Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Review of Pavel and I by Dan Vyleta (Bloomsbury, 2008)

Berlin at the tail end of 1946.  Pavel Richter, a decommissioned GI, is holed up in freezing apartment in the British sector of the city, struggling with a kidney infection.  His friend Boyd visits and asks him to look after a suitcase that contains the body of a dead dwarf.  It seems that the dwarf has been selling secrets to the Soviets and is about to pass on a valuable piece of information.  As well as being sought by a Soviet general, a scheming colonel in the British Armed Forces is hunting for him.  Pavel is no condition to do anything other than lie in bed and try to stay alive.  Aiding him in this task is Anders, a twelve year old street orphan, who enrols the help of his upstairs neighbour, Sonia.  By coincidence Sonia is the colonel’s mistress and he regularly visits her apartment.  As the hunt for the dwarf unfolds and Boyd is found dead, rather than hand the dwarf over to the colonel, Pavel and Sonia instead hide the body as they try to work out what game they are caught up in.  All the while both the British and Soviets are closing in.

Set in the freezing ruins of post-war Berlin, Pavel and I has the feel and atmosphere of the film version of The Third Man.  At the heart of the tale is Pavel, a former GI, Sonia who has survived post-war as a prostitute, Anders, an orphan who splits his time between Pavel and his street-gang who hustle and thieve to get by, and a rogue, over-weight British colonel.  Hovering on the fringes is a Russian general.  What brings them together is the dead body of a dwarf stuffed in a suitcase and the secret he holds.  It’s an interesting hook and Vyleta uses it to spin an elliptical tale of spies, street gangs, prostitution, violent state services, survival, friendship and budding love.  It’s very much a character-drive story, yet each character is not quite what they seem.  That is very much the case with Pavel.  Indeed, near the end of the tale, the narrator of the story, a British ex-soldier, remarks that there is a hole at the centre of the story he's telling – and that hole is the enigmatic Pavel.  The narrator’s knowledge of him is based on events that happen over a few short weeks during which Pavel barely reveals anything about his past and acts in a calm and collected way.  While that could have been quite frustrating, it actually draws the reader in.  The result is an intriguing, atmospheric and ambivalent tale.

1 comment:

neer said...

This has been on my wishlist since I read the author's THE QUIET TWIN which is set in Austria.