Friday, 9 October 2015

Book Review: Little Apple by Leo Perutz to an old and often quoted saying “Revenge is sweet”, but in reality it’s more likely that it’ll leave a rather bitter, not to say foul aftertaste. Moreover, the wish to restore justice taking revenge for endured suffering, damage or loss very easily becomes blind obsession that will inevitably end in disappointment after having caused pain or even ruin along the way. This is what the young protagonist of the short novel Little Apple by Prague-born Austrian writer Leo Perutz hasn’t yet learnt when he returns to his family in Vienna in autumn 1918. He survived the battlefields of World War I and two years in a Siberian prisoners-of-war camp, he isn’t able to close the chapter for good, though, because he vowed to take revenge for the humiliation, torment and terror that he and his comrades suffered from a sadistic camp commandant. Before long he sets out on a dangerous hunt through half of Europe.

Leo Perutz was born in Prague, Austria-Hungary (today: Czech Republic), in November 1882. Despite lacking formal qualification, he attended university in Vienna and earned a diploma in actuarial mathematics. For several years he then worked as a statistician in an insurance company. As from 1907 he published shorter works in literary journals, but his first novel titled Die dritte Kugel (The Third Bullet) didn’t appear before 1915 when he was called to arms in the Austro-Hungarian army. The author produced his most important works in the years following World War I, among them From Nine to Nine (Zwischen neun und neun: 1918), The Marquis of Bolibar (Der Marques de Bolibar: 1920), The Master of the Day of Judgement (Der Meister des Jüngsten Tages: 1921), and Little Apple (Wohin rollst du, Äpfelchen…: 1928; also published as Where Will You Fall?) which have all been translated into English. From the late 1920s on, the Great Depression made life difficult for writers, moreover for Jewish ones like Leo Perutz who had to face growing Anti-Semitism. Although not banned, his novels Saint Peter's Snow (St. Petri-Schnee: 1933; also published as The Virgin's Brand) and The Swedish Cavalier (Der schwedische Reiter: 1936) didn’t get on the German market. The German annexation of Austria in 1938 forced the author to go into exile in Tel Aviv, Palestine, where his younger brother had transferred the family business. Out of touch with German-language literary circles, he had no opportunity to publish and stopped writing altogether until after the war. Only in 1952 a new novel, By Night under the Stone Bridge (Nachts unter der steinernen Brücke), came out. Leo Perutz died unexpectedly in Bad Ischl, Austria, in August 1957. His last finished novel Leonardo's Judas (Der Judas des Leonardo: 1959) was published posthumously. 

The story of Little Apple begins in the wake of World War I. Along with hundreds of soldiers, Georg Vittorin and four officers have been released from a prisoners-of-war camp in Chernavyensk, Siberia, and they return home to their civilian lives in what is left of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. While the others quickly let go of the war and make a fresh start in peace, Vittorin remains fixated on the vow that they all made at the open grave of a comrade who died in the camp, namely to take revenge on the sadistic camp commandant Staff Captain Mikhail Mikhailowich Selyukov. Out of fear that he might forget his mission, Vittorin refuses to give himself over to feeling at home and at ease in his family or with his girlfriend Franzi Kroneis. Instead he puts his energy into tracing Selyukov who humiliated and maltreated him like all other prisoners. Nonetheless, he notices the growing financial problems that his family faces due to inflation and because his father, a long-time civil servant in the Ministry of Finance, risks to be prematurely pensioned off. To spare his sister Lola entering a marriage of convenience with a wealthy man whom she loathes, he is ready to accept a lucrative job as assistant of their lodger who is about to start his own business, when his camp comrade Kohout arrives with his false passport and a train ticket to the Russian border. The yearned for day of revenge in view and blind to everything else, Vittorin sets out to Moscow where Selyukov is reported to be, but the post-revolutionary chaos of civil war between white Mensheviks and red Bolsheviks delays him repeatedly. Moreover, he can’t find Selyukov at the address he was given. Thus the chase continues through half of the continent for
“…two years that had cast him in the role of adventurer, murderer, hero, coal heaver, gambler, pimp, and vagrant…”
At first, Little Apple or the original German Wohin rollst du, Äpfelchen… (which is “where are you rolling, little apple…” in English) seems an odd choice for the title of a third-person narrative revolving round a former prisoner-of-war who is obsessed with taking revenge for all the suffering he endured under the regime of a sadistic camp commandant, who turned almost satanic in his memory, but when the author first quotes the line of the Russian marching song from which it is taken word for word, the relation becomes clear: it refers to Selyukov who is more or less arbitrarily pushed about by fate and therefore to Vittorin too who follows on his heels. However, the protagonist’s neurotic quest is paved with a series of unexpected and yet entirely credible adventures (also with regard to historical facts) that make the novel a captivating read and that urged a young Ian Fleming to express his delight in a letter to the author in 1931. All characters are skilfully portrayed in a way that gives them psychological rather than physical depth and that supports their actions making understood their motives. Despite all, the end comes as a surprise – one showing once more the irony of fate. Style and language of Leo Perutz are unpretentious and easy to follow which makes it an enjoyable, even entertaining read.

Despite the serious topic, I took great pleasure in reading Little Apple by Leo Perutz. This short novel made the author famous virtually overnight, but it may still be called untypical because the best known of his works all use to be classed with the fantastic or science-fiction genres. Certainly, the latter accounts for the fact that so far Leo Perutz quite escaped my attention although he happened to be Austrian and important writers like Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino and Ian Fleming admired him. Moreover, the city of Vienna annually awards a literary prize in his honour! To cut a long story short: I highly recommend Little Apple by Leo Perutz – and a new print edition is planned to come out in 2016.

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