The Magazine

Viennese Waltz

The second novel from a master of historic horror.

May 28, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 35 • By STEFAN BECK
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Much of Vyleta’s description is written in a kind of morose, monochromatic poetry, and it would not be mere blurb-speak to say that it can be haunting. In this, as in many other scenes, we are reminded that not all watching is malicious or invasive; much of it is done in loneliness and desperation, boredom and curiosity. It is, nevertheless, curiosity that will get Zuzka into trouble: She learns that the mime keeps a woman confined to his apartment, and she sets out, like the heroine of a children’s book, to find out what’s afoot.

Though character is a greater asset to Vyleta than plot, he does craft a pretty topnotch story, and it wouldn’t be right to give too much of it away. It is enough to disclose the following: The stoic, tight-lipped Beer, whose wife has left him for obscure reasons, is hiding at least one fact about himself. Zuzka, who tempts fate by confronting the mime, escapes not wholly unscathed: Against the reader’s too-logical expectations, she falls for him. Anneliese Grotter endures something so shattering that the reader will be forgiven for wishing Vyleta would let just one ray of sunshine into his benighted city block. 

The Quiet Twin (like Pavel & I) features a villain it would be too charitable to call larger-than-life: Teuben, the corrupt Nazi police inspector (was there another kind?) who engages Beer in a campaign of infuriating harassment and blackmail. In a book flyblown with misery, sickness, and existential horror—Graham Greene would be proud—one little domestic scene is almost too much to bear:

A child came into the room, nine years old, his hair jet black like his father’s. He had a milky and somewhat sickly complexion and was prone to coughs. Quickly, with light, rapid steps, he walked up to the seated man, pressed his face into the sleeve of his uniform, then began to clamber into his lap. Teuben was indulgent with his only living child and helped him to gain his perch. .  .  .“What are you reading, Daddy?” Robert asked, scanning the newspaper articles and the pages of notes Teuben had assembled on his desk. “I am reading about a girl only a few years older than you.”

Teuben’s intentions toward the girl in question are far from pure. It seems that evil, wearing the greasepaint of banality, isn’t really so banal after all.

The mime, Otto, turns out to be the player whose motives are easiest to pick out in this goulash of neurosis, fear, and evil. He is also the centerpiece of some of the most beautiful, balletic passages of action and description in either of Vyleta’s books. One does not expect to read about a mime without being irritated. (Then again, Vyleta incorporated into Pavel & I those two great mainstays of hack comedy, the midget and the monkey, without straying an inch from high seriousness.) Two scenes, one in which Otto performs for soldiers departing to the front, the other in which he’s the entertainment at a dinner party of Nazi officials, are too long to quote and too good not to withhold. They must be read in context.

“I think my resistance to the Nazi era,” Vyleta said in an interview, “was partially there’s a lot of clichés these days around it. .  .  . 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.” So Vyleta wrestled not with the impulse to call The Quiet Twin an “entertainment,” but with the earnest fear that someone else might. There’s no danger of that. 

In two books, he has shown that he can take milieux far removed from us—thrilling ones, horrifying ones—and use them, with care and decency, to examine the limits of just what a human being can bear. Never mind his improbable twists, his lurid tableaux, his Nazi evildoers. With apologies to The Third Man and Harry Lime, Vyleta isn’t interested in cuckoo clocks. Neither is literature.

Stefan Beck writes on fiction for the New Criterion and elsewhere.