Terrorism, Years Ago, Far Away, Still Casts a Long, Dark Shadow

Conspirators , by Michael André Bernstein. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 506 pages, $25.

It is 1925. Austrian playwright Alexander Garber takes a long, meditative walk on the grounds of his country house near Salzburg. He’s had a bad shock: In a grainy photograph in a cheaply printed tabloid called Exiled Voices , he has recognized a friend of his youth, the fierce, gifted rabbinical student Jakob Tausk. He’s identified by the paper as Avrakham Shubin, “one of the most ruthless” of Bolshevik interrogators, also connected with a political murder.

The transformation of an expelled yeshiva student into a master spy for the ruling elite of his provincial Austrian town and finally into an assassin for the Soviets is the dark-and, ultimately, unanswerable-mystery at the center of critic Michael André Bernstein’s excellent debut novel, Conspirators . This is historical fiction at its most convincing: The period is both skillfully rendered and somehow irrelevant. Mr. Bernstein’s chief theme is self-absorption, the inability of almost any of us to wrench our attention away from ourselves. Garber, who left his hometown of Galicia for Vienna at the beginning of his writing career, is astonished-and not a little offended-that a figure from his past, who belongs in one of his satiric sketches of the Habsburg twilight, has exhibited such a lively independent existence. He compares it to “a group of Bosch’s malshapen demons stumbling into one of Vermeer’s tranquil kitchens …. “

Spurred by this new information about his old friend and rival, Garber’s mind darts to the Cathedral Square murders, a terrorist attack on a town ceremony in Galicia in April 1914. This baffling act of violence by well-born revolutionaries on their fellow aristocrats was so quickly superseded by the June assassinations in Sarajevo, and by the war that followed, that it would have been easy for someone like Tausk to plot the trouble, then escape notice. Garber is looking for a villain. But Mr. Bernstein, whose superb, unhurried prose matches his largeness of vision, is like a postmodern detective who uncovers degrees of guilt and innocence in each of his characters, but refuses to place blame. No one is spared his compassion: not even the wonder rabbi whose rivals’ houses burst into flames, or the religious thug who mutilates and dismembers his enemy’s corpse. You would want this author as your therapist, maybe, but not as your lawyer.

Mr. Bernstein’s evenhandedness is a benign echo of the worldview of the most cynical of his characters, Tausk’s ruthless assistant spy, Roublev: “That one’s trusted comrades and blood enemies today should, by the next morning, have switched roles struck Roublev as deeply consonant with human nature, and if Tausk were to order him to arrest all the other spies and have their interrogations conducted by newly released prisoners, Roublev would have seen nothing unusual in that beyond a certain acceleration in an inevitable process.”

Though the townspeople of Galicia come to regard the Cathedral Square murders as a harbinger of the upheavals to come, the reader sees a longer shadow than the Great War falling across the pages of the book. It’s impossible to read a novel set largely among the Jews of western Austria in the early 20th century without the fate of European Jewry darkening every word. Galicia-not the town Mr. Bernstein has invented, but the province of Austro-Hungary (a partition of Poland) that is now, in part, western Ukraine-was the center of Hasidism, and also of Jewish nationalism. Almost all the Jews of Galicia were killed during World War II.

Mr. Bernstein doesn’t have to mention this, of course, or foreshadow it with anything more ominous than the familiar descriptions of social and professional restrictions on Jews, of Jews being fired first from struggling factories, and of their expulsion from the trade unions they had helped to found. Just as Garber looks back at the Cathedral Square murders through the strange new perspective of Tausk’s subsequent career, the reader cannot help but superimpose later history over Mr. Bernstein’s story in a kind of poignant double reading.

The ringleader of the revolutionaries is Hans Rotenburg, the only son of a Jewish financier known for his private charity and his even more private business dealings. One reason Hans’ gentile friends-who would hardly have spoken to him a generation earlier, let alone fallen under his sway-never bring up his Judaism is that Hans himself finds it a trivial distinction. Such things do not matter to the workers, he believes. He is puzzled when a poor clerk named Asher Blumenthal sees him as kindred, and refers to the gentile conspirators as “your important friends.” And when those young aristocrats recoil from Blumenthal, with his ill-fitting clothes and verbal outbursts and wink-and-nudge references to their sex lives, Hans does not think of championing Blumenthal as a fellow Jew. He talks about the purity of Blumenthal’s mercenary instincts, and how useful he will be for the work none of them want to do.

Dangerous ideas are hardly unusual in the young, especially those with time and money to indulge them. Hans is already under surveillance (like his father) simply for being a rich Jew. No one in authority, however (except for the canny Tausk), believes that his gentile co-conspirators would betray their class and their own self-interest by plotting a terrorist act. But the strong emotions fueling revolutionary fervor don’t require a lifetime of oppression to develop. One troubling conclusion we can draw from Mr. Bernstein’s novel, and from current events, is that the preconditions for violence-injustice, prejudice, restless youths in crisis-are always present. What we can’t predict is the spark that converts longing into action. Horribly, in Conspirators , it involves an accident with a soup tureen and (more crucially) Hans’ embarrassment during target practice with his co-conspirators, all of whom have the military training required of the ruling class. Loss of face proves a more effective motivator than those night-long rereadings of Das Kapital .

In the prologue, Garber tells a friend that the 1913-14 period in Galicia reminds him of the illustrations in a Book of Hours , with every character so preoccupied with his own business that he doesn’t know what the person standing next to him is doing. The failure of those in charge to prevent (or to explain) the Cathedral Square murders was a failure of imagination. Though Mr. Bernstein is a thoughtful writer, happy to linger on causes and counterforces, he is wise not to fill in those lapses too completely, and to leave unanswered as many-though not the same-questions as he begins with.

Regina Marler edited the anthology Queer Beats: How the Beats Turned America On to Sex, which Cleis Press will publish this summer.