Pavel & I


“Every so often a Canadian debut novel appears which restores one’s faith in the possibility of new writing in this country, a book so striking, so original, so very fine as to remind readers of what they have long been missing.  Pavel & I is such a book.”

Robert J. Wiersema, The Edmonton Journal (see full review below).

“Some readers of literary fiction treat thrillers as a guilty pleasure.  Pavel & I is an entirely guilt-free treat.” Jonathan Gibbs, The Independent (see full review below).

“[A] remarkable debut… Vyleta is a writer to watch.” The Globe and Mail.

“Just wonderful… full of a love of literature. Vyleta does not spare you… [An] exquisitely crafted book… and, strange to say, tremendously uplifting.”  Radio 4, ‘A Good Read’

“Vyleta keeps his readers on the rack and, by setting disturbing existential questions within a brutal scenario, he brings a dangerous underground world to memorable life.” Tina Jackson, Metro London.

“Does for Berlin what The Third Man did for Vienna.  The city sparkles like drizzle in lamp light.” The Spectator

Dan Vyleta’s Pavel & I has plenty of plot (including a dead midget in a suitcase), a crowd of characters […], and an unusual narrative scheme – but most of all it has atmosphere, a vividly rendered time and place: Berlin in the frigid winter of 1946-47, rubble, starvation, and no brakes on anyone’s instinct for self-preservation.” Adam Begley, The New York Observer.

“Vyleta’s colourful tale of espionage is thick with literary allusion and is a compelling portrait of the winners and losers thrown up by the war.”  The Guardian (see full review below)

“[The] book succeeds brilliantly.”  The Daily Telegraph.

“A tautly written wartime novel”  The Times

“Feels like an old American movie … a story that combines classic iconography with a sustained irony of style.” The Financial Times

“With the tension of Le Carre and the weirdness of David Lynch, it is a confident and touching debut.” London Paper

“A tremendous first novel that will gather accolades like shards of broken glass littering the once-fashionable Kurfurstendamm. PAVEL AND I is not to be missed.” Bill Webb, I Love A Mystery

“Beautifully written, this novel explores the friendship between a US soldier and a German orphan in the aftermath of World War II, during the bitterly cold winter of 1946-47.”  The Lonely Planet Guide to Berlin, Book Recommendations.

“[It’s] midway through 2008 and Pavel & I is still the best thing I have read all year.”

Linda L. Richards, January Magazine.

Reviews in Full:

Masterful debut fires up Cold War in occupied Berlin

Achingly realistic characters propel Edmonton author’s spy tale

Robert J. Wiersema, The Edmonton Journal

Published: Sunday, June 15

It’s probably a terrible thing to say, but as the years pass and the books pile up, it can become increasingly difficult to maintain one’s inherent, if perhaps misguided, optimism and faith in the vaunted promise of the Great Canadian Debut Novel (GCDN for short). Every publishing season brings a new slew of GCDNs, and while many of them are solid, well-written and professional, there are few, sadly, which genuinely impress and surprise. Too often, these books fall prey to the perils of CanLitism, resorting to cultural cliches and tropes which render the writer indistinguishable from the herd.

Every so often, though, a Canadian debut novel appears which restores one’s faith in the possibility of new writing in this country, a book so striking, so original, and so very fine as to remind readers of what they have long been missing. Pavel & I, the first novel from Edmonton writer Dan Vyleta is such a book.

The novel, which is largely concentrated in a period of days in the winter of 1946-’47 in a Berlin ripped asunder both by war and by the occupation of American, British and Soviet forces, begins with the death of a dwarf. Pavel Richter, an ex-American serviceman with a murky past, is suffering from a debilitating kidney infection when he receives a request from Boyd White, a former comrade, to help him conceal the body of the dwarf, a Russian officer whom, White claims, he hit with his car. By the time White’s body is found days later, brutalized and systematically tortured, Pavel is already part of a mysterious and dangerous conspiracy from which his personal morality, and his friendship with Anders, a 12-year-old orphan and street criminal, will not allow him to escape.

As the novel gradually and elliptically unfolds, Pavel’s story intersects with a gang of street kids, Anders’ former associates; a brutal and twisted British officer; a torturer who develops a far more significant role in the novel than is first hinted at; and, most crucially Sonia, the woman who plays the piano in the apartment upstairs from him. Not only does she save his life, she is, in many ways, the crux point around which the novel’s events and characters revolve.

Pavel & I is a masterful work on a variety of levels. It succeeds as a brutal and vivid portrait of Berlin in the postwar period, when rationing gave way to outright cruelty, and as a compelling thriller. It succeeds as a multi-faceted love story, with an emotionally true and resonant conclusion, while simultaneously taking considerable risks with narrative approach and voice. At its heart, though, it is a novel of characters pushed beyond their breaking points, carving out moments of solace and intimacy in a world in which all forces are allied against them. Pavel, Anders and Sonia, the three characters at the heart of the story, are achingly realistic, as if captured from life rather than created from Vyleta’s imagination. It is testimony to his skills that Vyleta allows his characters to develop, to reveal themselves, often to their own surprise, rather than pinning them down too early or too clearly. Much of the novel’s power, in fact, comes from this restraint. There is a deep mystery at the core of these characters, and of the novel as a whole, that rings achingly true.

This is the part of the review where I would normally put a caveat, but there’s nothing to say. Pavel & I is a masterful work, a truly impressive debut.

Robert J. Wiersema is a B.C. writer and reviewer, and the author of Before I Wake.

Guardian Book Reviews

Saturday April 5, 2008

Graduate grumblings

Pavel and I, by Dan Vyleta (Bloomsbury, £12.99)

Berlin during the freezing winter of 1946-47.In war’s immediate aftermath, the fractured city has been “trussed up into twenty pieces like a turkey at a Thanksgiving dinner”, and its citizens face gnawing hunger in unheated apartments. Street gangs, the black market and rats hold sway. Pavel Richter, a former GI who speaks five languages and has an ambiguous history, lives in one of the deserted flats, with his precious library and a street orphan, the Artful Dodger-like Anders, for company. Upstairs, pianist neighbour Sonia survives by sleeping with the all-powerful Colonel Fosko. When Pavel’s American friend Boyd White offloads the body of a Russian spy on him and is then himself murdered, Pavel comes to Fosko’s attention, even as he and Sonia begin to fall in love. Vyleta’s colourful tale of espionage is thick with literary allusion and is a compelling portrait of the winners and losers thrown up by war.

The Independent

Frozen moments in Berlin
Reviewed by Jonathan Gibbs
Friday, 7 March 2008

Berlin, 1946: the second winter after the war’s end. The city is in ruins, and suffering from its split occupation, a near-total absence of food, and an awful, all-pervading cold – the ground too hard to dig a grave, the air chill enough to freeze blood, warm from a fresh corpse, in seconds.
This is the setting of Dan Vyleta’s debut novel, a gripping espionage thriller very much in the uncertain, paranoid vein of The Third Man. Vyleta’s Harry Lime is Colonel Fosko, an obese and manipulative Brit desperate to track down a roll of microfilm that should have been in the possession of a German midget he has caught in a honey-trap and had killed. When the midget turns up in the flat of Jean Pavel Richter, folded up dead in a suitcase, the microfilm is still sewn into the lining of his Russian greatcoat.
From there it will set the book’s characters – the doomed American who brought it, the beautiful whore upstairs, and Pavel himself – on a terrible collision course with Fosko and his Russian counterparts. If Fosko is a straightforward study of immorality, Pavel is something else: an American spy of ambiguous motives and intentions. When we first meet him he is holed up in a flat with kidney disease and an unusual nurse in the guise of Anders, an urchin from a street gang. He finds Pavel penicillin on the black market, and Pavel reads him Dickens in return.
This enigmatic relationship is just one of the holes at the centre of this compelling novel. It keeps you hooked on its mysteries by rationing the truth more severely than its characters’ coffee. The story, once untangled, is hardly complicated, but Vyleta has chosen as his narrator someone not so much unreliable as neurotically cautious.
This is Fosko’s aide, Peterson, who acts as Pavel’s interrogator when he falls into the colonel’s hands, only to become obsessed with his prisoner. “I spent hours and days eye to eye with Pavel,” he says. “Just us in the dark, some bars between us and the scuttle of roaches. I know Pavel like the back of my hand. And yet, time and again, I was surprised by him”.
Vyleta, the son of Czech refugees to Germany, is writing in English as his second language, but his plain style is welcome in a book so full of suspicion and subterfuge. Some readers of literary fiction treat thrillers as a guilty pleasure. Pavel & I, by contrast, is an entirely guilt-free treat.

January Magazine

To read the complete review, please follow this link.


Bill Webb, APRIL 2008

There seems to be a growing sub-genre, or perhaps even a sub-sub-genre,
of noir mysteries set in post-war European capitals. Graham Greene’s THE
THIRD MAN used Vienna as a character as much as it did Harry Lime,
Elizabeth Wilson’s THE TWILIGHT HOUR could not happen anywhere except
1947 London, and now Berlin is the setting for its second stylish
thriller in as many years, with Dan Vyleta’s PAVEL AND I, following
Pierre Frei’s brilliant BERLIN.  And really, the allure is obvious.
Devastation, desperation, degradation, ingredients just asking for a
story to be woven around the rotting corpse of a continent laid waste. A
place alive with crime and only because of crime, where anything is
possible, perhaps even probable.

PAVEL AND I is set in very late 1946 and early 1947 in the one capital
more devastated than any other, the capital of The Third Reich, Berlin .
Life is cheap, sex is cheap, food is expensive, cigarettes are money.
Living in a battered flat is Pavel Richter, a former American GI with a
shady past, suffering from kidney disease and writing poetry. What is he
doing there? Why is a GI slumming in the British sector of a city
struggling to come back from the dead? Don’t expect an answer.

Do expect a cast of equally damaged characters weaving through the
narrative in ways you will not expect. A boy shows up: Anders, a
twelve-year-old trying to survive in a pack of other children who rob
and cheat to eat.  Pavel reads to him and the boy likes it. There is
Sonia, a piano playing whore who lives on the floor above and is mixed
up in spying and intrigue, a virtual slave to the grossly obese British
Colonel Fosko. There is General Karpov, the suave, cold Russian who
wants to know what Pavel knows. And there is the dead midget, brought to
Pavel’s apartment by a soon-to-be-dead friend, whose tiny body is on
everyone’s mind. And there is the narrator, a torturer and executioner,
who tells the story from the disconcerting viewpoint of First Person

If PAVEL AND I is ever made into a film it should be shot in black and
white. There is no color here, no joy, just shades of gray. There are no
heroes, not even many likeable characters. But there is fascination and
there is talent to spare. A tremendous first novel that will gather
accolades like shards of broken glass littering the once-fashionable
Kurfurstendamm. PAVEL AND I is not to be missed.

Krimi Couch

For a (German language) review of the German edition of Pavel, click here.