The works of Leo Perutz have been praised by such diverse writers as Ian Fleming, Jorge Luis Borges, and Graham Greene, compared to the works of everyone from Franz Kafka to Victor Hugo to Agatha Christie, and utterly unlucky in gaining the lasting attention of English readers. Over the course of a forty-year career, Perutz wrote over a dozen novels, some of which were translated and published in English within a year or two of their first appearance in German, others that were published by Arcade (and Harvill in the U. K.) in a fine effort back in the early 1990s. Arcade is taking up the torch again later this year, promising to re-release three of Perutz’s novels later this year.
Perutz was a contemporary of Kafka and Stefan Zweig, one of that remarkable generation of secular Jews that grew up under the Austro-Hungarian empire and whose world was utterly wiped out by Hitler. Born in Prague like Kafka, Perutz, in fact, worked for the same insurance company as Kafka, Generali, although in Trieste. Recruited into the army during World War One, he served on the Russian Front and was wounded.
Perutz’s experiences during and immediately after the war are reflected in the pages of Little Apple (original title “Wohin rollst du, Äpfelchen…?”), which was originally published in 1928. The title comes from a Russian song popular just after the war, when Red and White forces were rolling back and forth across the land and territory changed hands as much as a dozen times in the course of a year.
Little Apple takes place during this period. Vittorin and a group of fellow Austrian soldiers are travelling back to Vienna after being released from a Russian prison camp. During the long, slow train ride home, they talk about life in the camp, and about its brutal commandant, Staff Captain Selyukov. They all agree that they must return to Russia, hunt down Selyukov, and make him pay for the pain and torture he inflicted upon the inmates.
Only Vittorin, however, holds onto this obsession after he returns to his family in Vienna. The other men refuse him when he tries to organize a revenge expedition, and he heads off on his own. Vittorin plunges headlong into the chaos of the Russian Civil War, and finds himself at various times a soldier, a prisoner, a refugee, an entertainer, a manual laborer, and a thief. In the fluctating circumstances of the Civil War, he can never be too sure of which side he’s on–geographically or politically.
Throughout it all, however, he never loses focus on his goal: to find and punish Selyukov. The comparisons between Perutz and Victor Hugo are not due solely to the fact that Perutz translated a number of Hugo’s novels into German. In his monomaniacal obsession to bring Selyukov to justice, Vittorin shares the same ability to tune out his surrounding circumstances, no matter how threatening to his survival, as Hugo’s Inspector Javert:
He no longer saw selyukov as an arrogant Russian officer who had insulted him. Selyukov was the evil personification of a degenerate age. He was the medium through which Vittorin hated everything sordid that met his eye–all the crooks, currency speculators and human predators that had shared out the world between them…. They haggled, they cheated, they supplied both Whites and Reds with saddlery, horseshoe nails, revolver holsters, cleaning rag, axle grease, cans of tainted bully beef. They belonged to the highest bidder, and champagne flowed wherever they did business.
They were numerous, invulnerable, and ubiquitous–in Paris, in Bucharest, in Vladivostock. Vittorin could avenge the humanity they were betraying, the world they had polluted, by exterminating just one of them, and his name was Selyukov.
There is a timeless quality to Perutz’s books. Some are set in the past–the Thirty Years’ War, the Renaissance–and some in his present, but all share one thing in common: the power and fascination of a pure narrative. There is always something pulling the reader along but not quite within reach–rather like the image of Selyukov in Vittorin’s mind. His prose–at least as translated–is clean, spare and full of momentum, and his books brief–usually under 200 pages. Perutz’s power as a storyteller can be seen by the number of his novels that remain in print in German, French, Italian and Spanish. I can only hope that more English readers will discover that power when Arcade releases Little Apple, Master of the Day of Judgment, and By Night Under the Stone Bridge in a few months.