The residents of a Viennese neighborhood intersect over illness, murder and an increasingly intimidating Nazi presence.
The second novel by Canadian novelist Vyleta (Pavel & I, 2008) is purposefully claustrophobic: Taking place over the course of a few weeks in 1939, the story rarely shifts from an apartment building where everybody seems to be sick or deeply eccentric. The sole exception is Dr. Anton Beer, the novel’s hero, who’s soon managing the concerns of three troubled women: Zuzka, a teenager whose claims of paralysis may just be a plea for romantic attention; Lieschen, a 9-year-old whose father is an alcoholic brute; and Eva, who genuinely suffers from paralysis, with the sickening bedsores to prove it. To this discomfiting milieu Vyleta adds a supporting cast of eccentrics, including Eva’s brother, a cabaret performer, and a Japanese trumpeter who’s creepily observant of the neighborhood’s goings-on. The core plot involves a series of murders in the area, and Beer is increasingly pestered by a Nazi investigator looking for a patsy to attach to the crimes. But this book isn’t so much a murder mystery as a mood piece about how paranoia escalates as a totalitarian regime comes to power, and some of the novel's best scenes underscore Dr. Beer’s anxiety as a result of the growing surveillance of the apartment. Beer doesn’t quite have the depth of character to carry the novel, unfortunately; over time, his stoic demeanor makes him seem less like a defiant hero than a passive blank. But Vyleta knows how to create an oppressive atmosphere without making the prose feel bogged down, and the novel’s closing chapters pick up energy, revealing the evil of the Nazis and the ability of a few committed people to push back against it.
An evocative if largely grey-toned portrait of life in a new police state.