Dan Vyleta turns a WWII thriller into a book of extraordinary questions.
Dan Vyleta’s first novel, Pavel & I, is set in the moral and social chaos of Berlin in 1946-47. Survival in the carpet-bombed city, now divided amongst the Allies, is complicated by one of the worst winters on record. The story has barely begun when the main character, Pavel, bunkered down in a frozen apartment and suffering from bad kidneys, receives a visit from an American whose suitcase contains a mangled Russian midget. From here the cast toils harshly, but while the book is quite dark, its absurdity Kafkaesque, the war itself has passed. Vyleta’s harrowing conflicts, the descriptions of Soviet torture techniques and one character’s death by an iron, play out beside at least this sense of relief.
By contrast, the author’s second novel, The Quiet Twin, takes place in Vienna with all hell looming, October and November, 1939. Vyleta has chosen as his primary setting an apartment building whose flats peer into each other from across a courtyard. Along with the noir-like effect of the Viennese night when most of the action takes place, the looming war crushes this novel’s conflicts into a claustrophobic aesthetic I found cunning and irresistible. It’s a testament to Vyleta’s skill as a narrator that he can apply this stifling space to a novel that also delays revealing its plot, this as it explores various shades of the macabre, the darkest human impulses, but also piles intrigue upon intrigue and leaves the reader just enough space to breathe and turn the page.
The Quiet Twin’s characters are fascinating in their tragedy. The moral center, if there is such a thing, is a physician, Dr Anton Beer. Telling too much about him in a review will spoil the book: his wife has left him for a reason I won’t reveal, and while he seems to be living well-enough from his private practice, Beer had once seen better days. He speaks little and keeps so much to himself, even when making important observations, that the revelation of his complete character makes for one of the most amusing and provocative parts of The Quiet Twin.
He is called late one night by Frau Vesalius, the housekeeper of a ruined Professor Speckstein, to examine Zuzka, the Professor’s adolescent, naively coquettish niece. Zuzka is either a hypochondriac or hysteric (or both), and Beer can find nothing wrong with her. A teasing, at times strained relationship develops between the sexually curious Zuzka and the Doctor.
Voyeuristic impulses combine with bouts of insomnia to keep the girl looking across the courtyard and through the windows of flats, some of them shadowy dark. She has been watching the neighbors long enough to form entire narratives about their lives and eventually shows the vantage point to Beer, sharing the stories. Beer is soon intertwined in the fates of twins, a mime and his sister.
Like all the characters, but especially so, the mime, Otto, is a paradoxical figure. A cross between Marcel Marceau and Bruce Willis, he’s at once brutally physical but nuanced and poised enough to evoke subtle emotions and achieve comic effects in his pantomime performances. Yet he is also impulsive, of a hot temper and extremely violent. Most of his anger and cut-throat violence comes in defense of his twin sister, Eva.
She is a rape victim: paralyzed, bed-ridden, mute and, with large green eyes and pale skin, hypnotically beautiful, even (or especially) to children. When Beer first encounters her in Otto’s apartment, she is suffering from seriously infected bed sores. Whether or not she is physiologically paralyzed or simply shocked into paralysis by trauma Beer cannot tell. He and Otto bring her to his apartment where he cares for her in secret, allowing her to sleep in his own bed. While treating her sores, turning and feeding her, Beer spews introspective monologues as if to a surrogate wife. It is almost as if he’s provoking her to show her cards—as he suspects she can actually walk—and rise up to protest, tell him to quiet down, escape entrapment by doing it.
The conflict in The Quiet Twin and central question in the plot has to do with a string of murders of Nazis (and a dog belonging to a member of the party). These murders may or may not be related, and while the police, Zuzka’s uncle and others think Beer can help, he may or may not add any value to their resolution.
As the novel progresses, readers find these murders are almost tertiary events to the complex, ever-building and shape-shifting architecture of a story whose purpose becomes psychological character study in the tradition of the nineteenth century novel. Ambitiously and successfully, the book pays enormous tribute to both Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoevsky, not simply in its consideration of moral questions, including Is a moral high-ground possible in an immoral environment?, but also in its depiction of innocents, children and the ill, and how their fates are shaped by powers they can neither understand nor stand up against. To Vyleta’s great credit—and here is The Quiet Twin’s true achievement—he considers his moral questions without moralizing, depicts the ambiguity of war time ethics without cynically dismissing the validity of morality. Instead he constructs a vivid environment, complete with scents and textures, lamp post shadows reaching down gray streets, great falls from shattered windows three stories above the ground, and allows us to observe the final minutes before the annihilation of everyone: the innocent, guilty, repugnant and benign. Even the indifferent and the clueless will not escape the war. Perhaps they’ll see no bullets or gas chambers, but so many of their neighbors, friends and lovers will meet violent fates as they themselves are thrown across the earth.
Also at the heart of the book is a study of the sociology that both supported and lead to the development of National Socialism. Here Vyleta, a trained historian with an interest in the Holocaust, has taken a tremendous risk. If the strength in the treatment of moral questions is to avoid moralizing, his strength in this study is to avoid any great claim or absolute argument. Without ruining anything, I’ll say this much: the novel does not suggest that National Socialism, at least in the form that we know it took, can arise just anywhere and among any random group of people. But the book does ask us to compare the evils we know from history with great caution, especially once we find ourselves believing that the evil weeds growing in someone else’s yard are categorically worse than those in our own.
I suspect that some readers might object to Vyleta’s depictions of brutality. He softens few blows, even when his sentences flow and reach through long and intricately structured paragraphs. Readers looking for a novel of wild suspense and total resolution will find themselves disappointed if they fail to grasp Vyleta’s greater goal, one vitally important to our contemporary times. To understand our fate, we must learn to ask bigger, more pressing questions, not merely What motivates an individual to act? or Is our environment or our decision making process the bigger factor? Vyleta wonders why we’ve invented the moral questions in the first place. Shouldn’t it be obvious that destroying life, any life, even that of the vilest scum, is in no one’s best interest? When this is not obvious, and when we need someone to ask us What’s right and wrong? what exactly gives any voice the authority to speak up?
Photo of Dan Vyleta by Chantal Wright