The ‘executor’ who writes about the dead


“I’m not proud, but this is the story of my family,” says Oliver Potzsch, a German from Munich who turned journalism for literature and at age 51 has become a sales phenomenon like his own lineage of executioners. apologize for In his own country, with 3.5 million readers. Oliver, who with a smile assumes the uncannyness 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 cutting the neck. He recalls that the executioner was not only in charge of the executions, “he was also in charge of looking after the horses in the stables, he took out the garbage from the cities and, above all, he cured the people.”

That trade of physician flourished until he became a physician, and today Potzsch is the only one in a long family (parents, brothers, uncles…) who does not earn a living as a doctor. But post-dinner conversations with his doctor relatives have given him knowledge of anatomy and forensic science, which shines through in his latest novel, ‘The Gravediger Book’ (Planet), a historical thriller set in the 19th century. is a city founded in Vienna at the end of the year. Modern, with its theatres, its cafes and its praetor, with a lively nightlife, but also surrounded by misery and crime. Pottsch has been in Madrid – he even 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 a Viennese cemetery gravedigger, Augustin Rothmayer, a man, “a dull and Living image of death, with emaciated face. ».

Describing the decomposition of a corpse, Pottsch critically details the ‘postmortem’ process without cutting hair. “It is about the course of earthly things”

Potzsch describes a ‘post-mortem’ process with disturbing details about the colour, smell or stickiness of the rotting skin, which is 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 excerpts from a truly bloody book. An example: «The living dead are often talked about when corpses remain fresh for weeks after burial, when thin bodies suddenly appear thick and swollen. It is only the disintegrating tissue, the fluidity of which makes the stomach tense.

The gases push the fluid through all the pores 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 drank blood. Lips move and it seems that corpses are chewing. When a person coming to the cemetery passes in front of a coffin with a corpse in this condition, he is horrified, but this is only the order of worldly things.

‘apparent death’

In the novel, its protagonist, the young Inspector Leopold, tries to break through his new investigative methods that include collecting fingerprints, photographs of the crime scene, or taking blood samples… laying the foundation for the most modern techniques, the criminal. revolutionizing science.

Potzch before another mausoleum in the Madrid Cemetery. ,

charles ruizzo

There is also a subplot about the brutal burial of the forgotten half-brother of the legendary composer Johann Strauss, the ‘Blue Danube’, whose coffin is uncovered and scratched inside. This harrowing story gives Potts an opportunity to talk about the so-called ‘apparent death’ and how the ‘dead alarm clock’ existed in the Vienna cemetery, a cable that connected the leg of the corpse to a bell that could The hustle was ringing. “Never heard it,” says the author, who remembers, when in doubt, that he refuses to write in his will that he sticks a stiletto in his heart. There are also other options that Potts describes in his book, such as applying a glowing iron to the soles of the feet, but “let’s not try it, hahaha!” He says.

Mozart’s venture

An important role in the book is played by the figure of the grave digger Augustin Rothmayr, whose name is a tribute, on the one hand, to Augustin, a famous drunkard who “rised” from the dead and is part of the popular Austrian songbook, and To the man he had dug the grave of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, an undertaking named Rothmayer.

Augustin Rothmayer likes to say that the dead have all the time in the world, although Pötzsch prefers to enjoy that time in life. “It sounds sad, but we all have to die. So I, until then, party, have sex, drink, eat and have a good time,” he summarizes.

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

Despite the fact that the author was born in Munich, he preferred to keep the action of ‘The Gravediger Book’ in Vienna, something that is not trivial. « I wanted to write a novel set in the late 19th century, and at first I thought of finding it in Munich, because I am from Munich, but the atmosphere that breathed in Europe at the end of the 19th century was Vienna, Not in Munich, not in Madrid, not even in London. It is in Vienna, which at the time was also 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 imagined, changed, but also a period of melancholy I have found in Vienna. Vienna is the capital of the dead and that is why 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 decadence, death, of the late 19th century. In Germany we usually say that death has to be an uncle from Vienna,” he laughs.

Pottsch recalls that in 1893, at the time the novel is set, Vienna was home to the largest cemetery ever built in Europe. It now ranks fourth on the list led by La Almudena Cemetery in Madrid, with 120 hectares and five million bodies. “I’ve visited the Vienna Cemetery and you need a map because if not, you’ll be lost, as has happened to me,” says the narrator who recommends a night visit to the Viennese Necropolis, where other celebrities In between, the Austrian composer Franz Peter is buried Schubert, the weakness of Augustin Rothmaier.

«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 excavate famous people who were in the churches in the center of Vienna, to bring them there and to make it somehow more attractive”, shows Pottsch.

The author says 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 protagonist, the young Inspector Leopold and the unique Augustin Rothmayer.

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