Review: Vienna Dolorosa by Mykola Dementiuk

Vienna Dolorosa by Mykola Dementiuk is a full-length historical novel set in Vienna, Austria, in an inner city hotel managed by a transvestite and doubling as a brothel for men who like boys dressed up as girls. The entire book takes place during a one-day time period — March 12, 1938, the day Hitler “invades” Austria. Told from the perspectives of twelve different characters including various hotel personnel, hotel guests, brothel employees and brothel clientele, we also have a talkative Viennese official, German police, Nazi SS, and a darling street boy.

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.

Terrible

1. distressing; severe: a terrible winter.
2. extremely bad; horrible: terrible coffee; a terrible movie.
3. exciting terror, awe, or great fear; dreadful; awful.
4. formidably great:

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.

There’s an excerpt here

Mykola Dementiuk was born in 1949 of Ukrainian parents in a West German DP camp, immigrating to America when he was two. After Catholic grade school & public high school in New York City, he graduated from Columbia University in 1984. A writer with varied employment, from gyro seller at
Lollapalooza to roustabout at the Big Apple Circus, Mykola helped create the magic of the Cirque du Soleil performances of “Alegria” in Santa Monica, Chicago, Washington DC, Boston, and New York with his electrical work. After suffering a massive debilitating stroke in 1997, Mykola eventually returned to writing, using one finger to execute the fantasies and psycho-sexual stories of his min
d.

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11 Responses

  1. Wonderful, thoughtful review — would that others could think their way through to priase something that disturbs them.

    Jeff

  2. Jeffrey,

    Thanks for the kind words, much appreciated. It’s been tough but with people like you I know I’ll make it.

    Mick

    Mykola Dementiuk

  3. Mick,
    So very wonderful to read a sympathetic and thoughtful review of your story.
    It is so very hard for some people to comprehend the depths of depravity and hopelessness during the Holocaust.
    It was not a pretty time. My aunt and uncle – all who remained of my mother’s entire family – had a pretty tattoo to remind them of their sunny days in camp.
    Your book has now moved to my TBR pile.

  4. Wonderful review for a very powerful read – well done, Mick!

    :))

    A
    xxx

  5. Anne,

    Thanks, I’m proud the book held you for a complete reading, it wasn’t so bad, was it?

    Mick

    Mykola Dementiuk

  6. Jeanne,

    My own parents suffered through that time, being Ukrainian they were destined to labor for the Germans until America got involved. Sure am glad they did.

    Mick

    Mykola Dementiuk

  7. An unusual review for what appears to be an unusual book. I haven’t read it yet, but I intend to as soon as I can. The people who dismiss it without having read it may be under the assumption that the Nazis were just a bunch of fun guys who have been misunderstood. Life is sometimes horrible, and Mick’s book apparently (from the comments I have read) portrays the darkness. Best of luck with the book, Mick. As for the LN rejection–hey, they say controversy sells. Maybe you should post their comments somewhere public!
    Erastes — an intelligent, well-done review as always.

  8. Ruth,

    My editor has something in mind on my new Web page, I don’t know what…

    But LN were trying to blacklist me in the same way the Nazis burned books they disagreed with in the 1930s. You would think we’d been through with that but how little do we know how close it is us…

    Mick

    Mykola Dementiuk

  9. Thanks for a very thoughtful review. I’ve linked to it from the novel’s listing at http://www.HistoricalNovels.info.

  10. Hello! I too have read and reviewed this book and agree that it was terrible… but not in a bad way. It was just rough! Good job Mick!

  11. Thanks Crystal,

    I know, many are repelled by it but that’s life we try to run away from…and sometimes we just can’t…

    Mick

    Mykola Dementiuk

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