Cesare: A Novel of War-Torn Berlin

  • By Jerome Charyn
  • Bellevue Literary Press
  • 368 pp.

A haunting, dystopian tale of the Third Reich.

Cesare: A Novel of War-Torn Berlin

With 50 published works to his credit so far, Jerome Charyn, American literary luminary and protean master of language, is now in his ninth decade. Cesare is Charyn’s latest. Often shocking and occasionally confounding, this darkly resonant novel is a dystopian rendering of World War II Germany on the cusp of its slow slide into defeat.

In this convention-upturning tour de force, Charyn offers a bleakly unforgiving portrayal of the arriviste Nazi establishment at the pinnacle of Berlin culture in the early and mid-1940s. His Berlin is a hateful, violent, and hypocritical precinct, and one steeped in bitter contradiction, notably in the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews.

On one hand, driven by the zealots among them, the Nazis are blithely willing to round up and ship Juden off to the camps or, in captured lands, to murder them outright:

“He’d watched Colonel Joachim stand in his field car like a circus performer, on the shoulders of his men, and shoot at rabbis and high school teachers and Jewish children in the ruined streets of Warsaw…There was a horrific storm of dust and blood. The rubble seemed to rise up off the wreckage with a whisper and a will of its own; it whipped strings of blood into the faces of the SS, blinded them, until they had to look for shelter in the dusty caverns of their field cars.”

On the other hand, lulled by indifference or concupiscent torpor, many of Charyn’s ardent Nazi officials look the other way when it comes to Jewish craftspeople, entertainers, and sex workers, particularly those of “mixed” ancestry.

It’s a world turned upside-down, Charyn’s Germany. Here, erotic and romantic love do occasionally intertwine but are inevitably tinged with the imperative to hurt, even injure. Just such a love duo drives the narrative in Cesare, drawing perversely on a familiar trope: the Arthurian love triangle, where the younger wife of a powerful husband takes a warrior lover.

In Cesare, protagonist Erik Holderman is the smitten one. The object of his affection ⸺ or, more aptly, his obsession — is Lisalein, the half-Jewish, violence-prone, and sexually eclectic wife of a high Gestapo official. Erik and Lisalein’s affair, anti-typically, is often aggressive, inspired by a smoldering vein of under-the-surface desire that flares up, nearly spent, in the final pages of the novel.

Erik is a surrogate son to Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr, the Nazi intelligence corps. Erik, a nearly legendary source of terror to doctrinaire Nazis and the general populace alike, is known as Cesare, after the coffin-sleeping assassin in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” a groundbreaking German silent film released in 1920.

He is universally feared as a superhuman embodiment (a peculiar ubermensch?) of the filmic Caligari’s sleep-walking murderer. Both are seemingly unstoppable killing machines. Ironically, like both the historical and the fictional Canaris, Erik secretly opposes the Reich and surreptitiously helps Jews in hiding (“submariners”) escape the country.

Throughout, Cesare draws allusively on the expressionist energy of its silent-film prototype, which itself goes against orthodoxy in its nightmare-evoking visual style. Celebrated as the first horror film, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” is also a thinly veiled allegory about the abuses of governmental power and the hypnotic spell a demonic, authoritarian leader can cast on his followers.

That “Caligari” was released a century (to the year) before Charyn’s Cesare would seem to add authorial bite to the parallel.

Don’t pick up Cesare expecting a wartime thriller or an uplifting love intrigue, despite what its subtitle might promise. Charyn sets these ⸺ and several other ⸺ conventional formulas in play here, though hollowed-out and zombie-like, to push his story along. They’re intentionally alienating, in the Brechtian sense, and bleakly unsatisfying.

An underlying anger, a bitterness, drives this novel. And it’s entirely earned, as history has told us.

Bob Duffy, a former academic and ad-agency vice president, is a Maryland author and reviewer.

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