- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 28, 2003

THE PIECES FROM BERLIN

By Michael Pye

Knopf, $24, 325 pages

REVIEWED BY SARAH MEANS LOHMANN

Michael Pye’s third novel “The Pieces from Berlin” sandblasts the overused topic of World War II terror and guilt into your consciousness and makes you think it is your own story, or at least that of your grandmother. Lucia Mller-Rossi is a sophisticated Italian woman living in Berlin during the war, whom Jews trust to store their violins or their jewels or their furniture when they are forced from their homes and sent on to concentration camps. She later escapes Berlin with the goods, and lives a lifetime of luxury, selling the valuables in an antique shop in Zurich. That much of her story is true. Her name and the rest of the details are fictional.

Mr. Pye’s book is the kind that makes the reader wake up and see every splinter of light in a subway escalator, and invent stories about everyone riding down into the darkness of the underground. Not that his characters are conspiracy theorists. Lucia is a mystery, a sensual, intense, cold, calculating woman, whose moments of conscience and frailty, and helplessness bordering on goodwill leave the reader wondering if it is right to condemn her.

Her all too perfect husband bores her, but then leaves her with their young son when he is conscripted into the Swiss army. She decides to try to make it on her own in Berlin — any way she can. Her need to find a means to raise her son Nicholas alone becomes her excuse to come home in strangers’ long, dark cars at night, to spend teatime at the Wannsee as the Italian ambassador’s mistress and to become friends with Henrich Himmler’s staff.

She is with them, dining in the guilded Hotel Adlon when the bombers come, and she has, as usual, left Nicholas alone in the apartment. Nicholas can’t move from the window, won’t go down to the shelter.

“The windows cracked. Glass fell around him. When the wind came in, and it was still a cold wind even with all the fires, the room changed with it: the room was stripped of life, naked like a dead, thing, just objects on a platform of wood and rugs. The wind invaded, and he had no more home … . Fire rained down close. There were sparks as pretty as Christmas toys.”

Several hundred pages later, Mr. Pye enters Lucia’s head at the same moment: “She’s thinking of Nicholas back in the apartment, and of what is left in the apartment, too.”

The author makes us believe Lucia must be relieved when she finds her son alive in their apartment with a dead cat and no more windows. She needs him so she can sleep at night, she needs him to bring her a sense of purity: “Her eyes were tired, not bright at all. Her dress was intact but he noticed, as she walked away, that she was not wearing stockings. She had penciled the line of a stocking seam on the back of each calf, and the line had smudged. She turned to Nicholas and said: ‘I do it all for you.’ But he knew it could not be true.”

Nicholas remains her conflicted alibi for decades, passive, removed, allowing her to keep up her polished lifestyle guarded by his own silence. Until it is interrupted by Sarah Freeman, an old friend of Lucia’s from Berlin, who sees her own antique table in Lucia’s store window almost 50 years after the war. She decides to try to make Lucia pay for her betrayal.

As horrific as Sarah’s story is, she does not fascinate the reader. She is like the character in so many wartime novels, ever remembering, unable to move on. Yet she serves well as Mr. Pye’s tool to explain the tension Lucia has built into her family in the generations that follow her.

The novel’s most fascinating secondary character is Helen, Lucia’s granddaughter. She was a high-powered professional traveling the world, working for a bank. Now she is a wife and a mother, and needs a little bit of justice, a little bit of morality, to keep her occupied and give her life meaning. Yet she, too, has shades of Lucia. The same lawyer from whom she seeks help to aid Sarah’s lawsuit against Lucia could provide her with some needed distraction:

“Helen liked having a drink with Meier: a midday drink, almost like an assignation with office hours as an alibi. He was shiny-headed, blond and strong. She kept wanting to sniff him to see if any human being could possibly be so clean.”

For all her passion for truth and anger toward her grandmother, Helen can’t seem to confront her marriage’s own emptiness.

The book is a contrast of confessions and denials, of the same moments lived over in different peoples’ minds, creating a splayed reality. The book’s final confession is vivid work, but it is only able to thoroughly grip the reader because the author has kept the reader waiting, begging for the truth for over 300 pages.

In “The Pieces from Berlin,” Mr. Pye is in turn a poet, a historian and a priest. He leaves the reader aware and unsettled, looking for his own shades of truth in so many shiny storefront windows.

Sarah Means Lohmann is a Fulbright scholar and a journalist working in Berlin.

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