||A Review of: Conspirators
by Paul Butler
The various plot lines of Michael Andr Bernstein's historical novel,
Conspirators, weave like the strands of a delicate web through the
interconnected social strata of an unnamed eastern province of the
Austrian Empire. Between the novel's opening "Overture"
and its closing "Coda", both set in 1925, the main story
begins in the winter of 1912-13 and ends in the spring of 1914.
Disparate social classes-aristocratic Christians, working-class
trade union activists, wealthy Jews, and permanently embittered
lower middle-class Jews-form a volatile tapestry against which
Bernstein's cast of characters either plan for personal safety or
conspire for general destruction.
The sardonic Count-Governor Wiladowski, morbidly fixated on the
threat of assassination, sits late every night trying to root out
dangers before they arise. The vague shadow of violence is in the
air, infiltrating the Count-Governor's dreams and dominating his
waking life. In his torment, Wiladowski finds comfort only in his
insomniac, chain-smoking spymaster, Jakob Tausk. Tausk is a former
prodigy of a rabbinical college whose self-questioning led to his
disgrace and expulsion. The two men, one haunted by mortality, the
other by damnation, form an unlikely yet plausible friendship.
The Count-Governor has every reason to build walls around himself.
The threats to his life come from many different directions: from
union leaders, itinerant rabbis spilling over from Czarist Russia,
and most surprisingly of all, from Hans Rotenburg, privileged son
of a Jewish financier, Moritz Rotenburg. Moritz is wealthy enough
to secretly bankroll the most costly of Wiladowski's official
functions, in order to gain some measure of acceptance and respect
for the Jewish population he hopes to protect.
Hans, however, is plotting the downfall of all such alliances. With
a group of young Christian aristocrats he forms a terrorist cell
in the middle of the Josef Quarter, the impoverished Jewish section
of the city. Inheriting from his father a shrewd insight of people's
weaknesses, Hans finds he is able to control the group, even while
he conceals the fact that he has little practical sense as to how
a blow can be struck against the establishment he has come to
Hans's motives are hazy, even to himself. As Moritz's heir, he has
been provided with the kind of immunity from trouble that inevitably
leads to stultification. His desperate urge to sabotage his position
is comparable to the compulsion of "a gambler who throws more
and more chips on the table, not because he cares about winning or
losing but because he is afraid of how little the results really
matter to him..."
Meanwhile, though Hans's co-conspirators prove themselves adept at
target practice in the grounds of their parents' luxurious estates,
it is an enigmatic rabbi, Moses Brugger, who most worries the
spymaster Tausk. Brugger is brilliant at attracting dangerously
loyal followers, and Tausk becomes convinced that the rabbi's version
of "tikkun olam", or "healing the world" is far
from benign. Brugger's aim, Tausk explains to Wiladowski, is "not
to heal the world but to heighten the injury, so that by a kind of
demonic dialectic, the true nature of existence is revealed."
Brutal, ritualized murders occur-one of the first victims is
Wilodowki's cousin-and the portent of violence-to-come begins to
loom over the narrative. The Count-Governor finds a focus for his
anxieties in an Easter parade during which, as leader, he will be
conspicuously on show.
Bernstein has interwoven many narrative strands, often breaking
from one point-of-view to move to another in mid-paragraph. This
device at once succeeds in giving characters psychological depth
and acts as metaphor for the interconnectedness of their lives;
soon it is clear that everyone is enmeshed in different aspects of
the same overarching conspiracy.
The extent of psychological insight in Conspirators means that there
few characters who can be described as minor; whether peaceful or
belligerent, we soon come to understand something about the complex
and sometimes terrifying inner workings of every character's mind.
Many of the struggles are internal: "[A man] can only be
faithful to [his nature] or betray himself...," Wiladowski
tells Tausk as he ruminates for the umpteenth time upon the various
potential threats to his life.
Betrayal and self-betrayal are central themes in Conspirators.
Wiladowski, ostensibly charged with ensuring the peace and well-being
of his province, cares about nothing beyond his personal safety.
His benign acceptance of his own cowardice is wryly comic. A more
clownish, if also pathetically tragic, depiction is given by Bernstein
of the would-be assassins led by Hans. Despite wanting to shatter
the establishment and ensure that their names live on in history,
the young nobles are horrified when Hans employs an eccentric and
embittered young Jewish accountant, Asher Blumenthal, as his agent.
Nothing, for them, could be more abhorrent than associating with
Asher. Hans's great wealth and his family's standing in the community
make them overlook the fact that he is a Jew. With Asher, there is
no way of overlooking it.
There is something highly appropriate in the farcical air that hangs
around Hans's terrorist cell. To illustrate the random nature of
violence, Ernst, a former friend of Hans who has been alienated by
the latter's fixation on violence, recounts an anecdote about the
assassination of the Empress Elisabeth. The killer, it transpired,
had actually meant to assassinate King Umberto of Italy but couldn't
afford the train fare to Rome. The Empress died, says Ernst
"because an anarchist had the nerve to stab a woman through
the heart but not to board a train without a proper ticket."
The writing in Conspirators is remarkably dense. Paragraphs often
last longer than a page, and even the first sentences of a chapter
are sometimes very long and involved. While this means the book
requires the kind of reader commitment rarely needed in contemporary
fiction, this writing style is fitting given the themes of conspiracy,
self-betrayal and the convoluted workings of fate. Phrases unravel
to expose unexpected nuggets of irony and humour, and the text as
a whole is as complex as the web in which the characters are caught.