cover image Cesare


Jerome Charyn. Bellevue, $26.99 (368p) ISBN 978-1-942658-50-4

Charyn’s spectacular latest (after The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King) captures the madness of Nazi Germany in a fiercely inventive merging of fiction and fact. Erik Holdermann’s parents both die before his ninth birthday in 1928, after which he is raised in a Berlin orphanage. When philanthropist Wilfrid von Hecht and his daughter, Lisa, make a visit to the institution, Erik is smitten by Lisa, a “mischling,” or partially Jewish, teenager a few years his senior. Their lives diverge when Lisa marries an SS colonel and, at 17, Erik rescues a seedy-looking man being attacked by thugs. The man is Adm. Wilhelm Canaris, director of the Abwehr espionage unit. Canaris has Erik trained in killing and disguise, nicknaming him “Cesare” after the somnambulist assassin in the film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Though Erik’s covert work becomes the stuff of whispered legend, few know that he’s helping Canaris—whose loyalty to Hitler has frayed in the face of the Führer’s increasingly erratic leadership—to sabotage Nazi attempts to exterminate Berlin’s Jews. After Erik re-encounters Lisa at a dinner party, the two begin a fevered affair. When she’s sent to Theresienstadt, where a “Jewish Paradise” designed by Nazi propagandists hides an Auschwitz way station, Erik risks his life trying to save her. Charyn’s nuanced depiction of the bond between the eccentric Canaris and his protégé balances the novel’s many macabre moments, and the searing ending is a masterpiece of unsentimentalized tenderness. This extraordinary tour de force showcases the prolific author at the top of his game. (Jan.)