The book: Papierkrieg (for translation of this title see below), by Martin Mucha
The edition: German (original) edition as published by Gmeiner Verlag, 372 pages
The story: how an underpaid philologist sees a drunken girl with a revolver stumble out of the building he lives in, decides to drive her home hoping to get a money reward (or the chance to blackmail her family), and ends up facing a Vienna-wide intrigue involving Russian mafia and art smugglers. Not to worry, though, with a past like his, he is tough enough.
My experience with the book & my thoughts: when I was in Vienna last summer I discovered a series of books published by German publisher Gmeiner Verlag and set in Vienna and in other Austrian locales. (While writing this review I discovered they have a search function on their website to find novels based on where they are set!) The idea sounded great to me (especially so as I was looking for novels set in Vienna for my own reading project), but never having heard of them I was afraid that the books may be low-level, so I decided to buy only one. And I chose the one with beautiful books on the cover and a philologist (i.e. a word-nerd) as protagonist. I knew from the start that it was a crime novel in hard-boiled tradition, i.e. not my cup of tea, but that never stopped me.
Well, guess what? I didn’t like it. It’s a real hard-boiled crime story with a lot of violence and blood and sudden twists. (And I’m at loss as to how to judge it properly.) But at the same time it could be worse: it’s a quick read, and a real romp through all the different levels of Viennese society with its quirks and habits that you never really see as a tourist (or even as an expat).
The part with spoilers: this may even be a given for hard-boiled, I’m not sure, but it disturbed me: how everyone connected with the crimes was somehow already connected to the protagonist (his neighbor, whom Arno has never met, is killed because of a game gone wrong in the gambling house of the old man who considers Arno his protégé, and after dealing in smuggled electronics with the company Arno has contacted by chance that morning?)
What I liked: the way the philologist registered the differences in speak and could recognize the origins of different characters though language alone. Also, very nice flashes of the Vienna I know (café life, Mozart-dressed people selling concert tickets, and so on).
What I didn’t like: almost everything else, but that’s because I don’t like the genre. Most of all I was disturbed by the way the underworld of Vienna is brought to the spotlight. I guess it’s all true (as the parts that I liked are true), but it still felt like washing dirty laundry in public.
Language & writing: be ready for a lot of Viennese dialect — many dialogs were partly lost to me because of that. And be ready for a lot of very detailed descriptions — this was an aspect that made me cringe: how many times do we need to read that he gets home, strips bare, gets in the shower, then puts on such and such clothes, chooses a CD from a never-ending collection, puts it in the CD-player, sits down to listen…
In the author’s own words: I don’t usually translate into English myself, but I feel that this quote gives the tone of the book very well, and that I can manage it, so here it is:
Vienna is where even foreigners are xenophobes.
About the German title: Papierkrieg is a German word usually translated as “paperwork” or “red tape”, but taken at literal value it means “paper war” and I think the title has both meanings and more. Also, here I found the following definition, taken from They have a word for it: a lighthearted lexicon of untranslatable words & phrases by Howard Rheingold (hello wishlist!):
Papierkrieg pah-PEER-kreeg (German) n. The annoyingly complicated bureaucratic paperwork required for making a complaint/ return/ insurance claim/ protesting a ticket/ petitioning for services, et cetera ad nauseam. Rheingold eloquently explains, “Papierkrieg is more deliberate than red tape. Bureaucracies produce red tape the way sawmills produce sawdust or cattle produce manure, as a natural and unwitting byproduct that has to be disposed of or waded through. Papierkrieg is a consciously created obstacle.”
Random link: this time you get a Papierkrieg(the word, not the book)-themed video (it’s in German, but don’t worry, the visual part is enough to make it worthwhile).
Read this if: if you like hard-boiled crimes, I guess you may enjoy it better than I did
Counts as: Travel With Books – Vienna