Dungeons & Austrians

By John Wray, the author of the novels Canaan’s Tongue and The Right Hand of Sleep (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 02/05/08):

Austria, that lovely little Alpine republic on the banks of the Danube, has a new and deeply lamentable claim to international notoriety: As of this past weekend, we officially lead the free world in the abduction and confinement of young girls in soundproof, subterranean apartments.

The summer before last, we had the bizarre — and, to all appearances, unique — case of Natascha Kampusch, who endured eight years’ confinement in a basement cell built by Wolfgang Priklopil, a former communications technician for Siemens, in the town of Strasshof in the province of Lower Austria.

For a brief moment after Ms. Kampusch’s escape, the eyes of the world were closely trained on Strasshof, as much in admiration of her courage as in horror at her captor’s actions. Scattered references were made to Austria’s history, but not many. The general sense was that this heinous crime could have happened anywhere, not least because it was difficult to think of a situation so grotesque and extreme as being representative of anything whatsoever. Wolfgang Priklopil’s very perversity was, in a sense, the most convincing argument for his uniqueness.

That, however, was before this past weekend. The case of Josef Fritzl — a man from the Lower Austrian town of Amstetten who, the authorities say, locked his daughter in a basement dungeon for 24 years and fathered seven children by her — not only makes Priklopil’s crime seem like a schoolboyish prank, but also places its predecessor in an entirely new context: that of a series, perhaps even of a trend.

There was a time — a long-lost golden age, dating roughly from the release of “The Sound of Music” to just before the scandal surrounding Kurt Waldheim’s election — when Austria had an enviable reputation abroad: birthplace of Sigmund Freud, cradle of classical music, famed for its cafes and strudel. My country’s place in history (if, to your average non-Austrian, it had one at all) was a sympathetic, almost sentimental one, largely on the long-unquestioned grounds that the Austrians had been Hitler’s “first victims.”

Hard times, however, inevitably hit: the revelation in 1986 of Waldheim’s Nazi past, the refusal of a number of prominent museums in the late 1990s to return contested paintings to the Jewish families who had originally owned them, the admission of the extreme-right Freedom Party into the coalition government in 2000. Aside from Red Bull and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Austrians had precious little to boast about.

Finally, to virtually everyone’s relief, Michael Haneke’s Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 2001 (for his movie “The Piano Teacher”) and Elfriede Jelinek’s Nobel Prize for literature in 2004 gave those of us who are conscious of international opinion a small crumb of hope. For the first time in a long while, it seemed, people in Paris or Tokyo or New York might be discussing our country in somewhat more favorable terms (provided, of course, they discussed it at all).

Now we are on the defensive again, this time about our status as, in the words of a marketing executive quoted in The Times of London, “the land of dungeons.” Alfred Gusenbauer, the chancellor of Austria, has already announced a public-relations effort to salvage our country’s reputation. “It’s not Austria that is the perpetrator,” Mr. Gusenbauer said. Heinz Fischer, the Austrian president, declared, “There is definitely nothing fundamentally Austrian in this case.”

The question, however, remains: What is one to make, as a rational person, of the stupefying degree of correspondence between the two crimes? An attractively pat case for cultural specificity could be assembled, making those allusions to internment, denial and ruthless efficiency that are practically begging to be made. It certainly does seem significant that two men could have carried out their plans so successfully not only in the same country, but in the same province, not 100 miles removed from one another.

But digesting that significance may take some time yet. None of the country’s ills, unfortunately, are exclusively Austrian privileges. Whenever something that ought not to happen in a civilized country does in fact happen, the need arises, quite naturally, to isolate its causes and explain them. Quite often, this is the only comfort available.

While the world at large (or at least the world’s press) is endeavoring to identify which peculiarly Austrian traits made the Josef Fritzl case possible, Viennese acquaintances of mine are busily discussing the case in regional terms, as a specifically Lower Austrian species of nightmare. At this very moment, no doubt, the residents of Ludwigsdorf, the next town over to Amstetten, are comforting themselves with the fact that such a crime has never happened there, and they’re perfectly right.

Not yet, at least. Not as far as anybody knows.