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Through the past, darkly — Dan Vyleta, The Quiet Twin (Interview)

Rear Window on the Ringstrasse, Nazi Austria ‘from the kitchen and the hallway’ makes for a paranoid, claustrophobic thriller. It’s also a thorough psychological examination of life in the terror state.

By Jade Colbert
Published: 5:50 pm, 21 February 2011
Modified: 10 pm, 16 January 2012
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Dan Vyleta, whose stories prod our notions of human decency for weakness and decay, has a talent for starting in the absurd.

His first novel, 2008’s Pavel & I, unfolds amid the rubble of Berlin in the bitter winter of 1946–47 as the occupying forces tear the city apart. It’s a tale of desperation, intrigue, and heartbreak. It also begins with a dead midget in a suitcase.

His latest, The Quiet Twin, opens with a murder case that wasn’t. Anton Beer is a house doctor called upon one night to attend to a tenant in his apartment block, a young woman in the habit of watching the people across the yard. Soon Beer is brought into the orbit of his patient’s uncle with whom she is boarding, the former professor Speckstein, whose reputation remains under the long shadow of a sexual abuse scandal from several years back. There’s been a rash of unsolved murders in the area and Speckstein is convinced that whoever’s been killing people also killed his dog, for whom he had a special fondness. Beer reluctantly takes up “the case” for the old man.

So far, so harmless, except the scene is Vienna, 1939, the Nazis have just annexed Austria, and Speckstein is the Zellenwart for the area, a party official charged with spying on his jurisdiction’s residents on behalf of the Gestapo. Beer is asked to aid the investigation because he has been trained in the recently forbidden “Jewish science” — that would be psychiatry — an area of expertise that makes him useful even as the investigators hold it over him like a Guillotine blade. Beer is yoked to one especially nasty piece of work, Inspector Teuben, a sadist motivated less by Nazi ideology than by the newfound powers granted him under the new regime. Beer wants to do good, but like the other tenants of the house, he has his own secrets. And so the novel is set in motion, an entirely different story from the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.

DAVID PIKE/THE VARSITY

The Quiet Twin examines why one group of fictional not-bad people stays quiet in the face of the Nazi regime and its atrocities. Vyleta is a historian by training (his research concerns anti-Semitism in early 20th-century Vienna), and he is conscious of how an authorial misstep could cause offense given the book’s subject. He says he was hesitant to take on this material for exactly that reason. The psychology of quietness continued to nag him, though. As he explains in the extensive Author’s Note that concludes the book:

For all the inaccuracies that litter the book, it was motivated by an earnest attempt to understand what it meant to live in the period and place I was writing about, and it is to this, the experience of my cast of “ordinary Austrians” rather than to any specific body of facts, that I attempted to be faithful. …Sixty years after the Second World War it is easy for most of us to convince ourselves that we could never have belonged amongst those who would have held wrong-headed beliefs; it is a more nagging question to wonder what one might have done in order to secure some modicum of social and material success.

“For me, writing the novel is thinking myself into the situation,” the author says in this interview. “It’s not an excuse, and it’s also not an accusation, but it is trying to grapple with the nature of the pressures, and we see different people react to them in various ways.”

He adds: “I think you can live through something with this — I did, writing it — and I hope, reading it, some of the same experience comes alive.”

Born in 1974 in the Ruhr Valley in northwest Germany, Vyleta is the son of Czech refugees from Prague. As he was growing up in Germany, his remained “a very Czech family,” he says. His grandmother, for instance, never learned German. After graduating from high school, he pursued his post-secondary education in the U.K., eventually earning his PhD in history from Cambridge.

For most of the time when he was working on his doctorate Vyleta lived in Vienna, where he made ends meet by teaching English. After writing up his research (published in the historical monograph Crime, Jews, and News: Vienna 1895–1914) he moved to Berlin to teach at an English-speaking liberal arts college.

In 2007 he and his wife moved to Edmonton where she had been offered a job lecturing on German literature and translation studies at the University of Alberta, followed by a similar stint in Sackville, NB. They now call Guelph home, where they live with two cats. Dan Vyleta spoke to The Varsity earlier this month shortly after the release of his new book.

There’s an element to the plot that could easily become very schlocky. You throw in some swastikas … At the same time, everything about this moment pointed to the weight of this society. 

THE VARSITY

I read that the first chapter came to you very quickly, but that you struggled after that to not place the story in 1939 Vienna. What was it about the story that eventually convinced you the setting had to be then and there?

DAN VYLETA

Writing a book for me is a strange process. There are certain things you think long and hard about and certain things that just spill out. I feel it’s a good sign at the beginning if it spills out because it’s not based on if you think it’s a good idea but it just flows organically out of you. As I wrote it, I must have been thinking Vienna, because there’s something about this apartment. So the setting, in terms of space, wasn’t a problem. It was clear to me it had a certain Old World feel, but that can mean many things. For instance, it could have been within 40, 50 years. I wasn’t sure for a long time, so I just waited for the next thing to happen and spill out.

I think my resistance to the Nazi era was partially there’s a lot of clichés these days around it, many of them belittle what happened there, and I didn’t want to write something that felt exploitative of the period. In particular, there’s an element to the plot, the whodunit part, and even the serial murder part, that could easily become very schlocky. You throw in some swastikas — you know. So I was resisting that, but at the same time, everything about that moment that I’m describing, which is a doctor seeing a young patient — the implicit paranoia of it, this mistrust: they’re speaking, but they’re not really speaking. There are things they’re holding back and not saying. Everything pointed to the weight of this society. Officially, It’s all good! — unless you belong to Group X or Group Y. Somehow, out of that fear and claustrophobia, that story was alive. It didn’t swim anywhere else. I ended up trying to write a book about Nazi Austria, that is not like the movie version, that takes place in a kitchen and in a hallway. It’s not about flags and it’s not about famous politicians. It’s actually about people trying to close their door on this and live as they have always lived — but they can’t.

THE VARSITY

Did you know going in that you wanted to set limits for the novel? Saying, “We’re not going to get into the politicians.”

DAN VYLETA

I don’t think I spelled it out in my mind, but I find it’s a very different task to make a claim, “I met the head of so-and-so.” I’m not saying it’s impossible; it’s a very different approach. For me, I like in writing the same kind of energy that you get from reading, in that you don’t quite know what happens. I like that feeling that the characters are developing relationships that have their own rules that you follow. I always feel that writing is half pushing and half listening to what’s happening and following that thread. I didn’t want to write with my head so much and with a system, saying, “This person did this historically, so they must —.” For me, it became much more interesting to explore what it might mean to live there, precisely because it was open-ended for me, I had no preconceived “It has to go to this event.” The characters were free to breathe — or as far as anybody was free to breath at that point — in terms of my own creating them. That for me is the energy that I wanted to tap into.

THE VARSITY

When you say you wanted to allow the characters to work by their own rules, what do you mean by that?

DAN VYLETA

What I mean is quite simply that you write characters, and every line you write, they gain more weight. After a while, quite early in fact, you start thinking, “Ah, they wouldn’t say this. This is not what they say, this is not what they do, this is not how they relate to this person.” So it develops its own trajectory. Then another step happens where they start saying things where you think, “Oh wow. They said that?” Because by then you trust anything they say, because you trust that they have become part of your mode. And then you start watching them surprise you — the doctor — and they also disappoint you. I was interested in that: that your heroes, so to speak, the people you go through the book with, have the potential of screwing up, of not being up to it. Because “being up to it” is a tremendous challenge in 1939 Vienna. It means having tremendous courage.

THE VARSITY

A question often asked of writers of historical novels is “How do you not let the research take over the project?” But the subject matter of this book is closely related to your non-fiction work. Were there questions you had, entering this novel, that you didn’t have the answers to from your research?

DAN VYLETA

The advantage that I already knew something about the time was that I didn’t feel I have to read all this stuff to start the novel. I think there would be the danger of it burying and killing the book. Questions come up, and you wonder how this would work. Some of them are quite easily answered, and some of them are not. I ended up going to Vienna to see an old friend of mine who’s a very eminent professor of history there. He had me over and cooked schnitzel. I’d ask him all these questions and he kept answering these questions, so the cooking took about four hours, we ate at like 11:30 because he would turn around and the schnitzels were burnt. [laughs]

There were things we would argue about: “Is this possible?” The interesting thing is, when you are a writer, is your responsibility to write the typical, or are certain things best explored by taking something actually kind of unusual or remarkable? Because if you go into the individual biographies of people, there’s often quite remarkable stuff. It’s not an example I use, but it’s been relatively recently discovered that quite a few people who would have been classed Jewish by the regime ended up in some way in the army, sometimes in surprisingly prominent functions. That doesn’t represent the majority, but [historians] explored that strange case because it illuminates the whole insanity of it. So there are things in the book where I know very well there is no figure just like this, but, you know what, there could have been. It puts an interesting pressure on certain things. There are also things where you get contradictory answers. You talk to people who were around at the time, it was a long time ago … The past is hard to get a fix on sometimes.

You try to figure out Where are they? And how did that work? And when did the switch happen? It’s one thing to find out when they shifted to a ration system, say. It’s another thing to figure out, How exactly does that work when you go to a butcher? What is the physical transaction?

For somebody like my friend — he’s studied this all his life, he’s in his sixties, he’s lived in Vienna most of his life — there were a whole bunch of things where he said, “Well, it’s really complicated.” For me, it’s on the one hand humbling how much he knew, but also it’s the realization, you know, this is how difficult it is in detail. You get different answers from different people, it depends what you look at and how you look at it, which gave me a bit of licence to say it’s important and worthwhile to train your way into it, and then it does answer certain questions.

I remove the real violence of the system off-screen, because that’s where it’s terrifying.

THE VARSITY

Do you have any specific aims with respect to how you represent history? Or are there certain aspects that you find you struggle with?

DAN VYLETA

The first book [Pavel & I] has a lot of metanarrative play. The narrator is in the book but he’s looking back at it, so it channels thoughts I was having about writing about the past and accuracy and, I guess, desire: What do you want from the past? How do you want to remember it and how does that shape how you remember it? How do the facts clash with this desire?

With this book, I stepped away from that. I wanted to do something more old-fashioned and quieter, which is I wanted to step into this past without writing paragraphs that are me the author informing the reader. I don’t feel it’s needed. I think you should just be there with the people, and if you don’t understand something, you understand that they’re anxious about this, so there’s something to it, and that’s enough. So I wanted it to be claustrophobic, also, on the level of you, as a reader, being part of this very finite world, this apartment block, the perceptions of these people and their interactions. There’s less overt reflection on what it means to write the past than in the first novel. What I wanted was a kind of immediacy, of stepping in and being trapped in it along with the characters. I really wanted to have this character-driven book: this is who the people are, this is the situation, let’s see what happens.

THE VARSITY

There’s a moment in the very beginning of the book where a couple has “left,” and they aren’t mentioned other than in this one scene.

Beyond the gate — visible to Beer on tiptoe — lay a small, rectangular yard, littered with rubbish and enclosed on all sides by two-storey buildings that housed a row of garages and workshops.

 

“But that’s Herr Pollak’s Auto Repair Shop.”

 

“Her Pollak has left,” the girl told him as she pressed her face against the grate. “They’ve been gone since winter. He and Frau Pollak. She used to give me raisin buns.”

 

“Left? I didn’t know they were —,” he started to say, when he saw the scrawl of a symbol across the flank of one building, jagged like a scar. It might have been less prominent had the day been overcast, Beer thought it shameless of the season. All of a sudden he wished to hurry the sun.

 

“Things are prettier in the dark,” he mumbled, and the girl looked up to him as though she agreed.

We read that today and think “Uh-oh,” because we know what is likely to happen to that couple. But when you are living in the now, you don’t necessarily think of yourself within the context of history. You don’t live in the now thinking there will be death camps.

DAN VYLETA

Yeah.

THE VARSITY

As the writer, you know these things are going to happen in the novel’s future, but trying to capture a character’s psychological reality, is there a certain sense in which you have to willfully blind yourself to that potential?

DAN VYLETA

It’s less a matter of blinding than I think you really narrow your focus. In some ways you know, to some degree you realize what you’re describing has this echo, right? I wanted to remove the real violence of the system off-screen, because I think that’s where it’s terrifying. You could lyricize it or something, but I think it has more weight this way.

When it comes to the psychological reality of these people who don’t know, you really try to breathe when they breathe. I wanted to have a physical sense, it mattered to me that you have a sense of the material real, because we’re so embedded in objects and things and doors and cookers, which, as a writer, you often leave out and say, “Yeah, people will understand.” But for me, it became a way of saying, “I’m putting my foot where they’re putting their foot. Therefore, I’m describing the floor. What would they do? They’d turn on the light switch.” In a sense it slows it down, but I think in that, in the physical, reality creeps in, and that reality keeps you away from the big picture and keeps you immersed in just that moment, that breath, that line of dialogue. So that was the strategy of getting through it.

THE VARSITY

It struck me that this book is like a lot of detective stories, except it’s inverted in a way. The reader doesn’t know, perhaps until the very end, who did what. Many of the characters actually have a very good idea of what went on, but they’re not going to share it. We’d like to learn through Dr. Beer who the murderer is, but at the same time we have this police detective who is a kind of villain. It’s an inversion in that we don’t the police to get their man.

DAN VYLETA

Because this man is far worse than whatever the other person could be.

I like the idea of the police procedural, the kind of whodunit that’s interested in how do you actually do this, physically? Where do you go, and what kind of notes do you take, and who is involved, and what is the politics of the workspace, and all the rest? If you take that idea to a period like Vienna under the Nazis, you suddenly realize, well, that’s a very strange office, because there are a lot of politics in it, there are ways of solving the crime that are good for your career, and ways that are bad for your career, and of course, by now, the police force has been put under a regime line, so it’s no longer a protector and servant, it’s something else. It’s the perfect position of abuse. Who else could abuse authority as easily as somebody who’s allowed to enter your house, search you, and find whatever they want?

I think the reason why that detective makes a good villain, I remember the first time I wrote about him, I got this tremendous headache because I find him really loathsome. He’s such a mediocre, mid-level, shameless kind of man, and all it is is he can, so he does. And that struck me: that makes sense, that’s what you’re going to get. There is the deportation stage, there are the terrible crimes perpetrated by the regime itself, but it’s also letting all these people off the leash who have that little bit of authority and a lot of licence: No matter what the crime really is, that is the thing that’s going to be breathing down your neck.

You also have these two models of detective. You have the doctor, who is a model of detective because he is the figure who comes into the private space, right? You open the door to the house doctor, and he is asked to look into it, and he knows a lot because he’s talked to people as patients. And then you have the other figure, who can go through doors by waving the badge and walking in. They face off in very different investigations. One important moment in the book for me is when the detective says, “I just realized I don’t have to solve this crime. That’s not what this is about. That’s great!” Whereas the doctor wants to know, but he doesn’t want to tell anyone, because who do you tell, this regime? I think the situation conspires to hijack that model of the whodunit into something very different.

THE VARSITY

What was your aim with introducing chapters with the short snippets on various psychopaths, the paranormal, the Nazi crimes against the mentally ill …

DAN VYLETA

For me, it’s the ironic counterpoint. The 1920s, particularly in Germany, experienced these incredible, absurd serial murders, which all seemed to revolve around people eating other people. There’s a tremendous amount of cannibalism, weirdly. And then, for various reasons, there are not that many reported serial killings in the late 1930s to the mid ’40s — apart from what the regime perpetrates. In a sense, the book works like that. There’s the suspicion that somebody is killing individuals, and then you have this murderous regime that’s going to kill millions. We use words like “evil” so lightly. It opens up for the reader — you’re so immersed in this apartment block — every so often you step back and see with some sort of ironic distance through these things.

At the same time, I think it maps how the book changes. It starts looking like a detective novel, and it starts having these blurbs about serial killing, and then it moves into this element where one of the characters becomes convinced that it’s probably got something to do with the paranormal, or fraud to do with the paranormal. And again, that mirrors the craziness that’s around. Then it shifts into a different mode, which is closer to the bone for what the story is. So I think the passages also mirror the change of expectation, the change of where we think we are, and I like keeping readers on their toes. I don’t like having too solid ground. So it took on its own logic at the time.

It also illustrates that as crazy as this story is, because all those snippets are essentially accurate, this is how crazy some of the stuff that’s happening around it really is, so it also has this counterpoint of, well, what’s fact? What’s fiction? What appears real and what feels hyperbolic — again, it’s very swampy.

THE VARSITY

That counterpoint put me in mind of Hannah Arendt’s description of the banality of evil, because in Arendt’s description, Eichmann is no psychopath, he’s very rational, very normal. It made me wonder whether you would use a different word to describe evil as it’s depicted in the book, or even whether you think you are describing evil, or something else.

A lot of good people in that period attempt to withdraw into their private life and say, ‘I’m just going to quietly be a decent human being.’ That’s the question: Can you?

DAN VYLETA

There’s something about abuse, abuse of authority, abuse of the badge. Abuse is an interesting type of evil, right? Because it questions what would you do if there’s no consequence? It’s a temptational logic of evil. It’s not a model of “This person grew up bad.” It’s a model saying “This person has unruly, unappetizing desires, and now they can act on them, and they’re slowly, increasingly realizing that nobody will stop them, they will be commended for this abuse.” The book seems to concentrate more on the opportunist than on hard-core ideologues. It’s not to deny that there were very ideologized Nazis around, but I find that it’s a glummer question for me, that stuff, asking, “Well, this person is not so super nice in normal life. What happens?”

On the other hand, you have in the doctor and some of the other characters people who want to be good people, but then the question is, how far will they go? What level of courage? The weight of the period is that unless you are heroic enough to actually risk your own life, nothing else will do. It’s very hard. You will either bend, or you are willing to throw your life away, and that’s a very crushing insight. For me, the one person who has the lightness to step out of this is the little girl, because she’s in a sense too young to carry that weight of consequence. She has no calculation. Everybody else has to have calculation. And the good thing is never simple: Do you know it’s good? All these questions: What will it achieve? And am I just swimming against the tide?

THE VARSITY

In the case of the doctor, he takes the Hippocratic Oath very seriously, but in this toxic social environment, the choices available to him are to choose the lesser harm. To use the example of whether you are willing to put your life on the line for this cause, if he dies …

DAN VYLETA

What will be helped? And then also, the only way he can see his way out of it would be a path of violence, and that’s both suicidal and contradicts the Hippocratic Oath in various ways. We never quite learn why he resigned. We have our suspicions why. He’s doing what I think a lot of good people did in that period, which is attempt to withdraw into their private life and say, “Okay, I’m not going to be part of an institution that’s doing bad stuff, I’m just going to quietly be a decent human being at home.” That’s the question: Can you? How decent can you be, and what if life dishes you up a problem that you didn’t really want because you looked out the window at the wrong time?

THE VARSITY

This trait of quietness that runs through all your characters — I saw a lot of similarities with Rear Window. Was that an influence?

DAN VYLETA

I think it was. I love that film. I have also simply lived in many of this kind of apartment building, so for me it’s a very natural thing. You have a relationship with the people across the yard. Rear Window resonated with me immediately — it made total sense. It was a strange consolation for me: this is how I’ve known people to live, this is how I’ve lived myself. And Rear Window of course has this stroke of genius that Jimmy Stewart has a broken leg, so he can’t actually leave. I didn’t take it that far, but it’s certainly left its mark. I also like that Rear Window is a thriller, but like many of these old-fashioned thrillers, it’s good dialogue. I like that as a model of writing: you believe these people, you listen to them, they’re interesting, and their class relations are interesting — and it happens.

Stella: We’ve become a race of peeping Toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change. Yes sir. How’s that for a bit of homespun philosophy?

 

Jeffries: Reader’s Digest, April 1939.

 

Stella: Well, I only quote from the best.

 

Jeffries: Yeah. Oh, you don’t have to take my temperature this morning.

 

Stella: Quiet. See if you can break 100. You know, I should have been a gypsy fortuneteller instead of a insurance company nurse. I got a nose for trouble.

The world of Rear Window, being mid-1950s, is, what, 15 years from the world of The Quiet Twin? But they’re very different worlds. Even talking about Jimmy Stewart’s character, he’s very loud about what he thinks is happening. Where did the book’s theme of quietness come from? Would these characters be like this without the regime above them?

DAN VYLETA

I don’t think so. I think they would breath a bit more freely. Again, in the quietness itself, without writing the regime, I’m writing the regime. Nothing makes sense about the book unless you make that connection, but nobody needs to say it because it’s such a reality. Who knows who’s listening in and what they would think about what you just said? The quietness is this unmentionable thing that lies under everything.

Without writing the regime, I’m writing the regime. Nothing makes sense about the book unless you make that connection.

The other thing that’s specifically Viennese is that Austria moved in such rapid succession through different modes. One year it’s the capital of an empire, then it’s this tiny country all by its own, totally impoverished, then it’s absorbed by Hitler’s Reich. So you have people living in it who are reared on a very different Vienna. The Speckstein character, the Vienna he was reared for is the capital of an empire, and it’s all sort of genteel, and also Vienna is behind the times. You know, Berlin in the ’20s is this supermodern city, but Vienna is kind of old-fashioned. So I wanted to have this overlap of this very brutal, explicit, coarse — it’s a very vulgar regime, there’s no finesse to it — with these people, some of whom, even their servants, are half living in the pretension of a bygone era that’s very polite and witty, and people are caught in various stages of this.

THE VARSITY

You see that at Speckstein’s party.

DAN VYLETA

It’s a populist party, but that has its edge as well, right? It’s the opposite of democratic populism. Democratic populism says, “Look, at bottom we are all rational human beings. It doesn’t matter how much you earn, what you trained for. We ask you to think for yourself and come to a decision.” Right? This [Nazi populism] is saying, “Don’t think for yourself! Be of the crowd.” So I like the idea of this genteel party being hijacked, and turning the official mantra of the regime into a piss-up, [laughs] which elsewhere would be fun, but here is sort of sinister.

THE VARSITY

What are the moral implications of that quietness though? On the one hand, people are being quiet, as you say, because they just want to go on with their lives. Everyone has secrets, they don’t want theirs out in the open. But then, of course, the other side of that is any authoritarian regime can use that quietness as a signal of assent that people condone these actions, whatever they may be. There’s that one scene where Beer is in Speckstein’s study area, and as he’s leaving, they both say “Heil Hitler,” because “that’s what a good German does.”

“One more thing, Doctor Beer,” he said, his voice lowered to impress upon Beer the change of subject. His hands, the doctor noted, had found what they were looking for: another sort of file, its clothbound covers marked in inch-high ink with the address of their building. This was not a police file, strictly speaking, though its contents might easily be passed on to the police. It belonged to the realm of activities that, in recent years, had renewed Speckstein’s social prominence, with the help of a notepad, and a host of informers.

 

“I hope you will forgive me if I remind you to be careful. In everything. These are —” the old man searched for a word — “uncharitable times.”

 

Beer stood for a moment, trying to divine what precisely Speckstein was telling him. His face seemed open, free of malice, soft eyes gleaming behind their glasses. It was only the teeth that looked ugly; yellowed, clothed in spit. From where Beer was standing, already halfway in the doorway, it was impossible to see the uniform, hanging freshly pressed from its iron hook. It took only a moment to find the right words.

 

“Certainly, Professor. Heil Hitler.”

 

“Heil Hitler,” said Speckstein, smiling sadly as Beer took his leave as a good German should. Neither man raised his arm to complete the salute.

This issue of “the good German” —

DAN VYLETA

That’s a confidence gamble. You likely never know who you are talking to or where they stand, so you have to play it safe. There’s also in that quietness — not strictly because of the regime change but concurrent with it — there is a tremendous economic upswing. Suddenly many people are doing better than they did before, and that in itself I think makes you quiet, right? Because “Yeah, I don’t really agree with that part, but …” In this period there’s one wave of deportation, which is specific to Austria, of Jews. Most of the deportations come later, but there’s an awful lot of pressuring and forcing people to emigrate, and pay for it, and there’s a lot of basically stealing Jews’ property. So there’s also that: a lot of people making a lot of money or coming into property, or suddenly a lot of flats open up, which is always a problem in Vienna. So a lot of people benefit from stuff that they wouldn’t want to be involved in themselves.

THE VARSITY

It’s that opportunism again.

DAN VYLETA

Yeah, and also, then, what can you say other than “Let’s not talk about it”? I think there’s tremendous pressure just to blinker yourself, which would make you quiet as well. Then there’s various ways you can go: you can quietly suffer and go along, or you avert your eyes, or, there’s also pressure to buy into the slogans, the Heil Hitler salutes, etcetera. Then, even if you don’t believe it, you’re saying, “They’re telling me it’s good. This is how I’m a good German.” So in a sense, it’s a good excuse: you can follow your opportunism under the veneer of saying, “I misunderstood morality. Morality is actually this thing I’m told.” So there are various reactions going on.

I didn’t want to slide into apology, and it’s also wrong to say ‘It’s all forgiven through circumstance,’ but there is a complexity in these biographies, and the novel is formed to explore it. 

It’s also a quiet period: the war has started but the war hasn’t started. Poland has been taken, everybody knows there’s a next step, and there are various stages to mobilization, but there won’t be any further shots fired for quite a while. So it’s this weird lull. I also like this idea of people pretending: “It’ll go away,” or “Oh, it’s not really that bad. Sure, a few people had to leave the country …” There’s all this space for excuse and to build your own prosperity. The public is offered this very straightforward offer: “Just think of yourself!” For all the blah blah blah about solidarity with the Fatherland, there is also just this self-interest carrot. You can see it’s a very powerful tool.

THE VARSITY

It does raise the question of guilt: Can guilt be ascribed —

DAN VYLETA

Complicity —

THE VARSITY

Yeah.

DAN VYLETA

Yeah.

[pauses]

I think it’s unfair to blame a generation if you haven’t been tested in a similar way. For me, writing the novel is thinking myself into the situation. It’s not an excuse, and it’s also not an accusation, but it is trying to grapple with the nature of the pressures, and we see different people react to them in various ways. My wife read it. There comes a point in the book where she said, “You know, I’m kind of heartbroken. He’s a good man, the doctor, but he’s not measuring up. And then this other guy, the mime, does what needs to be done, even though he’s not particularly sympathetic in other ways.” You know, “measuring up” is very difficult in 1939, is the sad answer.

THE VARSITY

It’s not a book of villains, but it’s not a book of saints either.

DAN VYLETA

Yeah, definitely not. And some of the villains turn out — like the professor, the housekeeper: they’re not loveable, but by the end you have, I certainly had, an amount of understanding. I didn’t want to slide into apology, and it’s also wrong to say “It’s all forgiven through circumstance,” but there is a complexity in each of these biographies, and I think the novel is actually formed to explore it.

THE VARSITY

Do you think that is something that can be explored only in a novel?

DAN VYLETA

I’m a big believer in the novel. I think the novel has patience. It’s very intimate between writer, reader, book. It creates identification much stronger than other media create. Non-fiction has the problem that, if you wrote a straight-up history book, you have to borrow heavily from the methodology of the novels. The thing is, you can’t explain certain things without having an emotional content, you can’t understand them without any emotional involvement. But if you are writing non-fiction, if you are trying to build that emotional involvement, it becomes a very tricky thing, because suddenly you are no longer sure, perhaps, whether you can honestly sign this up as a fact.

Whereas in a novel, you are announcing to a reader up-front “This is one version. This is a work of imagination,” and it does open up an understanding that’s very different from a factual understanding of the situation. So I actually do believe that the novel is a very unique form. It’s not just a long short story, and it’s not a written film. There’s something going on also in the fact that as you read it, you’re doing so by yourself. There, too, is a quietness. So I think it implicates you differently. It gives your humanity a different canvas, there’s more space in it than a purely visual medium — a film, or something — there’s more space for you to take yourself into it, and I think that has to happen for understanding to some degree.

Having said that, I don’t want to be didactic. I have no lesson to teach, because I don’t understand it [National Socialism] myself. I don’t know how you can understand it, right? But I think you can live through something with this — I did, writing it — and I hope, reading it, some of the same experience comes alive.

THE VARSITY

Your last book has already been translated into German.

DAN VYLETA

Yeah. This one is as well. It’s coming out next month, actually.

THE VARSITY

What has the reception been?

DAN VYLETA

Well, the process first of all is strange, because somebody else translates it, I get it, I edit it, the German editor edits it again, and there’s this long dialogue between these three people. So that’s interesting. I think the reception of the first novel — it turns into a slightly different book.

THE VARSITY

Just by virtue of it being a translation? Or also because of it being —

DAN VYLETA

In Germany?

THE VARSITY

Yeah.

DAN VYLETA

I think both. By virtue of it being in translation in the sense that I think the English is a bit more lyrical, and then in the German the events themselves take more centre stage. It’s a weird shift, but I’ve noticed it. I don’t think this has to happen, but somehow in this collaboration I’m describing, the ambiguities which are in language narrow a bit. A decision is made, and it gets a bit more rigid somehow.

THE VARSITY

Is it more precise?

DAN VYLETA

It’s funny, I’m struggling for words. It’s not because German couldn’t do this. All I can think is it has a different music. When I read the German, I realize how much my English is written for rhythm, and it has a certain flow and tempo, and all those things are slightly off, and I feel — yes, it feels a bit fast, a bit spikier in the German.

I do believe the novel is a unique form. It’s not just a long short story, and it’s not a written film. It implicates you differently, it gives your humanity a different canvas. There’s more space for you to take yourself into it. 

And the reception? You know, it’s different also because the first book was set in Berlin, so there’s some aspect of that: there are people who lived through it. And then there’s an aspect that the German book culture is very different in that there’s a suspicion in Germany that if somebody gets killed in a book, it’s probably not pure literary fiction, right? I think the Anglo-American or the Canadian reading world is more used to a concept of novel where the high and low can be married, because there’s a long tradition of people saying, “Yes, I’m going to take the whodunit, and here’s what I do with it,” or “I’m going to film The Wire, and it’s going to be Dickens!” Even Dickens himself wrote all kinds of stories with crazy coincidences and sensationalist stuff, but it’s clearly literature, right? You can’t read it and not think it’s literature. In Germany the tradition is different. There’s more of a division between entertainment and literature. The natural instinct there is to put it [Pavel & I] into entertainment. So there’s that movement within the reception which is specific to it.

THE VARSITY

So has it been a similar experience with this book?

DAN VYLETA

I thought this book would be much easier to translate, actually. I was thinking of how simply and cleanly I’d written it, but then of course you realize how much everybody has very unique rhythms in how you write, and it’s disconcerting to hear someone — I can’t do this personally, but imagine you had musical talent, you write a piano piece, and somebody plays it at half the speed you thought. These bits are loud, and these bits are quiet! It’s disconcerting, you know? You’re taken aback, and it takes a while to say, “Okay! That could be —.” Maybe not in the instant, but you have to evaluate it slowly and say, “Is this a good decision? Maybe that is an interesting decision.” To accept that if you hear this one thing, it could be interesting.

I think what will be interesting with this book as well is I will go to Vienna to read in May, and my German is not Viennese. It’s one thing to write it in English as a German speaker, but to come with a northern German accent to Vienna and read a Viennese story? I’ll be interested in how that reception will go. “Can you write us? Is that okay?” I’m curious about that dialogue.