Shadow Without a Name: A Novel

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9780374261900: Shadow Without a Name: A Novel

A stunning debut by one of Mexico’s most dazzling younger writers, who “represents the continuation and reinvigoration of literature in our country” (Carlos Fuentes)

In 1916, Victor Kretzchmar and Thadeus Dreyer face each other over a chessboard on a train heading to the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s disastrous Eastern Front. The stakes are high: the winner will take Kretzchmar’s identity as a railway signalman and live out the war in safety. The loser will go to certain death.

In 1943, the decorated World War I hero and influential Nazi General Thadeus Dreyer is in charge of training doubles to stand in for leading Nazis at dangerous public events. But when the Amphitryon Project falls out of favor with Goering, Dreyer and the doubles disappear.
In 1960, Adolf Eichmann, a master chess player, is arrested in Buenos Aires, where he has been living under an assumed name. One of the few escaped Nazis to be recaptured, he is extradited to Israel and executed. Only an old Polish count claims to know Eichmann’s true identity, but he dies before it can be revealed.

The clues to what ties all of these men together are concealed in an old manuscript that the count has left to his heirs—an unlikely trio of misfits who suddenly find themselves at the center of a dangerous game.

This gripping novel from acclaimed author Ignacio Padilla explores questions of identity and history against the turbulent backdrop of twentieth-century Europe.

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About the Author:

Ignacio Padilla is the author of several award-winning novels and short story collections, and is currently the cultural attaché at the Mexican Embassy in London.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Excerpt from Shadow Without a Name by Ignacio Padilla. Copyright © 2003 by Ignacio Padilla. To be published in April, 2003 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
Franz T. Kretzschmar

Buenos Aires, 1957

My father used to say his name was Viktor Kretzschmar. He was a pointsman on the Munich-Salzburg line and not the type to decide, on the spur of the moment, to commit a crime. His apparent rashness in adversity concealed an extremely calculating mind, an ability to wait years for the right circumstances to hit a long-cherished target. So, while apparently taciturn, he was privately given to unforeseeable outbursts of rage, which made him a time bomb on a short fuse. These were not spontaneous impulses, but the product of that endless soliloquy he pursued with his defeated self, as one who, I'm sure, could have drilled a tunnel through basalt rock driven by the hope of one day recovering the light which was snatched from him in his youth. I once saw him hide for more than ten hours awaiting the reappearance of a famished hare which had dodged his first shots of the day. It was night-time before the animal finally surrendered to its executioner, finished off with a flurry of kicks which soon reduced it to an inedible lump of blood and snow.

Years later, while my father half-heartedly denied the railway tribunal's accusations, I asked my mother if she remembered that story of the hare, but she could not or would not answer me. Since the accident she'd locked herself into an impenetrable silence in solidarity, I thought at first, with the family's disgrace. Later, however, when she heard the judge's verdict, my mother sighed deeply, dropped her head and let out a wail of relief, freed at last of a burden that had poisoned every second of her existence. My words of consolation, offered from the depth of my own confusion, barely calmed her. Then, as if making an indirect reply to my question about the hare, she pointed at my father and muttered, 'That man, my son, is called Thadeus Dreyer, and he despises trains from the bottom of his heart.'

At first I thought my mother was delirious, referring to someone else - as if a perverse shadow had suddenly appeared behind Viktor Kretzschmar, the cause of all his misfortunes, and especially of the disaster that was likely to keep him in prison for the rest of his days. But my mother's gaze was unequivocally fixed on her husband's anxious face. She had decided to reveal to me the true nature of the actions and torments of pointsman Viktor Kretzschmar.

I'd known since I was a child that my father's real name wasn't Viktor Kretzschmar and it hadn't in the least sullied my blind admiration for him. For me, it had always been a closely guarded family secret, permeating my existence and giving rise to a boyish conspiratorial pride. On the other hand, this unexpected declaration of his hatred for trains had the frisson of a revelation which cut the cord between childhood and maturity. As far back as I could remember, I'd always thought my father had adored trains, ever since the day when, on board one, he'd staked his destiny on a game of chess and won. That someone could doubt the importance of a pointsman or the grandeur of those imposing metal beasts plunged him into endless depression. His eternal devotion to everything to do with railways had taken up his entire life; now I think his existence was, in some way, dedicated to demonstrating that his peculiar way of procuring the pointsman's job was more than an anecdotal whim of fate. He'd believed the game of chess on board a train heading for the eastern front in the war of 1914 was the culmination of a plan hatched by a compassionate demiurge, sparing him from certain death.

For a long time I'd imagined that historic game played in a sumptuous smokers' compartment packed with officers and high-society ladies. The gloved hands, swaying crests, ivory pieces and aromatic pipe-smoke flooded my childish fancies for years, and my parents never bothered to disabuse me. After the accident, however, I heard from my mother that things had happened quite differently.

My father must have been younger than I thought, though not young enough to avoid the 1916 levy that shook the outer rims of an Austro-Hungarian Empire intent on reinforcing its eastern front. Somewhere I still have a photo of my grandfather--a peasant from Vorarlberg about whom I know next to nothing--in the village station bidding farewell to the last of his uniformed offspring. The old man is wearing a satisfied smile, inconceivable in someone surrendering his son to a war which would soon be a lost cause. The young recruit doesn't seem to share his father's enthusiasm; he's looking the other way, his smile forced, wanly embracing my grandfather as if about to faint in the middle of the station. It's almost as if he's waiting for a chance to run out of the photograph and vanish into the mountains, where the whistle blast from the train about to carry him before the cannon of the Entente won't reach him. I reckon he's barely twenty, no more, and his face betrays the fear of a young man discovering, perhaps too late, the value of his short life which was suddenly under threat. I imagine my grandfather had to order him to smile for the camera and perhaps felt it necessary to push him towards the train with the unrelenting energy of an old peasant whose greatest satisfaction in life, according to my mother, had been to sacrifice his two eldest sons to the fatherland. Whatever the truth of that, the fact is my father didn't find the nerve to head for the mountains, and was left cowering in an old, dilapidated compartment, completely unlike the carriage of my fantasies. There he must have sunk into a moribund lethargy, his cadaverous hand waving goodbye to his family through the broken window which brought in an ominous gust of wind and the locomotive's infernal smoke. My young father must have sat there some four hours before his opponent, the real Viktor Kretzschmar, entered the coach.

I find it difficult to understand why I always imagined Kretzschmar to be an impeccable Victorian gentleman, maybe a retired officer whose mere presence would have instilled in the recruit a mixture of panic and respect. Perhaps my father once described him like that in his desire to hide the pathetic reality of the scene and its tragic consequences. Or perhaps it was simply the unruly engine of my imagination. Years later my mother cut that image down to size. The man on the train, she confessed, sobbing, as we left the courtroom, was just one more young man from the provinces who had contrived to use a distant uncle's influence to avoid conscription and get a job as a pointsman in the Salzburg district. Weaving her own fictions as a woman wounded by her husband's disgrace, my mother described this mysterious gambler as an alcoholic, a rabid opportunist who took a sick pleasure in snaring idle travellers and adolescents resigned enough to the disasters of war to gamble away their few possessions to a stranger. Of course, I don't know how far my mother's version had been skewed by my father's admissions during more than fifteen years of chequered matrimonial bliss. All in all, and I'm not sure why, when the accident happened and the judges suggested pointsman Kretzschmar's carelessness could well have been premeditated, my mother's description turned the Victorian gentleman into a terrifying spectre: suddenly, my glorious image of the real Viktor Kretzschmar was replaced by the striking vision of my youthful father shaking with fear, rushing to wrest from a drunken Mephistopheles the coins he hoped would cheer his last days in Belgrade.

My father, I must insist, was never the model of moderation. That night, to begin with, he was robbed of all he had in a couple of minutes. Unlike my mother, I don't think this happened in a game of chess; it seems more likely to have been a banal hand of poker played with marked cards or sleight of hand picked up in some low dive. Equally, I doubt my father was unduly worried by losing money he would have frittered away on Turkish cigarettes or Hungarian prostitutes. What must have driven him to see that contest through and transfer it to the 0chessboard, where he operated more skilfully, was some compelling need for at least one triumph before enemy artillery ended his journey in defeat. His rival must have spotted this desire for victory in the conscript's eyes. He perhaps also felt the moment had come to stake everything, not on a chance hand of cards, but on a game at which he was also expert, one much more worthy of the fearsome wager both travellers were about to place on the small table in that dingy compartment.

An adept chess player, my father used to say whenever he explained a masterly move to me, recognizes immediately, even in the strangest of circumstances, those who are his peers. However, he embarks on a game only when he is sure he has measured his opponent's strengths, and never--absolutely never--will he wager on the outcome anything less than his own life. I don't know which of the two made the initial proposal, or at what ill-starred moment the board eventually made an appearance. I do know the game's parameters were soon starkly defined, through the haze which clouds the rest of the story. If my father won, the other man would take his place on the eastern front and hand over his job as pointsman in hut nine on the Munich-Salzburg line. If, on the other hand, my father lost, he would shoot himself before the train reached its destination.

It may seem ridiculous, but that kind of suicidal wager was common currency in this time of tribulation when lives, minds and fates were particularly fragile, and the identity of a pointsman or recruit mattered little to the imperial authorities, provided the empty slot were filled. In a war which seemed infinitely protracted, sooner or later all men would bleed to death in the same trench. Their names, like their lives, would be levelled to an echoing anonymity. In my opinion, the wager never include...

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