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DEATH IN BRESLAU opens in a psychiatric hospital in Dresden in 1950. A mysterious man demands admission in order to question an inmate, one Herbert Anwaldt, who has been there for five years. Anwaldt is tormented by visions of insects. The action then switches to Breslau in 1933 and the brutal slaying of Marietta von der Malten, daughter of the powerful Baron von der Malten. Marietta is found in a railway carriage, her stomach slit open and scorpions inside the open wound; on the carriage window are two lines of strange signs written in blood. The case is assigned to Eberhard Mock, deputy Chief of Police in Breslau. Although he quickly 'solves' the case and is promoted to Chief of Police, Baron von den Malten is dissatisfied. Herbert Anwaldt, an alcoholic from the Berlin police, is summoned to help Mock in re-opening the enquiry and pursuing the true killer. This pursuit is made even more difficult by the Gestapo who are an ever-present threat.
DEATH IN BRESLAU has been translated from its original Polish (by Danusia Stok) and this poses peculiar problems for the reviewer. How much has been 'lost in translation'? The problem is acute because DEATH IN BRESLAU is a highly literary mystery. There are passages which have great force, even beauty, in English, but others which appear cumbersome, awkward, over-written; how does one decide whether this is a fault of the translation or the original text? This is far from the only issue of ignorance which the average non-Polish (or non-German) reader will encounter, though. Breslau itself is now Wroclaw in Poland (and well inside Poland). The book is in part a lament to a lost city - louche, decadent, threatening and, during most of the action of the book, sweltering in a heat wave. There are lengthy catalogues of particular streets and buildings, which frankly have little meaning or attraction for those who do not know the city.
Then there is the historical background; the Brownshirts and their elimination, the relationships between the police, the Gestapo and the Abwehr. Krajewski assumes a considerable amount of knowledge, which will again leave the average reader (certainly this reviewer anyway) struggling to comprehend and keep up at times. Of course the broad line is clear and the utter evil which was the Gestapo is vividly embodied in a horrific and graphic torture sequence. But the details are muddy. This is unfortunate because much depends on understanding Eberhard Mock's specific position. Mock is too morally ambiguous even to be termed an anti-hero; he survives by accumulating what he calls his 'vices' - either blackmail information or deep debts of gratitude - in which he holds people. It is through these that he is able to survive, pursue the investigation, and to some extent protect Anwaldt.
The tone of the book is similarly complex and uneven. At times it slides into Gothic horror, and the central murder plot is just that, with an absurd back-story which would only appeal to lovers of the fantastic. This sits awkwardly, even dubiously, with the accounts of Gestapo brutality. There were times when I did start to question this aspect of the book - should these very real historical atrocities really be used as part of what is, at other times, a kind of Gothic absurdity?
But there are many other facets to the book ; the amused and mostly admiring portrait of those parts of Weimar - brothels and intellectuals - which still survived in early 30s Breslau, an attempt at a detailed psychological study of the deeply damaged Herbert Anwaldt (an attempt which more than partially succeeds), sociological observations on German society in the early 1930s. It is an extraordinary conglomeration.
I do not think it is bad for a reviewer to admit on occasion that his final judgement is mixed; anyway that is what I am going to do here! I will say that parts of this book are genuinely original. But I have serious reservations about the mixture of elements. Parts of the book have great power, others are absurd, others are ironically detached. Because of this one never gets really emotionally involved. So the elements operate against each other. This may be a book which is rather less than the sum of its parts, may be less good than it thinks it is. But there is always that question of the translation at the back of my mind - how much has been lost? Nevertheless, with the proviso that you need a strong stomach, this is certainly a book that demands to be tried.
Reviewed by Nick Hay, May 2008
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