The 'executioner' who writes about the dead

"I'm not proud, but it's the story of my family," says Oliver Pötzsch, a German from Munich who changed journalism for literature and who at 51 has become a sales phenomenon as if apologizing for his lineage of executioners. in his country, with 3.5 million readers. Oliver, who assumes with a smile the unpronounceability of a surname with six consonants, descends from a long dynasty of fourteen executioners who "actively worked" between the 16th and 19th centuries in southern Bavaria. And not always slicing necks. He recalls that the executioners were not only in charge of executions, "they were also in charge of taking care of the horses in the stables, they took the rubbish out of the cities and, above all, they cured people."

That trade 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 a living as a doctor. But after-dinner talks with his doctor relatives have given him knowledge of anatomy and forensic science that shines 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 theaters, its cafes and its Prater, with a vibrant nightlife, but also besieged by misery and crime. Pötzsch has been in Madrid -he also visited the Almudena cemetery- to present his book.

The play stars Leopold von Herzfeld, a police inspector who investigates a series of disturbing murders of young women and does so with the help of the Viennese cemetery gravedigger, Augustin Rothmayer, a guy "with a haggard and emaciated face, the living image of death ».

Pötzsch crudely details the 'post mortem' process without cutting a hair when describing the decomposition of a corpse. "It is about the course of earthly things"

Pötzsch painstakingly 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. “In my house there has been a lot of talk about it and I have seen many photos”, he explains to justify some passages of the really gory book. An example: «The living dead are often spoken of when corpses continue to maintain a fresh appearance for weeks, even after being buried, when thin bodies suddenly appear fat and swollen. It is only decomposed tissue, whose fluidity makes the abdomen tense.

The gases push the fluid through all the orifices of the body and sometimes cause the appearance of a bubbling foam at the corners of the mouth, giving the sensation that the dead person has drunk blood. The lips move and it seems that the corpses are chewing. When a visitor to the cemetery passes in front of a coffin with a corpse in this condition he is horrified, but it is simply the course of earthly things ».

The 'apparent death'

In the novel, its protagonist, the young inspector Leopold, tries to break through with his new investigative methods that include collecting fingerprints, photographs of the crime scene or taking blood samples... from which his companions more Police veterans scoff without knowing that Leo is revolutionizing criminal science, laying the foundations for the most modern techniques.

Pötzsch before another tomb in the Madrid cemetery. /

Charles Ruiz

There is also a subplot about the atrocious burial alive of a forgotten half-brother of the great composer Johann Strauss, the 'Blue Danube', whose coffin appears open and scratched inside. This distressing story gives Pötzsch the opportunity to talk about the so-called 'apparent death' and how the 'dead alarm clock' existed in the Vienna cemetery, a cable that linked the foot of the corpse with a bell that rang at the slightest movement. "It has never sounded," says the writer, who recalls that, when in doubt, he does not rule out writing in his will that they stick a stiletto in his heart. There are other alternatives that Pötzsch describes in his book, such as applying a glowing iron to the soles of the feet, but “let's not try it, hahahaha!” he exclaims.

Mozart's undertaker

A key role in the book is played by the figure of the gravedigger Augustin Rothmayer, whose name is a tribute, on the one hand, to Augustin, a famous drunk who "risen" from the dead and is part of the popular Austrian songbook, and to the man who he 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 me, until then, party, sex, drink, eat and have a good time », he summarizes.

«Vienna is the capital of the dead, in Germany we usually say that death has to be an uncle from Vienna and for that reason I took the novel there. And also its cemetery is one of the most famous in the world»

Despite the fact that the writer was born in Munich, he has preferred to place the action of 'The Gravedigger's Book' in Vienna, something that is not trivial. « I wanted to write a novel set at the end of the 19th century, and at first I thought of locating it in Munich, because I am from Munich, but the atmosphere that was breathed in Europe at the end of the 19th century was in Vienna, not in Munich, nor in Madrid, not even in London. It is in Vienna, which also at that time 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 I have found in Vienna. Vienna is the capital of the dead and for that reason I took 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 end of the 19th century, of decadence, of death. In Germany we usually say that death has to 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 home to the largest cemetery built in Europe. Now it occupies fourth place on a list curiously headed by the La Almudena cemetery in Madrid, with 120 hectares and five million bodies. “I have toured the Vienna cemetery and you need a map because if not, you will get lost, as has happened to me,” says the narrator who recommends a night visit to the Viennese necropolis, where, among other celebrities, the Austrian composer Franz Peter is buried Schubert, the weakness of Augustin Rothmayer.

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

The writer maintains that death never goes out of style, so there will be more books about the gravedigger. The second, in fact, has 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.