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Review: Cesare, by Jerome Charyn
Bellevue, 2020. 365 pp. $27

Berlin, 1943. Amid Germany’s war against the world and murder of European Jewry, there are many secrets dangerous to know, not least that Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of military intelligence, has a private agenda. Whenever he can, he hides Jews, mostly German Jews, of whom a few thousand may still be found in the capital. Most are tenuously protected by marriage to Christians; others live underground in ghettos that even the SS doesn’t bother to penetrate. But the biggest secret is that Canaris uses his best agent, the widely celebrated Cesare, to try to make sure these hunted people stay safe.

Er, wait. The head of the Abwehr rescues Jews? His best agent’s persona is a household word?

Wilhelm Canaris, executed for treason weeks before the war ended, remains a mystery as to the extent of his dissidence. This photo dates from 1940 (courtesy German Federal Archives, via Wikimedia Commons)

While floating through the dream that is this novel, once or twice I had to check the historical record, just for grounding. Concerning one particularly stunning instance, which I can’t divulge because it would give too much away, I found that Charyn reports history as it happened. So however strange Cesare may be, the truth may be even stranger. Does it matter?

No. And there’s plenty of powerful fiction here, starting with the protagonist. Cesare’s real name is Erik Holdermann; six years earlier, in 1937, he rescued a tramp from a severe beating by a group of hoodlums. The tramp was Canaris, and that made Erik’s fortune. But what he does with it is something else. Cesare takes his sobriquet from The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, an expressionist film of 1920 in which Conrad Veidt (remember him as Major Strasser, in Casablanca?) plays a somnambulist slave who sleeps in a coffin and murders people while in a dream state. And just as Dr. Caligari explored the horrors that occur between sleep and wakefulness, consciousness and oblivion, Charyn wants to show you the nightmare that built and characterizes the Third Reich, not least of which is its citizens’ refusal to face their murderous reality.

This warped image describes life from the ground up, at least for a certain privileged class. Every form of entertainment attacked as “degenerate” by the regime exists within blocks of Gestapo headquarters, tolerated by the authorities, many of whom enjoy its frenzies. Such dualities apply everywhere. Cesare’s great, obsessive love, Lisalein von Hecht, the half-Jewish daughter of a banker, plays many roles, or appears to — his ally and protector, his betrayer, wife of a Party muckamuck, lover of a cabaret chanteuse, communist, rescuer of Jews. Her father helped bankroll Hitler because he feared the Reds more than the Nazis and assumed the vulgar corporal would be easily managed. Even Cesare himself, though not Jewish, was looked after by Jewish prostitutes as a young orphan; and when he must penetrate an inner sanctum he can’t enter any other way, despite his reputed shape-shifting skills, he wears a black uniform of the SS. To the Jews, there’s no doubt about his identity:

The ghetto had its own golem, not twisted out of clay, but a man of bone, blood, and gristle, born in Berlin. This golem had never harmed a single Jew. He often traveled about in the boots and silver sleeves of an SS captain. How wily their golem was. He mimicked their enemies, and could make a gauleiter [district leader] disappear. And if their savior was a somnambulist beholden to a white-haired German admiral, what could it matter to them? The coffin Herr Cesare slept in was secreted somewhere in [the Jewish ghetto]. And woe to any man who rocked that coffin and interfered with Cesare’s sleep.

With such portrayals and references — throw in Kafka and Melville — Cesare is a literary novel par excellence. But it’s also a disturbing, hallucinatory thriller, with as many plot twists and double crosses as the number of angels capable of dancing on the head of a pin. Throughout, the author immerses you in the hell that was the Third Reich. As with other thrillers, there’s plenty of sex, but it’s mostly desperate, typical of German activities then, rather than erotic. At times, it’s hard to tell whether female characters are mere sex objects (sometimes for each other), or whether Charyn’s trying to turn James Bond on his perfect, Casanova head.

What I do know is that Cesare possesses the reader, in a howl of pain and madness. Yet I didn’t feel suffocated, only glad I could close the cover and realize I wasn’t living inside it. And with this novel, Charyn has shown me what fiction can do.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.