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A character study, a thriller, a romp - as fresh today as when it was written
on 27 September 2013
A new book from Pushkin Press is always welcome and in I Was Jack Mortimer, they have found a gem of a novel, written in 1933 but as fresh as anything written today. The book, a mixture of farce, murder mystery and character study is set in Vienna.
The book's author Alexander Lernet-Holenia had an interesting life. As a conscript, he took part in the invasion of Poland but from this he wrote what is thought of as the only Austrian resistance novel which was banned by the government because it contained "an ideologically troubled central character, hints at the existence of active political opposition" (Wikipedia). He died in 1976 with a reputation for controversy which made him "the difficult old man of Austrian literature".
Ferdinand Sponer, a young taxi driver picks up a fare outside the railway station who wants to go to the Bristol Hotel. When he arrives at the hotel, he turns to speak to the passenger and finds him dead with a bullet hole in his throat and other wounds leaking blood into the back of his cab.
Sponer's efforts to tell the police are thwarted at every turn and realising how implausible his story is, he decides to dump the body in the Danube and forget the whole thing. Needless to say, this is where things start to go terribly wrong for Sponer. Before long, due to a convoluted series of events he finds himself taking on the identity of the dead man (thus the title of the book). I have to admire the author's inventiveness as the story takes off on a wildly erratic route, with surprises at every turn.
The book has been filmed twice, once in the 1939s and again in 1952, but both times in the German language. The story is as fresh and lively today and would make a great period drama, with such visual scenes as the body being dumped in the Danube, police chases through the streets of the city, Sponer's various and very peculiar courtships, some mysterious goings on in hotel rooms - and all set in the glitz and glamour of Vienna before the War.
The book is translated in a direct and natural style by Ignat Avsey, who is to be commended for a transparent translation which leaves no sense of the book originating in another language.
"I Was Jack Mortimer" is one of those books where to write about much it is to spoil it for other readers. However, I'll finish by saying that I was highly impressed and am grateful to Pushkin Press for rediscovering this novel and arranging for its publication in English.