#BookReview Cesare by Jerome Charyn

CesareAbout the Book

On a windy night in 1937, a seventeen-year-old German naval sub-cadet is wandering along the seawall when he stumbles upon a gang of ruffians beating up a tramp, whose life he saves. The man is none other than spymaster Wilhelm Canaris, chief of the Abwehr, German military intelligence. Canaris adopts the young man and dubs him ‘Cesare’ after the character in the silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari for his ability to break through any barrier as he eliminates the Abwehr’s enemies.

Canaris is a man of contradictions who, while serving the regime, seeks to undermine the Nazis and helps Cesare hide Berlin’s Jews from the Gestapo. But the Nazis will lure many to Theresienstadt, a phony paradise in Czechoslovakia with sham restaurants, novelty shops, and bakeries, a cruel ghetto and way station to Auschwitz. When the woman Cesare loves, a member of the Jewish underground, is captured and sent there, Cesare must find a way to rescue her.

Format: Paperback (352 pages)                Publisher: No Exit Press
Publication date: 19th November 2020 Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

Described as “a novel of war-torn Berlin”, Cesare’s blend of historical fiction and dark fairytale put me in mind of Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, especially as we first meet its protagonist, Erik Holdermann, as a young boy.   Rescued by Jewish Baron von Hecht and his daughter, Lisalein, Erik immediately forms an attachment to Lisalein that as time goes on becomes an obsession, even after she becomes the wife of an SS officer. She remains an enigmatic character throughout. “She was Mata Hari one day, and Rosa Luzemburg the next. He could never really find Lisa. No sooner did he catch the baron’s daughter than she metamorphosed into something else.”

Having saved his life, Admiral Canaris (referred to as ‘Uncle Willi’) takes Erik under his wing and makes use of Erik’s ability to remain undetected to have him carry out assassination missions for the Abwehr. “The Abwehr had no mandate to murder anyone, but it’s enemies still disappeared. And that’s how the myth of Cesare was born.”  I found the glossary of German terms essential for unravelling the internal workings of Third Reich and the competition between different branches of the military.

Like pretty much everyone in the book, Admiral Canaris is at best a flawed and often paradoxical character. He’s a man who does everything he can to scupper the wilder schemes of Hitler, confesses, “I wanted to knock Hitler’s teeth out, poison his dog, piss on Goebbels, shit on Göring’s carpets”, who hides his daughter away for fear she will be caught up in the Nazis vile plans and goes out of his way to save a young Jewish girl, but whose officers are responsible for helping to hunt down and murder Jews. Even his desire to save Erik, to “cure his own magician of the Third Reich”, ends in failure.

The book features a cast of eccentric (some might say, grotesque) characters such as the hunch-backed “little baron” Emil von Hecht, the twin assassins Franz and Franze Müller, and Fanni Grünspan, one of the so-called “grabbers” who lure Jews out of hiding and hand them over to the Gestapo in return for either money, protection or other favours. Real life figures also feature such as silent film star, Pola Negri, and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem installed in the luxurious Hotel Adlon in Berlin against the threat of assassination by the British.

The sections that were most successful for me were the author’s forensic dissection of the hypocrisy of the Nazi regime. This is most obvious in the chapters towards the end of the book in which the “Nazi cabaret” of Theresienstadt (which existed in real life) is revealed in all its ghastly detail. A concentration camp masquerading as a haven for Jews away from Germany, it was in fact just a staging post on the way to Auschwitz.

The same hypocrisy is also apparent in Berlin where Nazi officers spend evenings listening to musicians playing “Jewish Jazz” in cabaret clubs, drink champagne in the Hotel Adlon, and receive expert medical care from Jewish doctors and nurses at the Jewish Hospital. “Even after all the roundups and the Sammellager (detention centres), and the paper stars that the Gestapo put on every door where a Jew still dwelled”, Berlin remains a Jewish town.

My overriding emotion whilst reading Cesare was a combination of confusion and a sense that I just wasn’t clever enough to appreciate everything the author was seeking to achieve. Never having seen the 1920 German expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Cagliari, the inspiration for the character Cesare, probably didn’t help. Having said that, Cesare is a highly original blend of historical fact, fiction and fantasy that may appeal to readers prepared, as I did, to venture outside their comfort zone.

In three words: Imaginative, dark, satirical

Try something similar: Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaraslav Kalfar

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About the Author

Jerome Charyn is the author of more than fifty works of fiction and nonfiction. Among other honours, he has received the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and his novels have been selected as finalists for the Firecracker Award and PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Charyn lives in New York.

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