This is a terrible book. Yes, that got your attention, didn’t it? I don’t mean terrible as in bad, though, obviously. Rather than it’s a gripping and terrifying read.
So I’m taking this as definition 4. Resoundingly.
The story takes places in about 24 hours of the Hotel Redl in Austria (Redl being the name of a homosexual who committed suicide in 1913) where Frau Friska Bielinska is the manager. It’s the day of the Anschluss - the day of the “reunification” (read invasion) of Austria by Germany. The city had been demonstrating against it, but gradually support and pro-Hitler force has grown to the stage where no-one dare speak out against it. Brownshirts prowl the streets beating up anyone they suspect to be Jewish (there’s a terrifying scene where Jews are put onto a merry go round which “can’t be stopped”) and are probably dead.
The Hotel Redl is a metaphor for the treatment of homosexuals/transvestites and many other types in German occupied territory. Every guest has something to hide, and every aberration from what the Germans consider the norm has been committed here. It’s difficult to describe the activities within the hotel without using language that might offend the gay readers as I don’t want to blanket them with the term “perversions” as clearly some of them - in our more enlightened world - such as enjoying men dressed as women, and homosexual behaviour - are not. However I must warn readers that there are also descriptive sections of necrophilia, rape, incest, suicide and murder.
It’s clear from the first page, being what it is and when it’s set, that this is not going to be a happy book. Yet Dementiuk does manage some incredible characterisation in very sparse prose. He paints his characters deftly, bringing them to life before our eyes with hard bold strokes rather than any flowery watercolour.
You feel for them all: from the pathetic Kaufmann who loved his boy-whore so much that he couldn’t bear to hear the boy call him old, to Kurt who struts around in his brownshirt thinking - all so wrongly - that it will save him from the SS when they discover him with his mouth on a man’s cock. (The SS was ironically founded by homosexuals, which was something I didn’t know). There’s Helmut with his breast fixation and Wanda with huge breasts but no interest in men. I could go on but I think you should discover them for yourselves.
There’s some wonderful narration too, and discussion of why some men dress as women, why some men want to pursue men dressed as women - which rather threw me out of the story when I first encountered it, but once accostumed to it it’s hard to look away and hard to be unconvinced by the arguments set down. If I disagreed with any aspect of the book it was the section with dealt with gang rape. I found it inconceivable that the raped woman would have climaxed with every man who raped her. Once - perhaps- one’s body is capable of betrayal, but women don’t work like that. More so that we are shown that this woman doesn’t climax “normally.”
My favourite character was the male-identifying-as-female Frau Bielinska who had such empathy and understanding even for the most troubled of her guests, but - although the characterisation isn’t deep (hard to do with 12 POVS) it’s convincing and you’ll find yourself empathising with them all and their doomed lives.
The most resounding feel of the book, however, is one of hopelessness; that the Juggernaut is coming and there’s no escaping its clutches. This is a book of people who have no hope - some who are running - some who have run as far as they can. A book about people completely unable to prevent something terrible they know is ahead, but how terrible it will be they can’t see, can’t possibly believe - or they’d be running harder and as fast and as far as they could.
Be brave and read this book. Yes, it’s hard to take, visceral and bloody and frankly disgusting in some of its clarity and honesty. But it needed to be this way. To not accept the fate of the Redl and consequently the true fate of many queers in Germany occupied territories would be to deny that any of this happened. Bravo.