Enter the world of sordid, savage, scary and seductively vibrant Vienna, 1939.
Dan Vyleta’s brilliant, darkly comic, horribly menacing The Quiet Twin, for sure shows his Slavic roots. Vyleta is the child of Czech refugees who emigrated to Germany in the late 1960s. He now lives in Canada – but his writing, its menace, its unexplained weirdness, its mixture of brutal savagery and unexpected tenderness, reminds me of Kafka – and also of Gogol.
The Quiet Twin is set in Vienna, in 1939. And the setting is in a place of menace, through historical time and place, although there is the whisper of Vienna’s more cultured, classier history overlaid. However the arts have now turned bawdier, edgier, and primal desires have sprung free from refinement.
The room was much like Speckstein’s living room, furnished in the tasteful pomp of an empire now defunct. There were more bookshelves here, a long-case clock, and a gynaecological chair of the type that had been popular in the 1890s: green upholstery leather and ebony leg-rests to assist the parting of the knees; the headrest shiny from long years of use. The desk was strewn with notebooks and clothbound files, the bronze head of Mozart weighing down a sheaf of notes. There was also a Chinese vase, chipped at the rim, and a tasteful charcoal nude; Speckstein’s portrait, arm in arm with his mama. Behind them, from the hook on the half-closed door, hung his uniform, like the shadow of another man
As I read, I could clearly visualise the paintings of German expressionist Georg Grosz, and also hear the songs of Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler, in their collaborations with Bertholt Brecht. The paintings, the songs, and this novel are all full of savagery, discordance and a brutal vitality as well
Set largely in a tenement square of flats, the story starts when Doctor Beer, a kindly and well-meaning, (generally) man (though one with some secrets), whose wife has recently left him – we will discover why, later – is asked to investigate the murder of a dog, by a former professional mentor, Professor Speckstein. Speckstein, in this watchful, paranoid society, is a Nazi Party member. Beer is striving to avoid allegiance, in an atmosphere of growing totalitarianism. Speckstein also has things to hide. Everyone does. There have been, and continue to be, addictional, random seeming murders, mainly by knifing, and there seems to be a connection which suggests that the victims are Party members – or might that be one of the many red herrings?
Here is a wonderful collage of Grosz’s artworks, and suitably music-of-time-and-place acompaniment
Other central characters drawn into this horribly sticky, sordid world-web are Speckstein’s febrile neurasthenic niece, Zuzka, his grim and watchful housekeeper, Frau Versalius, a curiously trustful crippled girl, Anneliese, whom everyone seems to appreciate, despite the fact that various directives of Fascism are looming, inspired by eugenic theories of Aryan perfection. There is also a man whom Zuzka obsessively observed across the tenement. A man who strips, who has a white masked face, and also a knife.
Actually – almost everyone has a knife, and pretty soon, the reader, like Beer, and like all the characters will be in a frenzy of suspicion, this way and that. Almost anyone might be a murderer, almost anyone might have a motive – or might have no motive, but a predilection for murder.
Beer has an interest and a skill in psychology, and has studied and become something of a specialist in serial killers, and sociopathy. Interspersed in the story are accounts of some of the real killers of the time, culled from Beer’s study books. His investigative skills into pathopsychology and profiling will be called on, not only by Speckstein, wanting to find who knifed his dog, but by the police, trying to either solve the crimes, or at least, find someone to pin the crimes on. Everyone is at least a little dirty, at least a little soiled, either in motive, or in action.
As this IS a totalitarian society, everyone is suspicious of everyone, everyone seems to have secrets which somebody else might exploit. And no one is ever quite whom they seem – the ‘good’ may be not quite so good, and even those we might be quite sure are ‘bad’ might be redeemable or even lovable, in someone else’s eyes. To add further strange noirish eccentricity into the mix, there is also a Japanese trumpeter. Of course.
To my mind, this extract from a young Lotte Lenya in the original 1931 film of The Threepenny Opera, is more chilling by far than other versions – it is the contrast between her sweet, girlish voice and light, soubrette style, passionless delivery, and the lyrics. Not to mention the atmospheric cinematography
I can’t do justice enough to this wonderful, sombre, scary, quirky literary ‘crime’ thriller. There is so much life, so much atmosphere, such a wonderfully convoluted plot, and a sense of real menace, as well as very, very black humour. The characters are strange (very) and yet believable, as well as stylised. There is even a hedgehog, Prince Yussuf, not to mention Kaiser San, a battered teddy bear. This is NOT magic realism, not at all (I know some hate the genre) – but it is expressionistic (hence, the connection to the horrid, beguiling, hard-hitting, messy world of Georg Grosz artworks.
I will be exploring Vyleta’s back and subsequent works, for sure. And listening to a lot of Brecht Weill and Brecht Eisler songs! Recommended. Absolutely.