In Nazi Germany, an orphan boy of lowly origins grows up to become an enforcer for German military intelligence and the helpless pawn of a vixen-ish mystery woman.
Half-Jewish orphan Erik Holdermann was raised by prostitutes from the age of 9 before being sent to an orphanage. When it is discovered there that he has a living uncle—albeit a cruel and distant one who disowned Erik's late mother for marrying a postman—he is sent to the uncle's farm, where he is regularly beaten up by boys wearing Nazi pins and nearly dies after becoming trapped in a barn during a frigid winter storm. Erik's life takes a momentous turn during cadet school when, with a show of brute force, he saves a man being beaten by a gang of street toughs; that man turns out to be Adm. Wilhelm Canaris, head of the military intelligence service. Canaris takes Erik under his wing, dubs him Cesare (a reference to the "magician" in the silent film classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), and counts on him to threaten or disappear anyone who gets in his way. That can mean someone from the Gestapo or SS—even as he serves the Nazi regime, Canaris is dedicated to saving or safely exporting Jews. Erik's half-Jewish mystery woman, Lisa Valentiner, with whom he has been obsessed since he was a boy, is both a member of the Jewish underground and the wife of a Nazi officer. It's a nebulous world in which the Gestapo, which recognizes the need for Jews in any spy network, employs half-Jews to lure other half-Jews out of hiding. The 82-year-old Charyn's latest work in a distinguished career is subtitled "a novel of war-torn Berlin," but that doesn't begin to prepare readers for this edgy, hallucinatory, full-throttle fable. Cabaret, Moby-Dick, Shakespeare, Rosa Luxembourg, "Jewish jazz," traveling executioners dubbed Hansel and Gretel, a hump-backed baron—they're all in the mix.
A darkly entertaining, eye-opening novel.