by Esi Edugyan
Robert is heading home after a lengthy stay at a Swiss boarding school. As he and Anna fall into conversation, he reveals his apprehension at returning to a house full of secrets: his father is in critical condition after falling from a window; his stepbrother Wolfgang may have pushed him; and the whole affair seems to revolve around the family’s mysterious “crooked maid”, whom Robert must inevitably confront.
Anna, meanwhile, has her own troubles. Having fled the city nine years earlier after discovering her husband, Anton, in bed with a man, she is returning to be reconciled. For Anton has just been released from a PoW camp, and is said to have made his way back to the city. It is a nerve-racking setup for both, and with so much at stake, neither homecoming promises to go smoothly.
Indeed, everything is in disarray. Anna arrives to find her home empty. Too exhausted to fret over her husband’s absence, she soon falls asleep, only to be woken by the sound of someone staggering about the room, “his breath [like] poison, catarrh and vodka, [his] features coarse, and sheer, and bony, with a sloping forehead and enormous brows”. This figure is not her husband, but Karel Neumann, an alleged friend of Anton’s from the PoW camp. He claims not to know Anton’s whereabouts. Against her better judgment, she allows him to become her ally in her search for her missing husband.
Robert’s lot is scarcely less fraught. He returns to a household of dysfunctional women: his mother is a drug addict who wanders around in a stupor, “her heavy lids rising over manic, tear-filled eyes”; his imprisoned stepbrother has left behind a pregnant wife; and the crooked maid of the title, the hunchback Eva, skulks about the house spitting insults and stealing. In this murky world, Robert struggles to separate lies from truth.
The novel is a sequel of sorts to Vyleta’s The Quiet Twin, which was set in 1939 and featured many of the same characters. But The Crooked Maid doesn’t require knowledge of that previous tale. If you enter either novel looking for a traditional murder mystery (say, something along the lines of Philip Kerr’s popular Bernie Gunther novels, also set in war-torn Europe), prepare to be surprised: Vyleta is as interested in upsetting the expectations of genre as he is in engaging with them. There is no clean resolution here, in the aftermath of such destruction.
Some of the most interesting fiction being produced in the US in recent years has occupied a kind of middle zone, somewhere between genre convention and literary sensibility. It’s a zone Vyleta knows well: not for nothing has his writing been compared to Graham Greene.
In his acknowledgments, Vyleta pays tribute to the influence of Dostoevsky. There are echoes here of The Brothers Karamazov and of The Idiot. In Vyleta’s opening train scene, for instance, Robert’s charming vulnerability as he banters with Anna recalls the childlike naivete of Prince Myshkin, drawn similarly into railway conversation with his mercurial seatmate. And the second half of The Crooked Maid depicts the riveting court trial of Wolfgang for the death of his father, in a subtle echo of the parricide trial from The Brothers Karamazov.
But this is Vyleta’s world, and entirely his own. Every gesture is so acutely rendered that we enter a kind of eerie parallel world almost beyond reality. This is not just the past: it is the past as seen fractured and magnified through a lens. It is a place of unremitting strangeness, as real and as true to its own logic as those of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go or Tom McCarthy’s Remainder.
In the end, though, what The Crooked Maid most closely resembles is the angular cinema of shadows of the early German expressionists. It has the darkness and seductive excitement of a Metropolis, or a Cabinet of Dr Caligari. You enter it sideways, and your head spins.
The National Post
You hear rumours about them from time to time. They are creatures as elusive as the snow leopard, and if not quite as fabled as the hippogriff or centaur, they can be just as fantastical and thrilling a hybrid. But then you get your hands on one of these rare beasts and are filled with a sense of being had. Whether they’re heralded as “literary-mysteries” (or thrillers or noirs), they’re usually not particularly mysterious, thrilling (in either sense of the term), or noirish, or rendered in poverty-stricken prose and lacking moral heft. Usually it’s “all of the above.”
Then there’s Dan Vyleta’s mesmerizing second novel, The Quiet Twin, a spider’s web of plot, atmosphere, and character. This finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize reads like Rear Window jazzed up with Nazi-Euro-paranoia and more varied and vivid characters. It has all the tension, clammy closeness and voyeuristic pleasure of the Hitchcock thriller, but with added political and philosophical reverb.
The Quiet Twin is set in Nazi Vienna on the cusp of the Second World War, mainly in and around an apartment house in which everyone has a secret or three. There are no innocent bystanders, or, perhaps only one. The novel reads like a blood brother of Dostoevsky and Heinrich Böll — and, in fact, Vyleta’s new novel, The Crooked Maid, has epigraphs from both authors, while in his acknowledgments the writer declares his indebtedness to the Russian master of tortured souls.
The Crooked Maid takes place almost a decade after the events in The Quiet Twin and involves some of the same characters in a now postwar Vienna. It’s not a sequel. The Crooked Maid can stand completely on its own well-muscled legs, but I have to admit a delicious sense of pleasure on returning to the city and to the apartment block in which so much of the previous novel took place. And having met a number of the players when they were younger lent an added frisson of poignancy to the new book.
Guilt-drenched and violent incidents (physical and emotional) abound in this early-Cold-War novel, while Vyleta intricately links the numerous characters. Some readers may balk at the surfeit of coincidence, but the author interconnects everyone so deftly that he puts the blade to coincidence, or, better yet, incorporates coincidence so organically that it becomes both a theme and character in the story.
How else could the bitter Anna Beer, the estranged and off-page wife of Dr. Anton Beer from The Quiet Twin, and the naïf Robert Seidel, the now-teenage son of the main detective from that novel, come to be inextricably entangled, while Seidel’s brother, Dr. Beer’s former ward, a Czech POW, red-scarved ghost, and a couple of schoolchildren, all hurtle towards a series of explosive conclusions that the missing Anton Beer presides over like an unwitting conductor (of a runaway train or orchestra)?
It’s unravelling the hidden connections between the characters that helps give the novel its great propulsion. How will Wolfgang Seidel’s act of alleged parricide play out in court and what does his Mutti and little Karlchen have to do with it all? What do the POW Karel and the outed homosexual Kiš know about Anton Beer’s whereabouts? And what does Eva, the maid with the crooked back, really want? Everybody’s lookin’ for something, as Annie Lennox sang, although the dreams of the dreamers in The Crooked Maid are anything but sweet.
A true storyteller who is also a prose stylist, Vyleta excels at descriptions of the grisly. On the stench of starvation in the Russian POW camps: “each exhalation laced with the scent of ripe fruit: entire camps suffused in the sweet reek of the body’s self-cannibalization.” At the morgue: “The left brow and left cheekbone had risen like dough and fused over a swollen hole.” There is even the waft of meat in his description of Anna Beer’s heart: “Her heart, she thought, suspended; pictured it, too, a purplish lump of sodden muscle hanging from a nylon thread, a scrap of butcher’s paper sticking to its side.” He’s also a dab hand with a pithy phrase: “[Frau Seidel] had learned Nazism the way one learns any language: through constant repetition.”
Despite the dark matters and moral complexity, the dialogue is lively, and there’s a sense of wit and playfulness to Vyleta’s prose style — he’s one of those writers who evidently received Italo Calvino’s posthumous Memos, as quickness and lightness abound (in addition to exactitude, visibility and multiplicity).
The Crooked Maid has just the right touch of ironic authorial meta-awareness, breaking the fourth wall from time to time to add another dimension to the telling. Late in the novel, Wolfgang Seidel reveals a Walther PPK service pistol to his little brother Robert, and the oh-so-clever reader thinks, “What about Chekhov’s dictum?!” Two pages later, the omniscient narrator is again in the vanguard, “Chekhov said that if you introduce a gun in Act One, it has to go off in Act Three. He does not tell us what happens if you introduce it in Act Three.”
Did I mention that The Crooked Maid and The Quiet Twin are also love stories? Each novel contains multiple love stories — touching, tender, some platonic, some solely carnal, some between human and animal, some fulfilled, others doomed — bookending a World War.
Dan Vyleta is Czech by parental nationality, German by birth and upbringing, British by education, Canadian by choice (or chance?), and Viennese in his fervid imagination. His novels are equally hybrid, and wonderfully post-genre, creatures both fantastic and believable.
* Starred Review
Dan Vyleta begins The Crooked Maid with two strangers who meet on a train: Anna Beer, a woman who has not seen her husband for nine years, and Robert Seidel, a boy returning home from boarding school. Both are headed to a Vienna largely destroyed by World War II; both share far more than a hometown, though neither know it. Their story is not so much a single mystery as a collection of mysteries, each following from the last and leading onto the next. Who is the maid, Eva, who has made herself at home in the Seidel house? Why has Anna’s husband not been seen in days–and why is his desk littered with fragments of letters to an orphanage? When three local boys stumble across a corpse, the event seems unconnected to the rest of the tale–so how does one of them end up in court with Robert’s stepbrother?
The novel’s postwar European setting conveys the sparse, foreboding mood of Poe or Dostoevsky. Now and then, a single moment stands out brightly against the gloom: a bottle of milk, a red hat, a damaged eye. Vyleta wraps such details into the novel’s mysteries as tightly as his characters, revealing that the relationships that make up our world are as densely connected as they are obscure. –Dani Alexis Ryskamp, blogger at The Book Cricket
Discover: Vyleta (The Quiet Twin) masterfully weaves his characters together in the light and shadow of war-torn Vienna.
The Globe and Mail
Gothic meets thriller in Dan Vyleta’s taut new novel
While reading Dan Vyleta’s third novel, The Crooked Maid, I thought of Helma Sanders-Brahms’s Germany, Pale Mother. The 1980 film recounts the effects of Nazism and the Second World War on her parents, Hans and Lene, as stand-ins for the German public at large. After learning to kill in battle, Hans returns to a defeated nation a violent and hardened man. Lene, meanwhile, had endured air raids, hunger and rape, all while toting a small child through Germany in search of safety.
Hans and Lene are unable to make love, and she says it will remain so until “we get used to each other.” But there is no way to bridge the gap; they are radically different people than they were before the war. Hans’s friend Ulrich, an early Nazi convert and quick postwar denouncer, drunkenly and optimistically predicts “We’ll soon be someone again.” Wrapped in the Nazi flag they didn’t believe in, Hans and Lene had purpose. Now, they are lost.
The Crooked Maid explores similar themes in Austria. The novel begins with Anna Beer and Robert Seigel meeting on a train that haltingly makes its way to Vienna in 1948. Both have been away from the city for a good part of the war and early reconstruction.
Vienna has become an uncanny city, where Anna and Robert know the streets but the markers along the way have changed: buildings remain standing but are missing walls; a “familiar park … now lay denuded of trees.” More subtly, the occupants of some dwellings have changed.
Robert, the novel’s impossibly innocent and accepting young hero figure, is back from boarding school in Switzerland. His home is now a ruined mansion, inhabited only by women: his mother, his stepsister-in-law and the maid. A spectre hangs over the house, physically as the mysterious vagrant in a red scarf who watches the family, and metaphorically in the conditions that made the Seigels’ wealth possible. The titular crooked maid, Eva, skulks about her attic room with a murder of tamed crows for company.
Anna Beer returns to Vienna after several years in Paris. In the apartment she shared with her husband, she discovers fresh blood on the wall. Her husband is missing, and a giant stranger has keys to the place.
There are several mysteries to be solved: Who is the man in the red scarf; where is Anna’s husband, Anton; did Robert’s stepbrother Wolfgang Seidel really kill his father? Despite the questions, The Crooked Maid doesn’t read as a conventional thriller. Instead, Vyleta crafts a subtle Gothic unease. For example, he describes bodies as being cut in half, visually, by picture frames, collars and trap doors. The novel is a taut psychological horror story, with shades of Shirley Jackson.
The Crooked Maid – like Germany, Pale Mother – examines identity in the aftermath of large-scale, national trauma. The Austrians didn’t just lose the war, but did so as a shadow puppet of Germany. As Vyleta says in his acknowledgments, the novel takes place in a country trying to identify itself as coerced into a relationship with Nazi Germany, “rather than its willing bride.”
Wolfgang, a former Gestapo interrogator described as no more or less vicious than any other, speaks to Robert of acclimation to violence in the parable of a fishing trip: “I remember you didn’t like it at first. You may have even cried. But after a while … you got to be pretty good at it. … The blood didn’t bother you at all.” Austrian men became Nazis, went off to war, became brutal, and those who returned were expected to de-Nazify in quick order. Others, like Anton Beer, wound up in Russian PoW camps, where they were required to take on a yet another set of ideologies, an extra layer of self-identification to scrub away later. For many, it is simply too much to bear. Anna has noticed “shabby, lost men … looking at me with vacant eyes,” haunting the city.
The women are changed too. Robert’s mother, for example, had “learned Nazism the way one learns any language: through constant repetition. It had felt good, for once, to be certain, on the side of the winners: a lifetime of anxiety take off her shoulders. Of course, by then she’d become rich.” It is not uncommon to take an offer of a better life in exchange for human decency.
Lest one think political machinations are solely responsible for human cruelty, Eva, the maid, recalls her days in an orphanage, where she was picked on until she became big and strong enough to fight. While she was angry with authority figures, she never considered striking back at them. She only thought of hurting those weaker than she, an unfair fight, assured victory. The Crooked Maid shows the possibility of horror in us all.
The New York Times
The battles may be over in 1948 when THE CROOKED MAID (Bloomsbury, $26) opens in the first-class carriage of a train traveling from Paris. But both the living and the walking dead are still making their way home to Vienna in Dan Vyleta’s second novel to be set in the shattered world of postwar Europe. Anna Beer expects to rendezvous with her husband, Dr. Anton Beer, a psychiatrist whose application of “the talking cure” saved the life of the suicidal commander of his P.O.W. camp. Robert Seidel, the 18-year-old schoolboy who finds himself sharing a compartment with this mysterious older woman, has been called to the bedside of his stepfather, who sustained serious injuries when he fell (or was pushed) from a window in the family mansion. The lives of these two strangers become intricately (if much too expediently) entwined in a complicated but gracefully executed narrative that counterbalances the disappearance of Dr. Beer with the emergence of other characters — war widows, displaced persons and soldiers needing to be “denazified” — who contribute to Vyleta’s dramatic study of a city that survived a world war only to find itself embarking on a cold war.
Seeing the World Through Books
“[Sophie Coburn’s] a lost soul. Came here because this is where her husband died …Vienna is finished, is what she says. Finito. For journalists [like her], she means. No more stories here. She even heard they are going to do a movie. In the fall. With Orson Welles. She was really quite upset.”—Karel Newmann to Anna Beer, 1948
Setting his latest novel in Vienna in 1948, nine years after the setting for his previous novel, The Quiet Twin, author Dan Vyleta continues the story of the city and some of its characters in the aftermath of the Holocaust’s atrocities, though this novel stands alone and is not really a sequel. Here Vyleta uses characters some readers already know in order to show how they have changed in the nine years that have elapsed since The Quiet Twin, while, at the same time, introducing these characters in new contexts and illustrating their changed lives, which makes them fresh and intriguing to new readers of Vyleta’s work. The Quiet Twin, set in 1939, uses an apartment house in Vienna as a microcosm for the competing forces in Vienna before the war, providing insights into how ordinary people were seduced by Nazi rhetoric and promises, and how and why some of them so willingly compromised their own values when they were threatened during a time of crisis. The Crooked Maid, set in 1948, by contrast, shows how they have been changed by war’s horrors, by imprisonment (in some cases), by living as refugees in other countries, and by the cumulative trauma of a city which has been in the grips of unimaginable evil and now finds itself uncertain of its values and its future.
As the dramatic action begins to unfold, the novel may appear, at first, to be a simple murder mystery within an historical setting, similar, perhaps to those written by many popular, best-selling authors, but Dan Vyleta transcends genre, his writing more similar to that of Dostoevsky than to pop fiction. The many mysteries and even murders that take place during this mesmerizing and fully-developed novel grow out of the moral vacuum in Vienna after the war, the macabre details of these crimes so deeply rooted in the city’s psyche that they feel almost “normal” in the context of the times. Vienna’s citizens, fearing retribution from a variety of sources, now freely ignore their crimes and even deny their co-operation during the Nazi occupation, or as one character notes, “We are a people who have already forgiven themselves.”
The novel opens with a woman of about forty, Anna Beer, returning by train to Vienna from Basel, after being away from Vienna for nine years. She has just learned that her husband, Dr. Anton Beer, has been released from a Soviet prison camp, and though she had been separated from him because of his infidelity, she wants to meet him again to resolve personal issues. She is sharing a compartment with a teenage schoolboy, Robert Seidel, who is also returning to Vienna after being away at boarding school, unable to see his family for over five years. As the two passengers chat, Robert indicates that there are family secrets, perhaps involving the maid, that his father is hospitalized after falling out a window, and that his brother has “disappeared.” Despite the serious subject matter, however, Robert’s story is told in a casual, almost bantering tone, at this point, suggesting that the author has something more complex on his mind than a straightforward mystery story, no matter how dramatic. The foreshadowing and foreboding develop further after the two passengers arrive in Vienna, where a mysterious man with a red scarf watches the two arrive, the connections among the three of them unknown.
As the novel takes off in different directions, Anna discovers that though her husband was released five or six days before her arrival, no one in Vienna has seen him for three days. Robert Seidel returns to his house, which reeks, filled with garbage and flies, and meets Eva Frey, the only maid. Eva, who is his own age, has a crooked back, almost a hunchback, and she is tending to Robert’s mother, who is addicted to a closetful of drugs. Eva also tends to a roomful of crows who keep her company in the loft where she spends much of her time, the crows being an ominous symbol that repeats throughout the novel. Robert’s half-brother Gustav was a Gestapo officer during the Nazi occupation, but he eventually has “rehabilitated” his reputation as did so many other residents of Vienna, and moved back home. By the time of Robert’s arrival, however, Gustav has been jailed on suspicion of having pushed his father from the window, for reasons unknown.
As the search for information about Anton Beer becomes more serious, and as Robert Seidel tries to figure out what is happening in his house, additional characters are introduced, though how much is true about each one involves many other mysteries. Most of the characters are not who they say they are, and their stories cannot be taken at face value. Robert, we learn early on, has been adopted by his stepfather. His birth father worked on behalf of the Gestapo (and was the villain of The Quiet Twin). We also learn early that Eva grew up in an orphanage and was hired to work for Robert’s family when she was fifteen. Soon overlaps begin to develop and characters find their fates intertwined. People disappear for periods of time, then reappear; conspiracy theories abound, even within families; new families are introduced to further the action, and bodies begin to appear; deliberate misdirections and ambiguities keep the tension high and the uncertainties fresh as those with something to gain manipulate outcomes. Throughout it all, a stranger with a red scarf keeps appearing and reappearing, though no one knows for sure who he is.
The novel’s unlikely coincidences, so obviously deliberate, and the author’s occasional flashes of humor remind the reader that the plot is one of the least important aspects of this novel for the author, though the plot is very good, very exciting, and very complex. His focus on the social aspects of the 1948 atmosphere, lead him to begin each major section of the novel with historical data from Stalingrad which shows the horrors of this war in terms of sheer numbers—one shocking statistic of which is that of 91,000 German, Austrian, Rumanian, and allied soldiers taken prisoner at Stalingrad, fewer than 6,000 returned home. Those who survived imprisonment were released slowly, between 1945 and 1955, and that number includes some of the characters here. Eventually, every detail is either explained or resolved, if it can be resolved, and the novel is brought full circle. Intense, beautifully structured, and intellectually challenging, this novel will thrill those interested in a “mystery” filled with dark ironies, a novel which goes far beyond the limitations of that genre.
Exploring the boundaries of what is acceptable in the shadow of a war that broke all rules.
It’s 1948. The beginning of the Cold War. The post-war relationship between the West and the Soviet Union is just beginning to emerge. The modern era is just beginning and new lives — along with new social norms — are being carved out from the detritus.
Anna Beer and Robert Siedel meet on a train bound for Vienna. They’re returning after some period of exile — Robert from boarding school in Switzerland, young and sheltered; Anna from Paris, world weary with “a cruel upper lip.” His innocence and optimism in a delicate dance with her cynicism.
Canadian writer Dan Vyleta’s first book, Pavel and I, took the writing world by storm and was sold in 13 countries, translated into eight languages. His second novel, The Quiet Twin was shortlisted for the Rogers Writers Trust Fiction Prize. In it the main character, psychologist Anton Beer helped personify the paranoia in pre-war Vienna.
In The Crooked Maid, Vyleta reintroduces Beer, but we never see him. He’s a ghost — yet he is seminal to the action, helping to propel forward the complex, engaging plot. Perhaps he’s the strange man wandering the streets of Vienna in a red scarf. Perhaps he’s been brutally murdered, found wearing a beautiful, hand-blown glass eye. He may still be in a Russian prison camp, but that’s unlikely.
Anna has come back to find him. She’d originally left him before the war after finding him with his gay lover. She wants him back. The crooked maid, too — a girl named Eva, described as both beautiful and broken — wants to see him. He looked after her for a while when her parents disappeared and she wants to recapture the feeling of security, feeling cared for and loved.
In the mix are Karel, the giant Czech, ostensibly Beer’s prison-mate during the war; the Siedel family, whose riches were gained by a deal with a Jewish man who had to sell his factor; and the murder trial of Wolfgang Siedel, accused of killing he and Robert’s father.
These characters embody symbolically modern issues of atonement, reparation, homosexuality, fidelity and addiction. Eva, in particular, represents an innocence that was broken and somehow tries to balance caution and cynicism with hope.
That’s no accident. Vyleta’s The Crooked Maid is an exploration of morality, with the characters weaving complex relationships that push the boundaries of what is acceptable. There’s a grey zone after the war where everything has changed but social norms have yet to catch up. There’s no better time to explore good and evil, right and wrong, than when so many of our assumptions have been torn apart.
The language evokes the era, with Vyleta’s references coming as much from film as they do from literature. “[S]he . . . dug in her handbag for makeup and mirror, intending to paint new life upon her fading lips.” The description evokes a dark Ingrid Bergman, which is to say it’s highly atmospheric.
There is plenty of literary resonance in the book, too, adding to the rich feast of a read his characters and plot have already given: crows that live in the roof of the misbegotten house, one named Yussuf (the trickster, death, an omen) is a pet of Eva, the crooked maid; a direct reference to Chekhov (“[I]f you introduce a gun in Act One, it has to go off in Act Three. He does not tell us what happens if you introduce it in Act Three.”)
The imagery is perhaps a little heavy handed — do the crows need to make so much noise? Must the red scarf so obviously cut through the grey mood of Vienna?
Still, that’s a minor quibble when we look at how deflty Vyleta raises moral questions — what is a good man? Is being murdered in anger the same as being murdered in war?
At the end of the book comes Vyleta’s most specific pronouncement on war. Back in a prison camp, where a battered man with no name (he’s a “ghost,” a relic from the war, the man with the red scarf, perhaps?) practices taxidermy. His hands are misshapen, nearly broken. Why?
I “fought against God.”
I Love A Mystery
Dan Vyleta’s THE CROOKED MAID is a fast-paced thrill of a novel – a mystery that satisfies and surpasses all expectations.
Set in Vienna in 1948, THE CROOKED MAID follows two strangers whose lives continue to intersect after a chance meeting on a train into town. Anna Beer returns to Vienna to reconcile with her unfaithful husband after leaving him before the war. She returns, however, to an empty apartment and no sign of her husband. Robert Seidel returns home to his critically injured step-father, only to find secrets surrounding the cause of his injuries. Anna and Robert cross paths as new mysteries emerge in the city, meeting an American journalist, a former POW and a hunchbacked servant with secrets of her own to hide. The climax of the novel occurs within a court case that reveals more riddles and surprises than readers will expect.
This novel will leave you breathless and wanting more. Vyleta’s writing style is at once brisk and detailed, showing the reader a Vienna riddled with revelations and thrills around every corner. Dark, tense and edgy, THE CROOKED MAID is a clever and impressive novel that will not disappoint.
by Monique Polak
Vyleta influenced by Dickens, Dostoyevsky
We book reviewers take pride in reading quickly and efficiently.
But I slowed down to savour Dan Vyleta’s exquisite new novel, The Crooked Maid. I pay it the highest compliment a book reviewer can pay: I didn’t want it to end.
On the short list for this year’s Giller Prize, The Crooked Maid is set in post-Second World War Vienna. One of its protagonists is Robert Seidel, a sweet 17-year-old who spent the war at a Swiss boarding school. A skirmish with a classmate has left him with a wonky eye: “It looked as though it had been beaten, broken, reassembled.”
This description also captures 1948 Vienna. Reconstruction is underway, and yet there are reminders of the war in every corner. As Robert’s stepbrother puts it: “Half the people on this street, they have a Jew walled in their closet. God, how they are hoping the mortar will hold.”
The Crooked Maid is part historical thriller, part romance and even part fairy tale. But it’s Vyleta’s characters who make this novel shine and who will capture readers’ imaginations in the way characters like Miss Havisham and Prince Myshkin do.
Vyleta acknowledges his debt to the authors who gave us Havisham and Myshkin. In his acknowledgments, he describes the influence of Dickens’s episodic style and Dostoyevsky’s interest in the theme of parricide.
The Crooked Maid opens with a stunning, unforgettable episode. Seidel is on the train back to Vienna. His seatmate is Anna Beer, an attractive woman nearing 40. For several hours, they sit across from one another in silence. When a conversation finally begins, it feels so real, so charged, the words fly off the page.
Beer is sophisticated, worldly and cynical — everything Seidel is not. To her, he is “like a puppy, clumsy, foolish, a constant quiver to his tail.” And yet, as sometimes happens when we travel with a stranger, Beer reveals something of herself. She tells Seidel she is about to be reunited with her husband, a psychiatrist recently released from a Russian PoW camp. She confides, too, that when they were living in Vienna, her husband was unfaithful.
“You saw her,” Seidel says to Beer.
“Yes,” Beer replies.
Only she omits something from her story: Her husband’s lover was a man.
Beer and Seidel part ways at the station, though in further Dickensian fashion, their paths will cross again.
The building in which Beer and her husband lived has fallen into a state of disrepair. The carved banister is gone. “Perhaps,” Beer thinks, “it had been chopped up for firewood.” Beer’s husband is missing, too.
Seidel also finds himself in discomfiting circumstances. His mother has developed a morphine addiction; his stepfather is dying in a hospital; his stepfather’s son, Wolfgang, a former Gestapo officer, is suspected in the attempted murder of his father.
This question of parricide lets Vyleta explore the issue of moral ambiguity. Is Wolfgang guilty? And if he did try to murder his father, can Wolfgang still be a decent man? Similar questions can be asked, of course, about other characters we meet in this book, many of whom were complicit with the Nazis. Wolfgang is a drunken lout, yet he tries to be a decent brother. He understands his stepbrother’s confusion as he tries to distinguish good from evil, and right from wrong: “You want an answer to that nagging question: is he a good man or bad?” As we see in The Crooked Maid, the question is naive. Reality is far more complex than simple moral judgments allow.
There are other changes at the Seidel home. Someone else has taken up residence: Eva, the crooked maid for whom Vyleta’s novel is named. Hunchbacked, embittered after her experience in an orphanage, Eva forms an unlikely alliance with Seidel.
Though Eva is not much older than Seidel, she lost her innocence long ago. Can it be restored through Seidel’s kindness and friendship? Can Seidel stay good and decent in a world pervaded by loss, betrayal and pain?
Vyleta is a confident, gifted storyteller. His prose is clean and swift-moving. All that feels heavy-handed about this novel are the many references to a flock of crows. Vyleta gives us much to ponder. Consider what one character, the baffling Karel Neumann, says about anger: “Have you ever been angry like that? Something takes over, it’s almost like joy. You forget yourself.”
That sense of forgetting yourself does not happen only when you’re joyful or angry. It happens, too, when you’re reading a wonderful book — like this one.
The Globe and Mail
Sizing up the five Giller Prize contenders: THE NEWCOMER
“I wanted to write a world, not a book,” Vyleta, German-born son of Czech émigré parents, admits about his sprawling novel, which opens on a train from Paris to Vienna in 1948. Two strangers, Anna Beer and Robert Seidel, are returning to the vicious, torn and occupied rump of the once-grand capital. Anna is searching for her elusive husband, Anton, a gay doctor and a Russian prisoner of war. Robert, a schoolboy, is reuniting with the remnants of his family: a drug-addict mother; and the corpse of his stepfather – a Nazi bigwig who has jumped, or possibly been thrown out the window by Robert’s stepbrother, Wolfgang, a former Gestapo agent.
Anna and Robert are linked by Eva, the orphaned and physically damaged maid who was Anton’s protégé and is now employed by the Seidel family. A bit rough in places, and sometimes overwrought with literary and cinematic allusions, The Crooked Maid draws inspiration not only from Balzac, but also Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Dickens and Chekhov. Vyleta takes us into the past horrors of Nazism and the sinister and creeping chill of the Cold War in an ambitious novel that is part police procedural, part sociological exhumation of the past, and ultimately a compassionate portrait of dislocation and the grasping struggle for survival.
Final thought: Vyleta’s The Quiet Twin, which features Anton Beer in twitchy prewar Vienna, was well-received, but The Crooked Maid has upped the ante. His main competition, I wager, will be Cataract City, and much will depend on the judges’ appetite for middle Europe versus blue-collar border town.
Vyleta is my choice, but I am often wrong. So, all we can do is place our bets and wait for the envelope.
Vyleta’s bent on Gothic thrills again in postwar Vienna
by Lucy Scholes
A beautiful but bitter middle-aged woman and a well-dressed adolescent, barely yet a man, share a first-class compartment on a delayed train rumbling slowly into postwar Vienna. Each is returning after a long absence: having fled her marriage after she discovered her husband, Anton, in bed with another man, Anna Beer has been living in Paris for nine years; while Robert Seidel has been at boarding school in Switzerland. Much about the city and its inhabitants has changed while they’ve been away, but the world each of them steps back into is still in turmoil.
Anna is ready to give her marriage a second chance, but she arrives back to an empty flat. Anton has mysteriously vanished and no one knows where he is – not the spindly, drunken giant who claims he’s her husband’s friend and has keys to their home, the Czech POW Karel Neumann; not even her husband’s lover, Gustav Kis.
Robert’s homecoming is no less disorientating – his stepfather lies dying in a hospital bed and his stepbrother, Wolfgang, a “Nazi hood turned parricide”, languishes in a police cell about to stand trial for supposedly throwing his father out of a window. The family’s once elegant, wealthy home is in disarray: Wolfgang’s pregnant wife, Poldi, lies in her sickbed, and Robert’s mother drifts about the house in a drug-induced fug, snorting powders with one hand, scattering rat poison with her other, leaving the hunchbacked maid – proud, prickly Eva – to rule the roost. Occasionally, “some shard of talk that dropped out of the rest of the words and urged the study of its meaning” accosts Robert, but otherwise his home is an impenetrable “riddle”.
Where’s Anton Beer? Did Wolfgang really throw his father from the window or did the older man jump? Why was Anton searching for the crooked maid Eva before he disappeared, and who is the ghostly man wearing the red scarf who always seems to be haunting the streets outside the Seidel villa, watching and waiting?
The setting is uncannily familiar: “the pockmarked beauty of a capital whose empire had been mislaid” is recognisable from Carol Reed’s The Third Man, not to mention Vyleta’s previous book, The Quiet Twin (the novels are connected, but this isn’t strictly speaking a sequel), and indeed, Vyleta writes with the sharp, brutal clarity of cinematic freeze frames. It’s “like something by Dumas”, Anna observes when Robert tells her of the events that have unfolded: but twist their stories together and it’s noir meets Gothic – a thrilling tale of war crimes, family secrets, murder and blackmail.
Mail on Sunday
Book of the Week (26 Jan 2014)
A chance meeting on a train between two strangers returning to their home city after the war sets in motion a literary thriller that is so dripping in atmosphere, you half expect Orson Welles to come creeping out of the shadows. Set in the gloom and grim destruction of a de-Nazified, postwar Vienna, Vyleta’s third novel is a dark tale of intrigue, interconnected mysteries, hunger, guilt, patricide and revenge. A seriously good novel from a fine writer.
Independent On Sunday
Viennese noir… with red tinges
Dan Vyleta’s Giller Prize-shortlisted third novel is set in the shattered post-Second World War Vienna of 1948, nine years after his last, The Quiet Twin, which featured some of the same cast and was set in wartime Vienna; and two years after the events detailed in his first novel, Pavel and I, which was set in a similarly devastated post-war Berlin.
Many Viennese have by now been “denazified”, and are attempting to rewrite history and pretend that they were coerced into Nazism rather than being “its willing bride”.
On a train from Paris, a woman named Anna meets Robert Seidel, a schoolboy returning from boarding school. Anna is heading back to Vienna to look for her estranged husband Anton, a psychiatrist with whom she split up shortly before he was conscripted. He subsequently became a prisoner of war in Russia. Robert’s stepfather has sustained serious injuries in a fall from his window. The crooked maid of the title is the belligerent servant at the Seidels’ home, embittered by years of bullying at an orphanage. Robert’s stepbrother is a suspect in his father’s fall; his mother is a drug addict.
Each part begins with statistics from Russia on the conditions suffered by, and the fates of, prisoners of war from both sides. The scale is sobering: 5.5 million Russian soldiers were PoWs and 3.3 million died. Of 91,000 German, Austrian, Romanian, and their allied soldiers taken prisoner at Stalingrad, fewer than 6,000 returned home. Barracks were over-run with lice, typhus, diphtheria, dysentery and scabies.
Our narrator is not only omniscient but often present. The laconic, sometimes ironic tone makes use of modern argot: “in good enough nick”; “mug” (for face); “bum”; “fag-end”. Before the reader can comment on the number of implausible coincidences, our narrator does so, as does the author in his acknowledgements. The narrator not infrequently offers opinions: “for some strange reason, she decided …”; or comments on the casual anti-Semitism of many of the Viennese.
The writing is often stunning. Vyleta’s similes are memorable: “a detached calm rose up in her like the waterline of a hot bath”; “He carried her bags like a personal affront”. Vivid details litter the pages: faces “eroded by shadow” with the other half “lit up starkly, like the waning moon”. The imagery is cinematic, reminiscent of film noir, with exaggerated shadows, and light and shade dancing on walls and wan faces. There is a reference to the film The Third Man, which was yet to be made by Orson Welles. The chiaroscuro of black and white Vienna in ruins is slashed with crimson: a red scarf; a “knot of scarlet blood”; “deep carmine red lipstick”; a “blood red velour” upholstered chair; a bright red hat.
This is a compelling novel with all the verve and atmosphere of an Alfred Hitchcock film.