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polt muß weinen

12 july 2017

Polt muß weinen means "Polt must weep" or, more colloquially, "Polt has to cry." The hero of Alfred Komarek's novel, Polt, indeed has occasion to weep. But the novel is also all about wine and wine-making, and in German "wine" is Wein, edging the title close to a pun. But there is no pun in German (that I know of) like the English wine/whine, and German does not have a verb to match the one in the English phrase "wine and dine." Komarek nevertheless chooses a title that allows for poetic associations between wine and weeping.

Polt muß weinen is set in the wine region of lower Austria, near the Czech border. Published in 1998 with a contemporary setting, it gives us a picture of central Europe after the fall of Communism but before the integration of former Warsaw Pact countries into the European Union.

The opening of borders is a minor theme in the novel, though. Wine is a huge theme. Komarek paints a lovingly detailed picture of small-scale wine production, centered on grapes that are still relatively unfamiliar in the US: Grüner Veltliner, Blauer Portugieser, Zweigelt. The men of the villages described in Komarek's novel make wine in Preßhäuser, small single-purpose buildings passed down through generations. As with so many domestic, horticultural ways of life, this kind of Austrian viniculture is collapsing as the 1990s wear on. Mom and pop – well, mostly Pop – wine-making is yielding to large-scale industry. The aging vintners of the fictional Burgheim and Brunndorf must sell some of their wine on the national market, but we see them, for the most part, holed up in their cellars, sampling their own product.

Everything old is new again, naturally, and the oldest wine-maker in the book, Anselm Stepsky, is the herald of the future. Stepsky owns "einen ganz kleinen Weingarten," a really small vineyard, on the edge of the woods, and makes chemical-free wine for his own consumption in a crumbling Preßhaus. "Hat sich was mit den neumodischen Bio-Bauern," Stepsky tells Polt (138-39), "it's a bit like these newfangled organic farmers."

Stepsky is also something of an oracle. He gives Polt a key tip in the murder investigation that drives the plot of the book. Simon Polt is the detective inspector of this wine region, and he's faced with a bewildering puzzle. One of the wine-makers, Albert Hahn, has died in his own Preßhaus. He's been killed by Gärgas, the deadly buildup of carbon dioxide that can be a byproduct of fermentation. Gärgas accidents are apparently not uncommon, but Polt believes that someone has deliberately introduced the gas into Hahn's wine cellar.

That someone must be one of the neighboring vintners, because their cellars connect via various pipes and passageways. But who? Polt muß weinen takes on aspects of the "cozy" detective novel, where a few village characters provide a list of suspects for an overdetermined murder. Naturally, everybody wanted Albert Hahn dead; he was a horrible human being. But alibis abound. Polt's superiors want to chalk the event up to accident so that it doesn't clutter their case files. But we wouldn't be in a Krimi if our protagonist wasn't a stubborn sleuth.

Most of Polt's investigation consists of sitting around in winecellars with the principal suspects, getting drunker and drunker. He is stung by the realization that the way of life these cellars represent is disappearing, the Preßhäuser on their way to being replaced by holiday homes for those eager to simulate a bygone way of life. He's stung even harder by the thought that his very investigation will speed the disappearance of that way of life.

Polt muß weinen is a little slow at times, and doesn't show much police procedure. Clues don't accumulate; new events don't throw much light on old. But Komarek creates sharply defined characters, and the novel builds to a taut and memorable conclusion. It would become the first in a long series of Polt novels. They haven't been translated into English, and for that matter are not well-known outside Austria, where they've recently been reissued in paperback. Polt muß weinen, at least, deserves to have a wider audience.

Komarek, Alfred. Polt muß weinen. 1998. Innsbruck / Wien: Haymon, 2016.