you've read any of his work (or any of my previous reviews), you
know Mick is never what you would call 'safe' or
'mainstream'. His work is always edgy and difficult, presenting us with
slices of life that may not be entirely pleasing to behold, but which are
always compelling and fascinating. His writing is as unapologetic as it is
honest, presenting us with people who are, for better or worse,
simply living their lives, as opposed to characters playing a narrative
Vienna Dolorosa is
certainly one of his most difficult works, but this time the sense of
discomfort comes as much from the historical context of the story, as it
does from the story itself. Set in 1930s Vienna, the story takes place
under a cloud of political and social oppression, with the Nazis sweeping
into town to prepare for the arrival of Hitler.
As you might expect from Mick's work, the characters in his novel are not
exactly those to welcome a visit from the Fuehrer's regime with open arms.
Frau Friska is a transvestite hotel manager who has already fled one wave
of oppression, finding a new home in Vienna. Petya is one of the young
transvestite prostitutes who work her back rooms, while Kaufmann is a
degenerate old man who (literally) loved one of Petya's fellow 'girls' to
death. Wanda is an ample bosomed lesbian who, despite her disgust with
men, loves to flaunt herself for their attention, while Kurt is an
oh-so-serious young man with the impossible task of reconciling his
homosexuality with his support for the Nazi cause.
Unlike Mick's more contemporary work, this is most definitely not an
erotic read. When we are presented with scenes of sexual exhibition, it's
either tainted by the circumstances of the Nazi invasion, or presented as
an example of human cruelty (both by the Nazis and by those they've
oppressed). This is a story that's painfully aware of its place in
history, although one that chooses to critique by example, rather than
succumb to narrative grandstanding.
None of the characters here are perfect (although Frau Friska and
Petya are certainly worthy of our respect), and some are downright
distasteful (Kaufmann elicits some sympathy, but the hotel guest who
takes incestuous advantage of his daughter does not), but it's clear
that none of them deserve the cruelties descending upon them. At lot of
the violence does happen off the page, but there are notable exceptions (such
as the castration of poor, conflicted Kurt) that are so physically
and emotionally powerful that you need to put the book down and walk away
for a bit.
Vienna Dolorosa is a book that's entirely too sad, deeply depressing,
and almost entirely without hope - and, considering the historical
context, that's precisely as it should be. While we may want happy endings
for many of these characters, we are painfully aware of the fact that such
hopes are entirely unrealistic. A chosen few do make it through the end of
the book, but to what fate we will never know. As difficult a read as it
may be, however, this is an important book. While the themes of
religious/social/cultural discrimination during the Nazi era have been
explored quite thoroughly, those of gender/sexual discrimination are more
often hinted at than brought into the open. Mick has chosen to tackle a
tough subject here, and he does so thoughtfully and honestly.
It's been said often enough that history is doomed to repeat itself, which
is precisely why we need people like Mick to keep reminding us of why that
must never happen.