Fear and suspicion drive the world of a group of Austrians in this dark, trenchant debut.
In an extended prologue, set outside Salzburg in 1925, writer Alexander Garber ponders the twilight of the Hapsburg Empire. Particularly fascinating to Garber is the way the characters he then knew were “always completely absorbed in their own activities, oblivious of what their neighbors were doing, even if they are standing a few feet away . . . . ” The story then flashes back to 1912 and to the Austrian village of Galicia. Here, Hans Rottenberg, son of wealthy Morris Rottenberg, joins with Asher Blumenthal and other young revolutionaries to form a terror cell that plots the assassination of Count-Governor Wiladowski at noon on Easter in Vienna. His security already threatened by the murder of a cousin, Wiladowski engages wily agent Jacob Tausk to spy on Rottenberg’s cell and on the activities of union organizers. Wiladowski is also concerned by the arrival on the scene of a charismatic rabbi who preaches violence and who, his followers believe, may be the Messiah. The rabbi has also drawn the attention of Rottenberg père, so that he, too, engages Tausk to assess the rabbi’s intentions and influence. In a Machiavellian twist, Tausk thus becomes the spy of two masters. But point of view rather than action drives and dominates the narrative as it moves on in wide, sweeping circles that encompass an extended slate of self-absorbed characters. Young Rottenberg eyes clumsy compatriot Blumenthal with condescension. Wiladowski muses over his wife’s distaste for Tausk. And Tausk negotiates the delicate role—and power—of a double agent. Ego and gunpowder combust in the strongly written assassination scene.
Heavy going at times, but never ponderous. Bernstein’s point of view is arresting, and his elaborate stylistic flourishes befit the era he describes.