Book review: "The Crooked Maid" by Dan Vyleta

Viennese noir... with red tinges

Sunday 26 January 2014 01:00

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.

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