End of the World in Breslau, By Marek Krajewski

Vivid tale of low-lifes and the high life

Barry Forshaw
Wednesday 01 April 2009 00:00 BST

The Polish author Marek Krajewski sets readers a knotty challenge in his rich and idiosyncratic Breslau novels. Atmosphere and piquant period detail saturate the pages, and push these books into the upper echelons of literary crime. But Krajewski's cynical, sybaritic criminal councillor Eberhard Mock – with his eternally unslaked appetites and brutality to his beautiful wife, Sophie – has the reader wondering. Do we really want to spend time in the company of this unattractive protagonist?

Krajewski, however, has second-guessed this objection. Mock is not as off-putting as many of the characters he encounters in this privileged, decadent society. Death in Breslau had critics scrabbling for superlatives. The new outing for Mock is likely to glean similar endorsements (particularly given Danusia Stok's pellucid translation).

In the 1920s, Breslau is a cornucopia of low-life crime and aristocratic debauchery. Mock is at home in this society, indulging in its vices with enthusiasm. A man's body has been discovered walled up alive; another has been dissected, his fingers chopped off. The victims have nothing in common, but both are found with a calendar page with the date of their death marked in blood.

Krajewski's caustic protagonist plunges headlong into the bordellos, gambling joints and bath-houses to track down a particularly savage murderer. Mock is hardly in a position to make too many moral judgements, but even he is given pause by a series of drug-fuelled aristocratic orgies. Meanwhile, Sophie, chafing at her husband's abuse, has initiated her own journey of sexual indulgence with her friend Elizabeth. She comes into contact with a cryptic figure who is somehow feeding Breslau's apocalyptic fever.

This ferocious odyssey into a lost world of decadence, class and deception is not a comfortable journey. But Krajewski's lacerating narrative, as before, performs the key function of the skilful novelist: providing an entrée into a world far from our own.

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