The Masochist

Katja Perat

Illustration by Emily S. Franklin

If the facts contradict the theory, so much worse for the facts.


“You’re nothing like him,” said the innkeeper, widening his eyes in disbelief. His German was rigid but faultless. He had tried very hard so as to avoid reproach for not trying hard enough. In spite of the circumstances, his guesthouse was further testament to pedantry. It was a small hole three doors down from the Armenian church, in the centre of town (though—to be perfectly frank—was anything in Lemberg considered central?), wedged between houses and streets and littered with drunkards; yet every tablecloth, every glass, stood in its place as if a display. He had to go to great lengths, the innkeeper, whilst no-one was watching, to maintain order in this place which so easily succumbed to disarray.

“You’re nothing like him.” And—to be completely honest—I really wasn’t. I looked more like this unknown innkeeper (the hair, for one) than Leopold. It would be quite the comedy if he turned out to be my father.

Though there was no particular warmth to the tone of his voice, something intimated that this denial of similarity was intended as a compliment. I was rather surprised by how he persevered at making conversation, especially given that he clearly took no pleasure from it all. He posed questions—where was I from, where was I going—which might have seemed casual had they been posed differently, but his innate disgruntlement instilled an air of interrogation. He wasn’t exactly a personable man, this innkeeper. He was cold, practical, apathetic. Upon mention of my family name, he first recalled the old police chief; a good man he was, he said, and then his son, who—so he’d heard—had become a writer.

“And a fantasist, if I’m not mistaken?” he said, tending to a glass. Only a man who has never truly taken a beating can afford to dream of being whipped by women in furs. “You’re nothing like him.”

What he wanted to say was: Leopold von Sacher-Masoch was a revolting man, while you are rather pleasant. Are you convinced that you are his daughter?

Though strictly speaking it wasn’t true, Leopold loved to indulge himself at every possible opportunity to tell the tale of his wolf-child.

This is Nada, my wolf-child, he said, and so he would say until it stuck, until everyone who knew him knew that he had, and was raising, a wolf-child. Given that he found me at barely a day old, there’s not a chance I could have grown up in the cellar of some madman with Carpathian natives or wolves, but why would people trouble themselves with the facts, when fiction is so much more enticing?

In the way that Leopold marketed the story of my birth, there was always a sense—though he never said this aloud—that it would have been in his best interests if I hadn’t had human parents at all. He also took great pleasure in stressing that no, he really wasn’t my father, as if it never occurred to him that this would ring out as the most fundamental of all fundamental rejections to the girl who had placed all of the love and trust of her childhood in him. He certainly loved me, but it was a love that was sometimes so useless.

How unjust, I often thought after Anna’s death, that the woman who experienced my birth, the pregnancy that preceded it, and perhaps even a love which came before that—that this woman who experienced all of those palpable anxieties never found her own place in Leopold’s story, even though it was Leopold who loved to say that it was women, not men, who should be entrusted with history.

This I know: no child is witness to their own birth. But something about the way that Leopold moulded the story of my birth into a secret has always prompted me to feel that I don’t know as much about myself as others might. He had two opposing theories, both fantastical, both beautiful, and neither of them true. In the first I grew from the earth. In the second I fell from the sky.

The first went something like this: On Christmas Day 1874, Leopold vanished into the unknown. After years of absence, it turned out that he’d hurried off to Lemberg on a short excursion. Ever the cosmopolitan intellectual inclined to musing over his existence, one afternoon he set out for a walk in the woods and came across a basket by a pile of broken branches and some freshly fallen snow. And, as the fable goes, where there’s a basket, there must also be a child. Miraculously alive.

It was so easy to grow accustomed to his universe. Leopold was too great an enthusiast and his capacity for realism was far too limited for worries to even occur to him. He drew back the cloth covering the basket (chequered, as the traditional story goes), and gazed into my eyes (as black as the night sky above the Carpathian basin, as the traditional story goes—Leopold loved to exaggerate). And so Project Wolf-Child was born, most likely a day before I was even born myself. There was no doubt in Leopold’s mind. He knew: The girl that he found in the woods was not just a girl. She was the essence of the Slavic soul, and how could it be otherwise, when she had grown straight from the earth, just like any idea worth its salt. Perhaps this also accounts for why he so liked to insist that no, he really wasn’t my father (“but she has your exact traits, unbelievable,” someone once ventured, even though it wasn’t true)—because he himself was tainted. His blood was the blood of oppressors, whereas I needed to be pure. I needed to have at least a fleeting chance of playing out a historical role, if only I should want it (and how he tried to make me want it). How that role should materialise, how it was defined in practical terms, or with which political means I ought to play it out, was never quite clear; but what had been clear for some time was its aim, foggy as it was: I was born to balance inequality and to right injustices. He often suggested, despite praising the diversity of nationalities within his homeland, that I could become liberator of the Slavs. I could, if I wanted, satisfy myself with something small, such as a good law, for example, but what a shame, what a crying shame that would be, given everything that was laid before me in the cradle.

The second story began in the same way, except its genesis was metaphysical rather than historical. Leopold disappeared into the silence of the night, roamed around, and returned to his roots through a series of delusions. Lemberg, the forest, and a child in a basket were permanent features. But this time the child, a red-haired little girl, had not grown from the earth but had instead been released from the frozen winter’s sky, like a shooting star, a fallen angel, sent to earth to bewitch and captivate the hearts of every mortal she was destined to meet. Again, Leopold really did like to exaggerate.

I knew that my birth was literature to him. I was like Athena, born directly out of his mind. Like a mythical creature, my image had been conceived of so as to symbolise something of greater significance. But a child does not want to be a symbol. A child wants to be important in its own right.

A significant fact: Leopold worshipped cats. Wherever he went, from all around he would attract some cat or other—as cute as it was neglected—and it’s impossible to judge which attribute he valued most highly: beauty or neglect. I soon learnt to understand that I occupied a similar place in his life. I was a ginger stray cat who piqued his interest and whom he would take home to use as a joyful distraction precisely whenever he didn’t have more important work to do.

In short I wasn’t really Leopold’s daughter, no. Yet in spite of everything, I wanted to protect him from the avalanche of mockery promised by the innkeeper’s malicious allusion to Leopold’s masochism, and from the cruelty typical of small-minded people who so loved to say their piece. All they saw in him was an unctuous aristocrat who could afford the luxury of a perverted imagination because he’d been dealt far too kind a hand to be burdened with genuine real-life concerns. I could all too easily picture my own mother: farmhand, actress, gypsy, whoever she was, a disgruntled woman who pushes open the door of the inn, sits at the bar, orders, drinks up, and sees me, just as this innkeeper sees Leopold. As if all that consumes me is worthless, hollow, imaginary. If I’d have known what to say to protect Leopold from the mockery, I might have somehow protected myself. But it didn’t work. He was too angry, this innkeeper, for there to be any room left for empathy. That I was not the one on the receiving end of his anger was of very little comfort to me. We may not look too much alike, Leopold and I, but we had far too much in common for me not to take offence whenever someone offended him.

I fled Vienna with the same melodrama with which Leopold had done. As if to say: measure my value by the pain of my absence. And like him, I too did not quite understand how to ease the disappointment brought about by the gulf between expectation and reality. I don’t know exactly what I expected of Lemberg, when I sat down on the train. That it would reveal itself to me as the home I’d never had? That it would offer answers to questions which could not otherwise be put before relatives for fear of embarrassment? A fable, in which crystalline snow creaks under the weight of a jingling sleigh? Peace in my soul? Whatever it was that I expected, what was handed to me instead was the innkeeper’s frowning face, overcooked dumplings, and some cold provincial truths, with people suspiciously snooping on one another from behind the shutters, especially on me, who had no business in being there.

Leopold found it very difficult to accredit everything he loved—but for which he did not want to be held personally accountable—to this land. If his grievance had been with the land alone—which, by definition, bound to silence, could not defend itself—things might have still worked out. But with the land came people. And people prefer to speak for themselves, rather than be spoken for on behalf of a man who squandered all his assets on countless fur coats for his lovers.

Just as the innkeeper would say: “And do you know—I prefer the monarchy as it is, over this Pan-Slavism with an Austrian face. Please, I ask you; what does that even mean?”

It was funny to observe how, despite being quite naturally repulsed by Leopold, the innkeeper spoke about him passionately and at great length, because for him Leopold was someone whose mistakes enhanced his own infallibility. After all, Leopold’s political philosophy was empty fabrication; an invention of his perverted mind; a game that rich people played when they were bored. His, on the other hand, was born out of necessity, which gave it authenticity and power. It was justified by the life he was forced to live. I found his self-infatuation embarrassing, but if I’m completely honest, it was envy that I felt more than anything else. Conviction, a sense of place, certainty. Roots. It’s no wonder he liked me; everything about me reassured him of his own personal choices.

It was clear: if I had travelled to the end of the earth in search of revelation, I had walked in vain. But we all know that it wasn’t about revelation. I had come here to avoid responsibilities, just like Leopold.

“I’m sure,” I said to the innkeeper. “I really am his daughter.”

He frowned and shook his head in doubt.

Funny, he said. You’re nothing like him.

“My husband shot my lover once,” I said. Like I said—kindred souls, not kindred features. That’s what makes me my father’s daughter.

“I’m all ears,” he said, placing a glass of vodka before me.

Maybe I was mistaken; maybe in spite of everything there was room for empathy after all. Or was it curiosity? It was sometimes difficult to tell the two apart.



It would be wrong to say that Maximilian was ugly. If I observed him from afar, sorting through papers or reading the newspaper in the right light, I could sometimes bring myself to agree with all those who claimed he was handsome. And yet later on, when I read Anna Karenina, I knew that Tolstoy had been wrong. There was no way that it took Anna so long to realise how big her husband’s ears were. She would have known this all along, certainly; it just took her a long while to be able to admit it to herself. Just as I turned a blind eye whenever Maximilian slurped his food, she too would look away and try to convince herself that it was a trivial matter which, regardless of how much it bothered her, would, with time, disappear of its own accord.

It would also be wrong to say that he didn’t love me. Like Leopold, he too was very taken with the story of the wolf-child. And with my red hair. And my stupid name. Nadezhda, what a cruel joke. Hope, Leopold loved to say, there is hope hidden in your name. And curiously, in a sense he was right. There was hidden hope in my name—the hope that one day someone will know how to pronounce it correctly. That for once someone won’t ask me twice to repeat it, and then a third time fall silent out of politeness. The hope that it will one day go unnoticed without some woman mentioning, seemingly without any restraint, that her servant has the same name. Maximilian loved all that seemed exotic, especially if not actually foreign and he wasn’t needlessly burdened by its enigma, which is what made me, with my name, hair, and pedigree, a natural choice from the very beginning. And that was certainly a love of sorts. And of course it’s entirely possible that each time I convinced myself that the reason I was tense around him was because he didn’t love me—or at least, because he didn’t love me enough—I was actually just avoiding reality: that it was I myself who was lacking in love.

I met him in Lindheim, in the town where I learnt to hate Leopold, and it’s not inconceivable that it was this very hatred that implored me to transfer the feelings once directed at Leopold to someone else.

We moved to Lindheim, the most boring of all boring German towns, because Leopold decided that in his later years he’d like to have one more try at establishing whether love existed after all. He divorced Wanda, with whom he’d lived until that point, and remarried with Hulda, his secretary and translator.

One life replaced another overnight, and then settled in with us for the duration. Hulda’s house became our home, as did Lindheim, even though everything within it was repulsive. Though it wasn’t the first time I’d lived in the provinces, it was the first time I’d lived a provincial life, which meandered from mealtime to mealtime with short intervals for school, duties, and the occasional walk. It was unfair of me to hate Lindheim as I did, certainly, but knowing that it was unjustified did nothing to diminish its strength. I hated it, because I hated Hulda, and because it was, just like Hulda, forced upon me as a consequence of Leopold’s recklessness.

To this day I still don’t know if it was Leopold who left Wanda, or if in reality it was quite the opposite, and Wanda left Leopold. But even back then I knew that for him their separation would constitute a mere blip in his biography, whereas she might be robbed of every chance of a normal life. Though she was almost certainly hardly ever happy with Leopold and most of her energy was spent on keeping him financially and emotionally above water, as if her own wellbeing were secondary, she had an established role with him; and without him, her place in the world was uncertain.  

Poor Wanda, I thought, as I watched her trying to uphold the right to her own version of events about their separation. And how she failed—how cruel it was that everyone automatically sided with Leopold. How cruel of me that even I automatically sided with Leopold, even I, knowing full well at the time that I hated him more than anyone. How greedily I sought his attention and recognition, how happy I was when he decided to take me with him to Lindheim after they parted ways. Leopold was mad, obviously: manic, neurasthenic, feverish; everyone was in agreement on that, but he was like a child who couldn’t possibly be held responsible. But Wanda, she was a schemer who used his name to advance her position, a frivolous woman, a spiteful bitch who lacked the dignity and grace to silently accept her fate as a divorcee. There was even something superficial about my sympathy then, as a child, as if I had this latent fear that something similar might happen to me if I were not careful as I got older; an unease at the thought of love being there in the morning, but by evening, when you go to reach for it, instead all you find is lifeless indifference lying there on the bedside table. So superficial was my sympathy that it would be difficult to still call it sympathy at all. It was as if I had been the principal victim. And I was driven to despair by the thought of how quickly Wanda was replaced, and how inconsequential her successor was, as if I would be abandoned myself.

Though Wanda was no more my mother than Hulda was, it was Hulda whom I always thought of as a stepmother, and suspiciously I waited for the day when she would serve me up a poisoned apple or hire a hitman to pursue me and present her with my lungs and liver as edible proof of my annihilation. It was understandable that she was unable to look fondly upon the remnants of Leopold’s previous life, but then, any sort of understanding seemed beyond her reach, and her hostility was not tempered by the fact that among these remnants there were children, children who were neither liable nor responsible, let alone guilty. She was cold and cruel, which was not a guise; it was not an act that a person puts on and takes off, as if putting on and taking off a fur coat. Her coldness and cruelty were visceral, profane, and banal. When Sasha died of typhus she put on the obligatory sympathetic performance, but the haste with which she forgot about him showed that it was relief, rather than sympathy, that she felt. Now there was only me to get rid of, and then Leopold’s future would be hers alone. Her stupid earnestness, her sterile lack of humour, and the thoughtless furnishings in her house became symbols of the worlds between us. And when Leopold chose all of this, he didn’t just betray Wanda: he betrayed me. Can the person capable of loving all that awful mundanity still be the person who taught me to revel in the wonder of everything that mundanity is not?

To be raised by Leopold was to be raised on the go. Following money and intrigue, moving here and there all over Austria in search of the lowest rent, hiding in Hungary and finally fleeing to Germany to avoid serving four days of prison time, as ordered by the emperor for offending some count. It meant wishing that the unrelenting movement would end somewhere, that the carousel would stop before the momentum with which it spun catapulted us beyond the stable order of things. It meant being weary and exhausted, gasping for breath, and tentatively putting down roots so as to minimise the pain when they were ripped back up again. To be raised by Leopold was to dream of home. And when those dreams finally became reality, I came to understand that dreams that come true go by the name of disappointments. That it doesn’t mean as much when the specific roots you yearned for only materialise in a general sense; in fact, it means rather much less than nothing.

When I dreamed of home, I certainly didn’t dream of Hulda Meister and her shabbily decorated house on the desolate plain, where by morning you could make out the evening’s dinner guest appearing over the horizon. I dreamed of the home that I’d once had, only more firm, secure, convincing. Of our house in Brucek, where heavy, oriental curtains hung in place of doors, of that enchanted house between forests and fells, where Leopold’s living room was wantonly decorated with portraits of his former lovers from the wall to the edge of the sideboard in a carefully considered ranking of the most significant to the most forgettable. I dreamed of that house, just as it was, except that we never had to leave it behind. Or of our flat in Graz, or our cramped flat in Rosenberg where no one was ever invited so that they would not know that new beginnings were steadily devoured by Leopold’s old debts, of our flat, too small a space for a family of five, where Leopold, who never did learn to resist flattery, would invite his adulating secretary Mr. Kapf, from which no good ever came, Mr. Kapf with a red carnation in his buttonhole, Mr. Kapf who didn’t really care for personal hygiene yet nevertheless let his hair grow long like a dandy, Mr. Kapf who, like Kant, went for a stroll about town at the same time every day with his ridiculous parasol. So many homes, so many good homes slipped through my fingers; why did Lindheim have to keep such a tight grip?

Only one aspect of Lindheim managed to evade my resistance, and strangely it wasn’t a person, nor animal or plant: it was a building.

The Witch’s Tower in Lindheim wasn’t a ruin as such. Quite the opposite; it seemed untouched, as if the passing of time had felt some sort of measured respect towards it, just as I did. In a town of insignificant people and their insignificant homes, it was the only building that seemed to uphold any dignity. I held onto it as if it were a monument to everything of worth that had disappeared from my life along with Wanda, and as a reminder that perhaps it was all temporary. As testament to the fact that even in this town of insignificant people and their insignificant homes, something could endure, something could stand up to be measured with bigger ell wands. Every time I left the house, it was never long before I found myself at the foot of the tower. And of course it was there that I met Maximilian.

Even though I saw him coming towards me, I flinched as this stranger sat beside me, as if he’d interrupted me.

“Am I interrupting?” he asked.

“You’re not—you startled me, that’s all,” I said as I inspected him. He seemed handsome then, I remember. He was nicely dressed; his voice indicated that he was not local to here. If only he’d gesticulate a little less with his hands whilst talking, I thought to myself.

“May I sit with you a while?” he asked, already sitting.

“Of course,” I said, “please sit down.”

“Do you come here often?”

“As often as I can.”

“Are you familiar with the story of this tower?” he said, as if the only reason that would justify me loitering around it would be not knowing its story.

Of course I knew the story of the Witch’s Tower; Leopold was obsessed with it. In 1663 and 1664 a local minister and hangman decided that Martha Schüler, the wife of a local man of note, murdered her own child, cooked it, and used it to prepare who-knows-what sort of devilish potion. The story was all the more horrifying especially because they initially locked up her husband with her, but he managed to escape, leaving her to fend for herself, for her to be burned in the tower without trial. Leopold always told this story as if it were a hagiography of this fated, suffering woman, who gave her life in vain, all because the men that surrounded her were unable to bear her grandeur. What hypocrisy, I thought to myself, just as my hatred for Leopold was at its most comprehensive; what a conscientious feminist he could be where others were concerned, while he had left Wanda to roam the corners of the earth without means or support, without it weighing too heavily on his conscience.

“No,” I replied to Maximilian, “I’m not familiar.”

I wanted to know how he’d narrate it. I wanted him to prove himself before me, that young man with the thick brown hair, that young man with the soft brown eyes, that young man with yesterday’s beard growth; that event, that chink in the stale boredom of Hulda’s Lindheim. I wanted to give him a chance.

Maximilian was Viennese by birth. He spent his summers in Lindheim because his father’s sister married some local count. At first he was reluctant to visit; an abandoned child, an unwanted object, left in the middle of nowhere by his parents who liked to travel to the south of Italy, and who liked to travel alone. At first he was reluctant, but then he learned that Leopold Sacher-Masoch moved to Lindheim, and Maximilian worshipped Sacher-Masoch. The best writer, right behind Goethe, he liked to say. What a strange comparison, I thought to myself on more than one occasion, more than anything because Leopold privately—or sometimes publicly—considered Germans to be a people of limited soul, and he’d die of disappointment if he learned how he was counted among them, let alone among the best.

And yet, Leopold and Maximilian soon worshipped one another. They shared just enough in common to understand each other, yet were sufficiently different to appreciate the things that set them apart. Leopold was reckless—a trait which on better days he could use to portray himself as a free spirit; whereas Maximilian was painfully pedantic, which was interpreted by benevolent critics as reliability, rather than dogged determination. At that time they still lived the life of philosophers, atheists, and aestheticians, behaving accordingly. Maximilian developed into a fierce reader of Rousseau, and Leopold, a veteran of this field, dearly loved to provide him with insights from his readings many moons ago. Though I still felt hostility towards Leopold, the natural compatibility between the two of them made me happy. If Leopold sees something in this person, I thought to myself, this person who became accustomed to visiting our house as if it were his own, perhaps I was right to give him a chance.

And Hulda too, even she worshipped Maximilian, but it was impossible to judge whether this was because she saw an opportunity to get rid of me without any effort on her part. Hold onto him, she liked to say, and be happy that someone is prepared to love you and those masculine Slavic cheekbones.

The thing that Hulda took to be love was his readiness to arrange his timetable so that there was always time left for me, and that he was always quick to praise me in public. It should also be noted that Maximilian always had a good understanding of the public face of love; but in and of itself, as it were—whether because of his reserved nature, or because of something else deeper inside—I never truly felt his love. I felt only that he’d decided to give it.

Maximilian decided that he had to love me, I later reasoned, because he’d pictured a wife unlike those of other men. A woman who, like a carefully selected fashion accessory, would visibly confirm his educated taste, liberal mind, and big heart. A woman with an unpronounceable name, untameable hair, and, to top it all, a woman who was the spiritual heiress to Sacher-Masoch.

Irrespective of all that, Maximilian seemed like the only living truth in that city of the dead. Maybe they weren’t doubts that I was feeling, as I sat at the table and affectionately chatted with my new family, but just an extension of my lack of faith in Leopold? I trained myself into thinking that maybe these aren’t the doubts a person pursues. Which is why I decided to pursue hope instead. And besides—maybe there really wasn’t anyone else who’d be prepared to love me.

Yet if I return for a moment to our first encounter, I also have to remember that despite my decision to grant him narrative space and freedom, to tell me the story of the Witch’s Tower on his own terms, I couldn’t keep the promise that I made to myself.

“Long, long ago,” Maximilian began, as if he were reciting a fairy tale.

In 1664, I almost said—but then I remembered just in time how I’d decided to lie, and that now I needed to hold my tongue.

But anyhow—the issue was not just that to my mind 1664 did not fall under the category of “long, long ago,” it was also the fact that Maximilian indulged in the telling of this story with such ease, as if it were folklore, a story so inseparable from the life and death of a real woman, that the anger became too much for me to convincingly play the role in which I’d decided to cast myself. Listening to Maximilian tell the story of the Witch’s Tower was like listening to Leopold recount the story of me as a wolf-child, and the angry fist that I’d long wielded at Leopold momentarily extended and struck him too. Perhaps I would have lashed out at any man who happened to be standing there at that time; maybe it wasn’t Maximilian’s fault at all. Maybe he was just trying to make a good impression. Maybe he just gave in to something that he did not have complete control over. I don’t know what it was, but whatever it was, it had to end whilst I was still able to breathe.

“I lied,” I said.

“Excuse me?” Maximilian said.

“Of course I know the story of the Witch’s Tower. And it does not begin ‘long, long ago,’ but in 1664. Surely you don’t think I’m completely uneducated?”

“There’s no need to get angry,” said Maximilian.

“How could I stay calm when you’ve tried to sell me a story about a woman who was robbed of her life thanks to human evil and narrow-mindedness, as if it were a fairy tale?”

And then I discovered something, something that I’d been completely unaware of until this point. I learned that affection is the easiest way to get yourself out of a difficult situation.

“You are so beautiful,” said Maximilian, and with his right hand he unnecessarily fixed a lock of my hair back in place.

I felt my angry fist rein back in.

With unparalleled condescension, Hulda said that there was nothing remotely like beauty to be found inside me, and that Maximilian did not know what he had let himself in for.

And thus, in the heavy German twilight, the Witch’s Tower in Lindheim was transformed from a hazy metaphor into a site of memory, where my life became divided into before and after.

“Now,” said Freud, when I first recounted my story about Lindheim, “instead of focusing on the conclusions that you’ve accepted as an adult, as a result of your upbringing, try to remember how you actually felt at the time.”

I took a deep breath.

“How?” I asked.

“Not easy,” said Freud.

translated from the Slovenian by Olivia Hellewell

For her outstanding translation of Katja Perat's work, Olivia Hellewell takes first place—and USD1,000 in prizes!—in the 2019 Close Approximations Translation Contest in the Fiction category. Read judge Edward Gauvin's citation and discover the other contest winners here.