Holds its own with Le Carre and Chandler, even Greene

This is my review of Pavel and I by Dan Vyleta.

This recreates 1946 Berlin in the aftermath of war, with buildings and lives smashed, and law and order barely held in place by the Allied forces united in name alone. People have been brutalised by suffering yet still retain a powerful will to survive and the capacity to undertake at times unexpected acts of humanity.

Pavel is presented from the outset as an enigma, a sick American, fluent in German and Russian, hiding away with a large store of books he refuses to sell to obtain much-needed medicine and food, and giving shelter to Anders, a ragged and superficially unappealing street urchin.

This well-written, fast-moving drama in which the author still finds time to develop a large cast of characters as distinct individuals, begins with Pavel receiving an unwelcome visit from his friend Boyd, once soldier, now pimp and racketeer, who dumps on him the body of a well-dressed midget concealed in a suitcase. It soon becomes clear that the midget possessed something of strategic interest to each of the Allies jockeying for power in Berlin.

There ensues a complex Grahame Greene-cum-Chandler tale in which nothing is ever quite what it first seems, and actions tend to have unintended consequences. The tone is often brutal and cynical, but leavened with wry humour: this is illustrated by the recurring references to the pet monkey which the sinister Colonel Fosko (reminded me of Count Fosco in the Woman in White) foists on Sonia, the elegant tart with a heart. It is also evident in the descriptions of the street urchins organised by Paulchen, and the casual deciding of their fate.

An unusual aspect is the third person narration which, with growing frequency, lapses into the first person – a one-eyed Brit called Peterson – sometimes merely confiding with the reader in sly asides, at others even getting fully involved in the plot. The shifting viewpoint could be irritating, and reduce one's engagement with the characters, but I quite like this device.

There are, as Peterson himself admits, a few holes in the plot, but overall the complex chain of events links together quite well. There are moments of real tension, when a character seems to be going to his death, and you know the author is ruthless enough to eliminate any member of the cast, and to let bad win out over good.

I thought the ending a little too inconclusive and disappointing – perhaps as is often the case a bit too condensed. I also found it unclear why Pavel exerted such a charismatic power over most of the people he met, and would have liked to know a little more about "what made him tick" and exactly what he had been up to.

If this is a first novel, it suggests an impressive talent, and I shall look out for further novels by Dan Vyleta.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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