Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Vienna Dolorosa by Mykola Dementiuk

Reviewed by Victor Banis
A stunning and exemplary work of historical fiction, set in Vienna, Austria, taking place during a single day—March 12, 1938, the day Hitler "invades" Austria—in the Hotel Redl, a brothel where young boys dressed as girls entertain a discreet clientele. The hotel's proprietress, transvestite Friska Bielinska, watches the violence building on the streets of the city and tries valiantly to save guests and workers from the Nazi storm breaking around them.

Some books are easy to read. You snuggle up with them for a few hours of pleasure, a divertissement; perhaps a thrill or two from the plot, maybe a phrase here or there to savor. For most of us, this is mostly what we read.

Other books are not so easy. They are the ones whose prose, whose authors, challenge us. They dwell on serious subjects, or sometimes, subjects that are difficult to face. They make us think. They make us face, within ourselves, the reality of the human condition; perhaps for better; more often, for worse. I personally find that certain themes, certain subjects, are difficult for me to read. That is not meant judgmentally. The good writer is, or should be, a student of human behavior. To wrinkle up one's nose at very much of it is to distance yourself from your rightful task. You cannot write about human beings if you do not understand them, and you cannot understand them if you cannot see them honestly.

Still, I am inclined to avoid violence and there are certain types of sexual behavior—sadism, masochism, scatology among them—that turn me off on a personal level. Man's inhumanity to man depresses me. I do not generally read William Burroughs, as an example; he is just not to my tastes. But, this does not mitigate my opinion of him as a writer, a writer whom many consider to be brilliant.

Vienna Dolorosa was, then, not an easy book for me to read, dealing as it does with this one day of violence. But, to review a book, as I see it, is to provide a potential reader, who may not at all share my own prejudices, with some intelligent basis upon which to make his decision, whether to read, or not to read. If I write reviews only of books that reflect my bias, I am producing only a certain kind of vanity writing, and avail the potential reader naught.

I did not savor this book on a personal level. It troubled me greatly, in fact. It puts me, I fear, too closely in touch with my own inner brutality, which is to say, our common human thread of brutality, the seed of which exists in each of us, acknowledged or not. It can be painful to be forced to recognize it. Far easier to shy away from it. Like Burroughs, Mykola Dementiuk holds the mirror insistently before our faces, forces us to look into the darkest corners of our souls. He takes no blame if the image we see is not a rosy one.

This is a book that reminds me, indeed, very much of Burroughs' work, and the writing is certainly brilliant. How could I not admire a writer who captures the reality of the Nazi brutality with such astonishing brevity and horrible clarity: "The time of indecisive slapping was over; the millennium of clenched fists had arrived." Who could make the point in fewer words? What writer could not admire this snippet of bitter humor: "When told about the Nazi book-burning…in Berlin, he was to say, When they start burning the writers, call me; only idiots pay attention to writers."So, no, this is not an easy book. It is not for the reader seeking an hour or two of gay fluff; nor the prissy; nor the timid. It is not a pretty book. It is, in fact, an ugly one. It is often over the top. One senses here and there the author striving to shock, to dismay, and he does. Horrible would not be too strong a word. Life, the author insists, can be horrible. People can be horrible.But they can be beautiful, too, and for all of his shock tactics, the author finds too here and there little redeeming gems of beauty, of courage and goodness, even of love, buried in this momentary dung heap of history.

This is in fact a beautiful novel, beautifully realized, a novel for those interested in history—not just history's glorious triumphs, but its sometimes putrid underbelly as well. It is for those interested in the human condition, for it is in just such chapters of history that one sees humankind stripped of pretense, exposed, raw nerve endings and all. And, certainly, it is a novel for those interested in literature more than mere fiction.

In the best of all literary worlds, this would have been published by one of the major publishing houses, hailed by the leading critics, the author assuming a place in the front ranks of authordom. Stephen Spielberg would be filming it at this very moment.

One can only be grateful for the courage and insight of this small press and its publisher in bringing this extraordinary novel to fruition, for what will sadly almost certainly prove to be a small—but a discerning—audience.

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