Last Christmas, I signed up for a one-year subscription of Pushkin Collection books. This was a gift to myself as well as to remind me to maintain a regular reading habit. I didn’t expect work to get crazy right after the new year nor for the manic pace to continue for several months. So while I have been receiving one new Pushkin Collection every month, I have only managed to read one thus far.
It was a weekend and I wanted an easy, entertaining read. I was Jack Mortimer – a psychological thriller set in 1930s Vienna and a Pushkin Collection title – seemed to fit the bill.
The protagonist is Ferdinand Sponer, a 29-year-old taxi driver with beautiful eyes and no money. Sponer is smitten with a beautiful passenger who belongs to Vienna’s privileged upper class and out of his reach.
What begins as a desperate play for attention turns into a manic nightmare after one of Sponer’s passengers gets shot dead in the back of his taxi. Sponer panics and after failing to report the crime to the police, dumps the body into a river. He impersonates the dead person, a certain Jack Mortimer, and checks in at Hotel Bristol where the latter was expected.
The plot gets increasingly incredulous with further bizarre twists and turns. Some scenarios are so absurd that they are comical. The ending of I was Jack Mortimer is anti-climatic, though in a fitting way for Sponer who deserves a wake-up slap.
Written by Austrian writer Alexander Lernet-Holenia, the book was first published in German in 1933 and translated into English by Ignat Avsey. Lernet-Holenia brings to life the streets and sights of Vienna in the novel. Having visited Vienna, it was nice to recognise some of the places mentioned in the book.
It was especially great to be able to visualise the scenes at Hotel Bristol and Hotel Imperial as I’ve stayed in both hotels: The hush hallways, the lofty rooms with their heavy curtains and chandeliers, the porter waiting at the lobby at Hotel Bristol…
Lernet-Holenia is a good storyteller. For instance, take how he describes the hopeless relationship between Sponer and his girlfriend:
At the main entrance they kissed each other, and she suddenly let her head fall on his shoulder.
He stroked her hair. Then she opened the front gate and went in.
It was the end of a love affair that just would not end.
If you have the chance to read I was Jack Mortimer, get ready for a wild-goose chase. Don’t worry, it will be entertaining and you can expect a vivid journey through Vienna in the 1930s.