Genre Bender

The Crooked Maid: Dan Vyleta

I haven’t read  the author’s   critically acclaimed first novel ‘ Pavel & I’, or his second novel ‘ The Quiet Twin’ shortlisted for Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. But this surely is a hugely ambitious novel and a major achievement. Imagine trying to meld the influence of Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov into one book and pulling it off!

The book opens in the first-class compartment of a train rumbling from Basel to Vienna where Anna Beer, a  beautiful but slightly distraught woman in her forties meets  Robert Seidel, a boy of eighteen, returning from a boarding school in Switzerland.  It is the end of World War II and Anna is about to be reunited with her husband, a psychiatrist recently released from a Russian PoW camp. Their conversation is edgy but sharp, giving us a premonition that they are going to meet again and their lives will mesh. There is bit of Hitchcock here as the author introduces a  mysterious man with a red scarf watching the two arrive at the Vienna station, the connection between the three as yet unknown.

crooked maidThe  post-war Vienna is  a city haunted by shadows of the war, replete with characters who lumber on  the streets like ghosts, carrying the burden of their past. Anna reaches her apartment to find that her husband isn’t there, finding instead  a man who has the keys to her apartment, claiming to be a prison mate  of her husband. The affairs at Robert’s home are even murkier. His father Herr Seidel lies in a coma in a hospital, having either  fallen off the first floor through the window or been pushed by someone. His step-brother Wolfgang has been arrested on suspicion of the crime. Wolfgang’s  pregnant wife lies sick among chamber pots listening to opera on the gramophone. His mother walks around in drugged haze, carrying a bottle of  sniffing powder in one hand and  rat poison in the other.  That leaves the maid Eva with a hunch back. the crooked maid, to take care of the house. But we can see how little ‘ care’ she takes of the house, spending most of her time as she does  on the terrace among a murder of crows. Herr Seidel dies in the hospital and there is a courtroom trial. There is blackmail. There is more killing.  And then, in an particularly eerie scene, we find the entire population of crows on Eva’s terrace poisoned. Robert we can see is attracted to Eva, the maid, as well as Anna, the much older woman. How is it all going to end? Where is Anton, Anna’s husband? Who is the ragamuffin  with the red scarf?  The book reads well enough as a thriller, but of course it is much more.

Vyleta writes every character with such meticulous physical detail that you can see them all vividly  before your eyes. Streets, rooms and locales are bestowed the same detailed description.  It gives a peculiarly authentic feel to the proceedings, turning you into a kind of detective, alert to every bit of information. The prose is stunningly evocative. Describing prisoners in Siberia dying of starvation, Vyleta writes, “ ..each exhalation laced with the scent of ripe fruit: entire camps suffused in the sweet reek of the body’s self-cannibalization.”  Elsewhere he writes, “  She dug in her handbag for makeup and mirror, intending to paint new life upon her fading lips.” Then there are sentences  like: “ A detached calm rose up in her like the waterline of a hot bath.’ Or:  ‘ He carried her bags like a personal affront.”  There are many droll side shows  adding texture to the narrative. There is a man practicing amateur taxidermy, trying to stuff a dead crow, making a wireframe armature to hold the body stiff, and a  glassblower in Germany making artificial eyes to artistic perfection.

It is  amazing how Vyleta manages to link the book’s many characters through cohesive links. There are coincidences galore, but they stretch one’s imagination not credibility. If the debt to Dickens is apparent in the episodic, action-driven plotting,  Dostoevsky is referenced in the Prince Myshkin-like innocence of Robert and the trial of Wolfgang for parricide.  As to Chekhov, Vyleta himself quotes him in the book thus: “ 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.”  A gun is  introduced in the book fairly late, and we have to read on to find out what happens. But in the end, the plot, wonderful though it is, is not what the book is about. “ I wanted to write a world, not a book”,  says  Vyleta about his magnum opus. He succeeds brilliantly, writing a book that is impossible to put down, and creating an entire universe –  complete with people, places and moral dilemmas –  that we must enter and experience.

(This was originally published in the Sunday Book Review section of the Deccan Herald.)                                                                                                          

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