halls, into a throng of shoppers, who were standing in front of the round, chrome scales and watching how their goods were being weighed. He wrote everything down; at the same time he was being jostled back and forth by the stream of people. The stench had become so intense that it made him think about decay. If the lamps, which were hanging above the meat parts from handles in the shape of an arch had not been lit, he would have felt uncanny among the workers with their once white, now blood-covered clothes. As it was, he, however, experienced the joy of life despite the bloody price tags, the half-dozen skinned sheep heads with eyes and mouths full of teeth, despite the ham hocks and the sounds of bones crunching on the chopping blocks where the venders were cutting up pieces with a hatchet. Still farther in the dark he ran into display cases filled with plucked chickens. In others, organs of lamb and goats were displayed, dark smooth lobes from livers, hearts, lungs, stomachs. Suddenly, he found himself in the glaring white neon light and in the stench of the fish booths; the tiled floor under his feet was wet, his steps, quiet and splashing, sounded like someone else’s to him. Scaled, pink little monsters were embedded on crushed ice, metallic black heaps of sardines on tables, black-and-white-spotted cuttlefish, and scampi that looked like smooth, large caterpillars with red dots. A lobster with its spidery legs, black protruding eyes, long tentacles, and big claws commanded his respect. It was, however, the beauty of the marine animals that he admired; automatically he imagined their life in the dark, under the sea. From the booths hung bunches of wrapping paper, some wooden boxes were entirely lined with newspaper, and, where goods had already been sold, the fish and ice had impregnated the articles with dampness and bodily fluids so that they had turned yellow as if from urine. The dried-out pages of the newspaper had wrinkled and stiffened, and the letters and pictures looked distorted and warped … For a while Gartner stood there taking notes. When he lifted his head, he saw the construction of the roof high above; inserted in its middle were window panes painted red. The color had peeled off and the glass consequently looked like blinding bright ice with smudges, reminding him of an illuminated painting by the Spanish artist Tàpies. Finally, Gartner found the sign that Avramis, the professor of literature, had described. On a large square opening bordered by a wire fence hung a billboard which had become ever more monochromatic from the human effluvium and the smell of the slaughtered animals. It showed two men who looked as if they were visiting a casino, one of them with a cigar in his mouth, following the course of an imaginary roulette ball. He read the ad: TEΪA, KAKAO, ГAΛA.  Opposite that, he found the bar, the long counter where a man with a dog at his feet was getting drunk. The floor was of a deep dark red and was so highly polished that the beautiful animal was indistinctly reflected in it. Since Gartner saw the thick water glasses and the long rows of bottles on the shelf, he ordered Ouzo, which he knocked off immediately. At the same time, he noticed another, semicircular information board that Avramis had not described. […] The sign fit into a white, arched window made of bricks, and beneath it steps led into the cellar, most likely to the toilets the professor had spoken about.

Gartner paid, glanced at the blurred mirror reflection of the dog on the floor, and went downstairs. The strong stench of feces and urine hit him unprepared. The walls were encrusted and moldy with salt efflorescence. The black and brown speckled stone floor appeared smeared, green stall doors stood open, behind them yawned dark openings for feces. He hurried upstairs again before his innards revolted. Only the sweet smell of fruit in the street calmed him down, and when he turned around he noticed that he was surrounded by market booths with bananas, lemons, and oranges, hanging from the ceiling in nets next to the fruit from pineapple plants. The images and smells made him enterprising, and busy for a time observing and taking notes, he forgot his original intentions.


Gerhard Roth

Gerhard Roth was born in Graz in 1942. He published his first novel in 1972 and has written 14 novels since. In addition, Roth has published four plays, a children's book, several essay volumes, and photo features. His works have been translated into eight European languages and have received numerous awards. Family secrets, Austria's relationship with its past and present, immigration, anti-Semitism, and National Socialism are recurrent themes throughout his work, where the location (Austria) plays an important role.

Roth came across his interest on photography when he first used it as an instrument to remember things that can't be written down. Now he combines photography and writing in his work.

Among his popular novels are The Calm Ocean (1993), The Lake (1995), The Will to Sickness (1996), and The Story of Darkness (1999), all of which have been translated into English. His more recent novels include Das Alphabet der Zeit (2006) and Die Stadt (2009).

Helga Schreckenberger and Jacqueline Vansant

Helga Schreckenberger is Professor of German at the University of Vermont.
Her research focuses on twentieth-century Austrian literature and Exile Studies.
She is also the co-author of a monograph on Gerhard Roth. Together with Jacqueline
Vansant, she has translated Gerhard Roth's novels Der Stille Ozean (The Calm Ocean,
1980) and Die Geschichte der Dunkelheit (The Story of Darkness, 1991), as well as
Elfriede Jelinek's play President Abendwind (President Evening Breeze, 1987).

In addition to her translations with Helga Schreckenberger, Jacqueline Vansant,
Professor of German at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, has focused her
research on Austrian literature after 1945, memoirs of Jewish-Austrian re-emigres,
and the image of Austria in American cinema.

Die Stadt. Entdeckungen im Inneren von Wien. Copyright (c) Frankfurt a. M.: S. Fischer, 2009. Der Plan. Copyright (c) Frankfurt a. M.: S. Fischer, 1998. Der Berg. Copyright (c) Frankfurt a. M.: S. Fischer, 2000. English translation copyright (c) Helga Schreckenberger and Jacqueline Vansant, 2010.