Book Review: Franz Winter’s Operation Rheingold

A brilliant fictional discourse on the why and the whereabouts of composer Richard Wagner's original scores for The Ring

Among Adolf Hitler’s 50th birthday presents, Wagner’s original scores of Die Walkure and Das Rheingold were some of the most precious artifacts included for safekeeping in the Villa Castiglione. The villa, located on one side of the Grundlsee, contained the Führer’s Library, which had been transferred from Linz when the Nazi-strategists began to fear for their future in 1944. Yet as decades passed, one question continued to hang like a dark cloud over the music world: Where are those original scores now?

Set in a world of globetrotting classical music lovers, Franz Winter’s historical novel Operation Rheingold suggests an answer. Opening with a corpse found at the Toplitzsee waterfall – deep within the idyllic and pristine world of the Styrian Salzkammergut – and a friend’s dogged chase to unravel what smells of murder, the tale takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of unusual sights in Rome, Lisbon and the Algarve. Winter leads us through the labyrinths of his mind, beginning from his family’s homeground, a Gründerzeitvilla standing tall and mysterious on a promontory at the end of the Grundlsee, in search of Richard Wagner’s original opera score for Das Rheingold.

The plot looks simple, the novel’s sentence structure is not.

The novel, and its author by implication, embarks on a penetrating interrogation of the area’s Nazi past. The Ring of the Nibelung, which drew more on Norse than German mythology, portrays the development of society from a state of nature into institutions of state and property. Wagner’s operatic take, veering off from Hegel’s ideas about the original unity of consciousness to the dualism that allows us to make explicit distinctions, which dominated more mainstream German thought at the time, was given a spectacular thrust by the Bavarian King Ludwig II.

Certainly, Winter reflects that German classical mindset and tradition of story telling but he nevertheless takes a different trajectory. Here is an author deeply enamoured with the language, out of which he weaves a tale that involves a reluctant hero tracking a crime within a crime – a murder and an alleged cultural theft – that becomes increasingly intricate as locations and contacts turn labyrinthine, as though yet another pursuit of the Holy Grail.  Winter culls gold nuggets from his mine of experience as a writer in major European cities mainly within the German-speaking countries, as well as co-founder of a musical label on Bach and Mahler, and as an actor and opera director.  With painstaking craft and in exquisite German, he constructs microcosmic and intimate histories, even at the risk of losing his readers, weaving rich tapestries for an atmospheric mise en scène.

At times, it’s too much. Because there are situations where the author seems to be pursuing a straight path through the chase but, just when the tension is at its highest, he diverts you to other details, and suddenly you’re off the scent. He describes the Tote Gebirge, that massif rampart-looking limestone above the timberline that served as a hideaway for Nazi-officialdom and eerily hovers over the Quelle, a mystic-filled spring within pinewoods below, where Walküre Rheintöchter in Dirndls dwell. Here, “the Rheingold-obsessed” Gottfried Kronstein, was last known to have had a champagne breakfast before going up the Tote Gebirge for a Läuterungsweg, a walk in search of enlightenment. His friend Andreas Rothmann from the Berliner Philharmonic surmises all that and more, as he eventually learns about Kronstein’s fate.

But there is another spring that Kronstein knew of, cascading down the boulders through the Vordernbach Alm into the Toplitzsee, scene of many an unsuccessful effort to retrieve Nazi gold and other treasures, many hoarded from rich Jewish families, supposedly lying in the lake’s inaccessible depths.

Ironically, that scene where the author locates Kronstein’s corpse was also the romantic site where the Archduke Johann – the Emperor Franz Josef’s brother – first met Anna Plochl, the local Postman’s daughter, whose fairytale romance with the renegade Hapsburg cloaked the Ausseerland ever after in a special grace as a place of refuge.

In another sense, Operation Rheingold is a clear invitation of a different sort – a Hingabe or offering, by which the reader can delve into worlds the author knows intimately, described in rich detail: From folkloric song to the nuanced tones and rhythms of Austrian dialects, he weaves an intercultural dialogue, like a musical composition, reverberating in one of the most beloved Sommerfrische areas in Austria.

The Auseerland had long been the creative base of many literati like Arthur Schnitzler and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, as well as composers and conductors Gustav Mahler and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Harnoncourt, in fact, appears in the novel, directing the Berlin Philharmonic and explaining how the nursery rhyme “Frère Jacques” – which effectively disguises the Pogrom-Spottlied in Mahler’s First Symphony – should be played.

Inevitably, because Winter also takes issue with the Catholic Church’s murky role during the Nazi Regime, he includes a search through the dark recesses of the Vatican’s archives in Rome’s Anima, the Teutonic College for German and Austrian priests. So we follow a Monsignor first to the Piazza Pio XII in the Vatican for a meeting with a Cardinal-emeritus, where doting nuns serve lunch. Winter parodies how Catholics resort to that mechanism of “confession” – used and abused to absolve crimes – “to save the name of Holy Mother Church”, and for which many were given the penance of exile to that once promised land: Argentina.

And what of love and sex? Rothman discovers romance, starting from the gentrified fishing village Albufeira where he confronts the mysterious Mafalda Oliveira of having led Kronstein to his death with the lure of the Rheingold Partitur – whose command “come follow me” works on him like a trance. She drives along Portugal’s south westernmost coast to the precarious cliffs of the peninsula called Sagres.

In such forsaken and windblown area, Winter’s writing turns to dramatic poetry at its best – resonating theatre director Peter Brook who once described poetry as “a rough magic that fuses opposites.” Suddenly, from a momentary erotic embrace, Andreas slips down and away, he fights the wild Atlantic for his life amidst troubling thoughts of Oliveira’s machinations. Winter reins in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”: Oliveira whispers Rosalind’s words upon helping Rothmann back to shore, “My affection hath an unknown bottom, like the Bay of Portugal”.

There is a troubling inconsistency, a literary cadence in the first and final pages, for example, that feels abrupt as though the author’s passionate concerns had been compromised. Yet, in between the introductory and concluding pages, there is a distinctive and integrated style in the manner of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose that locates Winter’s novel in a different era, demanding the time to savour that may no longer be accessible, especially among younger readers oriented to cold-and-quick efficiencies.

English readers will have to wait for a translation that could equal the rigor of Winter’s Sprachstil. So I may perhaps be allowed to ask: What is gained or lost in translation when the book appears in English, especially where protagonists speak in dialect, let alone the author’s high German and skilful stringing of subordinated beads – auxiliary phrases and qualifying sentences that would make even veteran Anglo-Saxon readers wonder where the action is?

Of course, there’s a good deal of Faustian adventure in the details, and it certainly helped that I’d heard the text read out loud with a partner’s impeccable German diction, which enabled us to taste, hear and more fully sense the author’s Sprachmusik. Winter has produced a novel not just of style or of imagination, but one that enables us to linger on the pleasures of history and culture. He provides a new possibility of understanding amidst the delight of truly “being there”.


Operation Rheingold
by Franz Winter
© 2011, Braumüller Literaturverlag
Hardbound, in German
ISBN 978-3-99200-041-8

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