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Pavel & I
By Alidë Kohlhaas
Pity the first-time published author, who after a lengthy time of solitude suddenly finds himself in the limelight. Publishers want the world to know about their new finds and these authors are sent on book-signing tours, and invited to read at various literary festivals. This is how I had a chance to meet Dan Vyleta, author of the fascinating debut novel, Pavel & I. He came to read at the Toronto International Festival of Authors (IFA), Oct. 22 - Nov. 1, 2008.
Vyleta sits opposite me in a quiet corner at the Westin Harbor Castle Inn, sipping a cup of coffee. He smiles shyly and picks at the collar of his dark shirt. Clearly, he is not yet comfortable with being interviewed. This 34-year-old author has a remarkably gentle face considering the sometimes ferocious nature of his novel set in the freezing winter of 1946/47 Berlin. It is a time when people barely survived in bombed-out buildings with little food or fuel to sustain them, when orphaned children roamed the streets like feral animals, and the black market ruled everyday life.
"Why did I choose Berlin?" he rephrases my question. "Because I was living there. It wasn't gratuitous. For me, I feel I need something organic, a relationship."
Vyleta holds a PhD in History from Kings College, Cambridge University, where his doctoral thesis dealt with the late 19th century, with the fin de siècle period in Vienna. He also has an MA in History and Religious Studies from Girton College, Cambridge and an MA in history from the University of Manchester. Hence, it seems strange to think of him writing about the dark underbelly of post-war Berlin. But the more we talk, the more it seems a natural subject for Vyleta because of his own background. And the more we talk the faster come his answers so that at times I have difficulty keeping up with him.
Reading a journal written by a German journalist about his experiences in this period started the then would-be author to think about a possible novel. Vyleta had moved to Berlin where he lived near where the wall once stood and he became very aware of the scar it left on the city. He had come there as a lecturer in the humanities at the European College of Liberal Arts, where he researched the history of crime, criminology, psychology and anti-Semitism.
Born in 1974 in Gelsenkirchen, Germany to Czech refugees, Vyleta speaks with a distinct British accent that only slightly hints at some other nationality hidden beneath it. Currently a writer-in-residence at Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton, he arrived there about 18 months ago because his English wife, Chantal Wright, had been offered a job as a lecturer on German literature and translation studies at the University of Alberta. "I am piggybacking on her skilled labor," he reveals, by now with a much more open smile than the one he displayed on our first getting down to the interview.
His wife holds a PhD in Translation Studies at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, England and completed an MA in Literary Translation at UEA Norwich, and an MA in Modern and Medieval Languages at Girton College, Cambridge. She, in the meantime, has become a McCain Fellow in German at Mount Allison University, Sackville, NB, in the department of Modern Languages & Literatures. He will be following her to Sackville in December.
So, just who is Dan Vyleta? At the IFA he is listed as a German author, though he writes in English, and Pavel & I was published in England by Bloomsbury. He began speaking Czech as a small child and admits to an ability to still understand it "somewhat, more like child's talk. I used to talk it with my grandmother who couldn't speak much German." He soon began to speak German as he interacted with the world around him and entered school. But, then he left for England to study there, and when he returns to Germany now he finds himself invariably drifting into the English-speaking community. "I live my life in English," a language he greatly admires.
"I don't know where I belong," he admits. "I do feel out of step with Germany a bit. I don't feel in step with Britain either." He inherited a love for hockey from his Czech ancestry. "The Czechs are obsessed with hockey, the Germans are not." Naturally, he enjoys watching hockey in Canada and gets a kick out of seeing Czech names on the back of players' jerseys.
In Edmonton he enjoyed the blistering cold of winter, and during walks the feeling of open spaces. "It is quite a magic experience." But he has "moments when I felt a longing for architecture, for age," during his walks. He misses a sense of "life rushing around you, people living on top of each other."
There are compensations, however. "What I really like [about Canada is] such an easy way of interaction between people. It is a living of democracy that has nothing to do with politics." He finds it interesting how Canadians seem to be at ease with a multitude of accents without ever seeing them as strange.
Having such a complicated personal background, the young author's choice of setting for his novel now confirms it as a natural subject for him. Pavel turns out to be a mystery figure and the narrator, the 'I' in the title, Vyleta describes as being voyeuristic, drawn to total knowledge, without respecter for privacy. I laugh and tell him that he has just described the perfect journalist, although my profession is restrained by facts. "Oh, I think all writers are voyeurs," Vyleta replies. The book' s narrator, because he is not witness to all of the events in the book, obviously has a tendency to fill in what he thinks may have happened. Vyleta points out that this is, of course, something that fiction writers also do.
"At the same time, this implicates the reader a bit," he hopes. "You have to believe enough to read your book, but if there are moments of doubt, if you are wondering about the main villain, you have to think about what it is what you want from the book," and as a writer, "what you withhold."
I tell the author that I had a feeling at the end of Pavel & I that the mysterious Pavel should some day return in another book or another form. "Somehow the people you create have an afterlife," he agrees, but "I don't want to write a sequel. But if five years down the road he taps me on the shoulder, I won't turn him down." He stops for a moment, then says, "I like him and I hope the reader does." His wish is that readers will find his book emotionally engaging, "a story where we hopefully laugh and shed a tear now and then."
Vyleta admits to his love for 19th century writers such as Dickens, Dostoevsky, and the first of the crime writers, Wilkie Collins, but then also speaks of the very 20th century writer Raymond Chandler as an influence on his book. He is now committed to being a writer. His family (both parents are doctors) has accepted this, though with a hint of that perhaps he should get a real job. We both laugh because as anyone knows who is involved with writing in one form or another, there is always this social reaction of 'what is it you really do?'. He recalls an incident in Edmonton that he thought was quite funny. "I went to a second hand car salesman and told him I needed a cheap car that will drive for a long time. He asked me what I do and I replied, 'I am a freelance writer.' He laughed and said, 'that's a good one.'" It was probably the best description for unemployed the car salesman believed he had ever heard.
When I ask him what he is now working on, he replies, "I am too superstitious to talk about it. I am deep into something new, another novel." At the moment, however, he is letting it rest a little to perhaps let it mature and develop. One thing he admits, though, is that he likes the popular novel form, and is not interested in the kind of novel that concentrates on style rather than content. He also gives some unintended advise to would-be writers. Vyleta feels writers must not edit their every thought but instead should write things down as they feel them when something comes into their head. The editing comes later. It is good advice.
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