The Judgement of Richard Richter
Translated by Elias-Bursac, Ellen
Croatian original edition 2006
Amazon Crossing, 2017
Usually I find the selection process for the Amazon Prime free book of the month to be a tough choice. 6 or so books, usually including 2-3 genres I have no interest in, and the others all have something in their description that leads me to doubt I will really enjoy them. This one, however, jumped out as an immediate pick and then climbed up the backlog to be the next book in sequence after I finished the one I had been reading at the time. Why? I don’t know. Maybe because I was relatively recently reminded of my own 1 degree of separation knowledge of the start of the Siege of Sarajevo; maybe because I had been back to Germany recently, maybe because the description was just slightly enigmatic enough that it caught my curiosity.
In summary, this is an incredibly powerful book. It is well crafted with both long-and short-term storylines and stories within stories against the tragic overall setting of the start of the Balkan conflict. There is perhaps a touch of extra foreshadowing at play early on, particularly in the depths of detail of the discussion of the play being presented by the theater group or in the newspaper article on the train, but in the end the author adds some additional elements beyond what appears to have been a straightforward foreshadow to keep thigs interesting.
The story begins in the 1990’s after a famous Austrian writer’s wife leaves him in Paris, so he (in his 50’s) decided on the spur of the moment to return to his roots in Vienna and move back in with his elderly aunt who raised him after the war. While remodeling her flat to create a suitable office area to continue writing, he knocks out a wall and comes across a notebook hidden in it. Out of curiosity he reads it and discovers it was his mother’s… who died days after his birth. He confronts his aunt because what is written it the notebook is a partial letter that was never sent to his father, and he identifies that the story of his origin isn’t quite what he was always led to believe, and instead of being a pure-blooded Catholic Austrian it turns out that his real father was a Jewish communist from Sarajevo who was arrested by the Nazis and never heard from again.
Suddenly seized with a need to try and find out what happened to his father, he strikes out for Sarajevo and uses his position as a writer to gain press credentials to travel there at the beginning of the city’s siege. While there he spends some time reporting and some time looking for traces of a man he only has a name of. He ends up hiring a young local writer who had once contacted him for rights to translate one of his books as a translator, and after a few weeks they become friends and the translator starts to introduce him to his own friends and acquaintances, and the writer starts to become more associated with the world of the local population than of the rarified environment seen by the international press corps.
The translator and writer get an idea to make a documentary about a local theater troupe who are continuing to operate despite the war around them, and the leading actress in her late 20’s / early 30’s is one of the translator’s acquaintances. She was the one who selected Homo Faber as the current play being produced and they go into a deep discussion about how the underlying story reflects the plight of the warring sides of the city. One thing leads to another and the writer and the actress begin an affair which, since his wife left him and her husband is out of the country and unable to get back, is essentially a full time occupation for the two. She recalls that her elderly father has some books by the writer, and arranges for them to meet.
As he recognizes that the last name on the mailbox as the local spelling of the person he is looking to find as his father, the writer suddenly faints. As he comes to, the old man starts to ask him about Austria and mentions that he once lived in Vienna and starts describing the very apartment the writer left for Sarajevo from, and then asks about the sisters who used to live in it – which are the writer’s mother and aunt. The actress wistfully mentions “Father’s Viennese romance stories” and the writer suddenly realizes that he has been sleeping and fallen in love with his half-sister, while at the same time the father describes why he is convinced that the writer’s mother is the one who tipped off the Nazis.
Terrified by what has transpired, the writer decides he must leave Sarajevo at once. The actress, who has no knowledge of what he now knows, takes his sudden coolness in their shared bed as a result of his earlier fainting and becomes yet more concerned for his well-being, while he is expressly trying to stop exactly that but can’t tell her why he has suddenly changed. Despite a strong desire to leave immediately, the fact that his father is convinced that his mother is who tipped off the Gestapo forces him to feel a need to make one more trip to visit his father and deliver the letter to him.
The next morning he does so, and the father, obviously shaken by this turn of events and now knowing that he is talking to the son he never knew he had, provides some additional information. Suddenly he wonders how is daughter is involved in this somewhat bizarre coincidence, and the writer tries to play it off as a chance friendship through a mutual acquaintance.
After returning to the apartment to pack his things and leave, the writer is suddenly struck with conflicting emotions while trying to shove things into his suitcase. When it refuses to zip closed, he hurls it against the wall and then slumps down amidst the piles of clothes and belongings. After about an hour he is suddenly consumed that their father must have figured it out and may be at that very moment either be at or making his way to the theater where the actress is working. Impulsively, he ignores the dangers of a city under siege and races to the theater despite the snipers and shelling. Once there, he finds the cast and crew hunkered down in the cellar, but she is not there. The manager tells him that her father was seriously wounded and she is with him at the hospital. Despite their entreaties, he once more rushes out into the shelling and somehow makes his way to the hospital, where he finds her sitting with their dead father.
She tells him that her father was unconscious when she found him, but came to just enough on the ride to the hospital to talk incoherently about him and Vienna, Not knowing any more than that, she turns to the writer for comfort, and he is unable to turn her away. They each bury their father under the cover of darkness, one not knowing, the other unwilling to say, that he is common between them.
The primary story ends with him leaving her early the next morning while she sleeps, then pulling favors and catching a UN evacuation flight out that very day. A well-written epilogue wraps everything else up, while also adding significant depth to the overall story.