:: Article

Watching the Abnormal

By Anna Aslanyan.


The Quiet Twin, Dan Vyleta, Bloomsbury 2011

Vienna is sometimes described as a city where people sit in cafes eating cakes as they did a century ago and the smell of horses is still omnipresent. In Dan Vyleta’s novel, set in the autumn of 1939, Golatschen pastries are hard to find, while horses exist largely in the form of rationed meat and black-market sausages. As for psychoanalysis, another trademark of the city, the name of Dr Freud is seldom mentioned, his books no longer studied in medical schools. The war is gaining pace, accompanied by a surge of violent crimes, “coincidence caused by anxiety.”

The setting is an apartment block where an affluent professor of medicine lives next door to a skint trumpet player as, the author points out in his afterword, was customary back in those days. The building and its courtyard harbour many dark secrets which most of the inhabitants know of, but prefer to keep their mouths shut. Zuzka, a troubled young girl, spends her nights watching a man in a flat across the yard, fascinated by the savage energy he emits. She is volatile, sick, unable to distinguish between her real and imaginary ailments – according to her housekeeper’s wry diagnosis, she needs a husband. Her neighbour, Doctor Beer, cannot do much for her as his medical and masculine powers are crushed by the weight of his personal drama and the events happening around him. Dedicated though he is to his patients, the good doctor is too weak to help them. A police informer’s report states, “He must be pushed to get involved,” and Beer is resigned to the fact that, sooner or later, he will have to join the ranks. Kind and circumspect, he is no fighter and no saint.

Another exhibit in this Kunstkamera is Otto, an outcast who has been on the other side of the law. His raw emotions attract and repel at the same time, and when we see him perform a mime act we are struck by its primeval force. These scenes are among the best in the book, visceral, taut, written with cinematic precision. Here, for instance, is his enactment of a seduction: “the stretching of the throat and jaw; eyes swimming with the knowledge of her need. […] the heavy braying of a beast in heat, made all the worse for its total lack of sound.” It is tempting to compare the book to Cabaret, Bob Fosse’s famous film, and there are, indeed, similarities, but as a study in Nazism The Quiet Twin is subtler. The film has in-your-face swastikas, warped, magnified through a glass in the final shot, whereas the book mentions, almost in passing, “the scrawl of a symbol across the flank of one building, jagged like a scar. It would have been less prominent had the day been overcast.”

The events unfolding in the apartment block are watched by nine-year-old Lieschen, a hunchback who is too old for her age, but as impressionable as any child. This quartet of the main characters is complemented by the novel’s four-part structure. Each part – Killers, Marvels, Cretins, and Whispers, Echoes – is preceded by a short prelude, an account of real historical events that set the tone for the fictional narrative. We learn of the screening of Erbkrank, or The Hereditary Defective, a film used to promote the Law for the Prevention of Hereditary Diseased Offspring passed in Germany in 1933; of parapsychological seances conducted at the turn of the 20th century; of brutal murders of dogs and humans.

The author points out in his note: “I can make no claim that I understand National Socialism. […] It seems important, however, to struggle towards understanding.” He also talks about his cast of characters, wondering “whether the past is better explored through ‘representative’ figures or through those whose choices and fate surprise.” It is the latter the novelist turns his attention to, putting you in mind of another attempt to understand the same phenomenon, Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow. The trick used by Amis, who tells the story of a Nazi doctor’s life backwards in time, may be seen as similar to Vyleta’s decision to concentrate on the out-of-the-ordinary. As Amis himself said in his afterword to Time’s Arrow, “The offence was unique, not in its cruelty, not in its cowardice, but in its style – in its combination of the atavistic and the modern. It was, at once, reptilian and ‘logistical’.” Perhaps the best way to overcome this sinister combination is to show things in an unprecedented light. After all, talking about Nazi crimes in a run-of-the-mill fashion has the danger of implying certain complicity. The devices Vyleta uses in The Quiet Twin make sure this never happens – not for a moment do we assume that the events we witness are in any way normal. This is the only way to watch them from the distance, sitting in a cafe eating your cake.


Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, March 14th, 2011.