Extract from Michael Mitchell's translation

Hermann Ungar's The Maimed

When the shadow of his aunt had appeared in the light of the open doorway, Franz Polzer already knew how terrible a woman's nakedness was. At the shadow of his aunt, as at the sight of Frau Porges, he was tormented by the terrible thought that this naked body was not closed up. That a ghastly slit yawned on bottomless depths. Like flesh cut open, like the folds of skin along a gaping wound. He refused to look at the pictures and statues of naked women in art galleries. He did not want ever to touch the body of a naked woman. It seemed to him there must be uncleanness there and a disgusting smell. He only saw Frau Porges during the day, in her clothes. In spite of that, he was tormented by the image of her fat, naked body.

When Frau Porges came into his room, Polzer kept his eyes on the newspaper and avoided looking at her. Despite that, he noticed how her figure became more rounded year by year. Sometimes he could feel her eyes on him. At such moments he did not dare move. He never understood how it had come to that first conversation between them. He had thought she scarcely paid any attention to him either. It happened one evening when she brought him his supper. Everything started with that evening.

Polzer was sitting at the table when she came in. He fixed his eyes on the newspaper, although he wasn't reading. Uneasily, he waited for the door to close behind her. He heard her steps go towards the door. Suddenly he knew that she was standing by the door, looking at him. He kept his eyes glued to the paper. He could feel she wanted him to say something, but he said nothing. He was going to wait and not move until she left.

Then he heard her sob. He looked up. She put her face in her hands and started to weep bitter tears.

It worried him that while she was crying she lost her breath and had to gasp for air. He realised he had to do something and stood up. He had no idea what to do. Completely at a loss, he asked her to calm down and tell him the reason for her sorrow. But Frau Porges did not calm down. She had sunk to the ground and was gasping for breath in a manner that was becoming more and more alarming. So Polzer went over to her and tried to pull her hands away from her face. At the same time he helped her to her feet.

She stopped crying and began to speak, haltingly at first, interrupted by sobs. The cause of her distress, she said, was his heartless behaviour towards her, a poor, abandoned widow. She worked her fingers to the bone looking after him and in all the years she had not heard one little word of thanks from him.

Polzer had moved away from her and did not interrupt.

‘You treat me like a servant,’ she said.

She was silent and seemed to be expecting an answer.

‘I wouldn't dream of it, Frau Porges,’ he replied.

‘You do,’ she said. ‘Like a servant. You never ask me what I do when I've finished my work, how I'm going to spend my Sunday. You go out, and I'm left alone in the apartment.’

‘I omitted to do so, Frau Porges, because it never occurred to me, and because I did not know you valued my company. But if you wish, we can go for a walk together on Sunday, Frau Porges.’

She gave Polzer a joyful look. He suddenly realised with horror what he had said.

‘We'll go out to Kuchelbad,’ she said. ‘First thing in the morning.’

‘In the afternoon, Frau Porges,’ replied Polzer.

That happened on Thursday. He spent Friday and Saturday in a sweat of agitation. He heard Frau Porges singing as she busied herself with the pots and pans in the kitchen. He passed her on the stairs. She looked at him with a meaningful smile. Polzer decided to flee.

That was during the Saturday night. He checked his things and thought out a plan. He had to leave the building in the morning, while she was still asleep. He had to find somewhere to live in one of the districts outside the city centre. He had seen room-to-let signs on houses. He resolved to be cautious and enquire whether there were young women or children there before he took the room. Also to observe the people to see if they looked honest. There were increasing reports of thefts, of murders even.

Towards morning it suddenly occurred to him that it would mean losing all his belongings and that he had no money because Frau Porges looked after it. Moreover she could always wait for him outside the bank. He realised there was no escape from her.