The ‘Executioner’ Who Writes About the Dead

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Oliver Pötzsch comes from a dynasty of executioners, which helped him with the novel ‘The Gravedigger’s Book’, a historical thriller set in Vienna at the end of the 19th century.

“I’m not proud, but it’s my family’s story,” said Oliver Pötzsch, a German from Munich who traded journalism for literature and who at the age of 51 has become a sales phenomenon as if apologizing for his descent from executioners. . , with 3.5 million readers. Oliver, who takes on the unpronounceability of a six-consonant surname with a smile, descends from a long dynasty of fourteen executioners who “actively worked” in southern Bavaria between the 16th and 19th centuries. And don’t always cut necks. He recalls that not only were the executioners in charge of the executions, “they were also in charge of the horses in the stables, they took the rubbish out of the cities and, above all, they healed people.”

That profession of healer evolved until they became doctors, and today Pötzsch is the only one in a long family (parents, brothers, uncles…) who does not earn money as a doctor. But after eating with his family of doctors, he has gained knowledge of anatomy and forensic science, which is well reflected in his latest novel, ‘The Gravedigger’s Book’ (Planet), a historical thriller set in Vienna at the end of the 19th century, a city modern, with its theatres, its cafes and its Prater, with a vibrant nightlife, but also besieged by misery and crime. Pötzsch has been to Madrid -he has also visited the cemetery of Almudena- to present his book.

The play stars Leopold von Herzfeld, a police inspector who investigates a series of disturbing murders of young women with the help of the Viennese cemetery gravedigger, Augustin Rothmayer, a man “with a haggard and emaciated face, the spitting image of the dead “.

Pötzsch meticulously describes the ‘post-mortem’ process with disturbing details about the color, smell or viscosity of the decomposing skin, which are sometimes macabre, but always instructive. “There’s been a lot of talk about it in my house and I’ve seen a lot of pictures,” he explains to justify some passages from the really gory book. An example: «The living dead are often spoken of when corpses look fresh for weeks, even after being buried, when thin bodies suddenly appear fat and swollen. It is only decomposed tissue, the fluidity of which makes the abdomen tense.

The gases push the liquid through all the openings of the body and sometimes cause the appearance of a bubbling foam at the corners of the mouth, giving the feeling that the dead person has been drinking blood. The lips move and it looks like the corpses are chewing. When a visitor to the cemetery comes to a coffin with a corpse in this condition, he is shocked, but it is just the course of earthly things.

In the novel, the main character, the young Inspector Leopold, tries to break through with his new investigative methods, which include collecting fingerprints, photos from the crime scene or taking blood samples… from which his companions spot more police veterans without knowing Leo. revolutionizes criminal science and lays the foundation for the most modern techniques.

There’s also a subplot about the gruesome living burial of a forgotten half-brother of the great composer Johann Strauss, the “Blue Danube,” whose coffin appears to be open and scratched inside. This harrowing story gives Pötzsch the opportunity to talk about the so-called “suspended death” and how the “dead alarm clock” existed in the Vienna cemetery, a cable that connected the base of the corpse to a bell that went off at the slightest movement. “It never sounded,” says the writer, who recalls that when in doubt, he does not rule out writing in his will that they put a stiletto in his heart. There are other alternatives that Pötzsch describes in his book, such as applying a hot iron to the soles of the feet, but “let’s not try, hahahaha!” he exclaims.

A key role in the book is played by the figure of the gravedigger Augustin Rothmayer, whose name is on the one hand a tribute to Augustin, a famous drunkard who has “risen” from the dead and is part of the popular Austrian songbook, and to the man who dug the grave of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, an undertaker named Rothmayer.

Augustin Rothmayer likes to say that the dead have all the time in the world, although Pötzsch prefers to enjoy all that time in life. “It sounds sad, but we all have to die. So, until then, me, partying, sex, drinking, eating and having fun,” he sums up.

Despite being born in Munich, the writer prefers to set the act of ‘The Gravedigger’s Book’ in Vienna, which is not trivial. « I wanted to write a novel set at the end of the 19th century, and at first I thought of setting it in Munich, because I am from Munich, but the atmosphere that prevailed in Europe at the end of the 19th century was in Vienna, not in Munich, not in Madrid, not even in London. It is in Vienna, which at that time also had the largest cemetery in Europe.

The 19th century began with the French Revolution in 1789 and ended with the First World War in 1914 and that period of fantasy, of change, but also of melancholy that I found in Vienna. Vienna is the capital of the dead and that is why I brought the novel there. And besides, the cemetery is one of the most famous in the world. It was the best place to feel that atmosphere of the late 1800s, of decadence, of death. In Germany we usually say that death must be an uncle from Vienna,” he says with a laugh.

Pötzsch recalls that in 1893, the time in which the novel is set, Vienna was the largest cemetery in Europe. Now it occupies fourth place on a list curiously led by La Almudena Cemetery in Madrid, with 120 hectares and five million bodies. “I have visited the Vienna cemetery and you need a map, otherwise you will get lost, as happened to me,” says the narrator who recommends a night visit to the Vienna necropolis, where the Austrian composer Franz Peter is buried, among others Schubert , the weakness of Augustin Rothmayer.

«It was a cemetery on the outskirts of Vienna and people did not like it at all, partly because of the smell that the corpses left behind when they were transported by horse-drawn carriages, so the authorities decided to exhume famous people who lived in the churches in the center of Vienna to bring them there and somehow make it more attractive,” Pötzsch illustrates.

The writer insists that death never goes out of style, so more books about the gravedigger will be forthcoming. The second has in fact already been published in Germany and the third, in which he is now immersed, is another thriller with a background of ghosts and spiritualism, with the same protagonists, the young Inspector Leopold and the unparalleled Augustin Rothmayer.

Source: La Verdad

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