by Michael Andre Bernstein
ISBN: 0002005700

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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 despise. 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.

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