“…lately I have been thinking about a child who is left in the care of indifferent strangers…or a shell-shocked soldier from a noble family who comes back to a country he no longer recognizes…would they be joined by a yeshiva student who has been expelled into a realm peopled by demons and soulless husks and feels himself becoming one of them?” Alexander Garber, notable Galician writer of farcical comedy, decides to give meaning to his life by exploring the history of his beloved Galicia in Austria-Hungary in 1913. Spies, assassinations, and chaos touch every corner of this world in pre-WWI Europe, and Alexander fears yet hungers to record the truth of that complicated historical period.
Count Wiladowski has suffered a devastating loss that is part and parcel of the murders occurring everywhere around him. He is obsessed with fear that he will be next and so hires a shamed and disgruntled ex-rabbinical student, Jacob Tausk, to be his spy and protector. Jacob, however, becomes a devastating tyrannical power unto himself as he chooses who is friend or foe. The reader is never sure who is in charge, Jacob, the Count, or another high-powered financier, Moritz Rotenburg, who hires Jacob to keep Moritz’s son out of the prevailing political troubles. Sadly but clearly foreshadowed is the devastation that ensues for the local Jewish community.
The protagonists become the antagonists, and the author finds himself in the middle of the enfolding drama, a tottering world composed of high-powered political and financial meetings, hidden Jewish councils, and the social world of sensuality and intrigue lying on the surface of a world about to explode. Bernstein’s modernist style shapes this novel into a literary tale that demands reflection, interpretation, and praise for its precise portrayal of the fall of an entire Hapsburg empire.