If you've read any of his work (or any of my previous reviews), you know Mick is never what you would call 'safe' or 'mainstream'. His work is always edgy and difficult, presenting us with slices of life that may not be entirely pleasing to behold, but which are always compelling and fascinating. His writing is as unapologetic as it is honest, presenting us with people who are, for better or worse, simply living their lives, as opposed to characters playing a narrative role.
Vienna Dolorosa is certainly one of his most difficult works, but this time the sense of discomfort comes as much from the historical context of the story, as it does from the story itself. Set in 1930s Vienna, the story takes place under a cloud of political and social oppression, with the Nazis sweeping into town to prepare for the arrival of Hitler.
As you might expect from Mick's work, the characters in his novel are not exactly those to welcome a visit from the Fuehrer's regime with open arms. Frau Friska is a transvestite hotel manager who has already fled one wave of oppression, finding a new home in Vienna. Petya is one of the young transvestite prostitutes who work her back rooms, while Kaufmann is a degenerate old man who (literally) loved one of Petya's fellow 'girls' to death. Wanda is an ample bosomed lesbian who, despite her disgust with men, loves to flaunt herself for their attention, while Kurt is an oh-so-serious young man with the impossible task of reconciling his homosexuality with his support for the Nazi cause.
Unlike Mick's more contemporary work, this is most definitely not an erotic read. When we are presented with scenes of sexual exhibition, it's either tainted by the circumstances of the Nazi invasion, or presented as an example of human cruelty (both by the Nazis and by those they've oppressed). This is a story that's painfully aware of its place in history, although one that chooses to critique by example, rather than succumb to narrative grandstanding.
None of the characters here are perfect (although Frau Friska and Petya are certainly worthy of our respect), and some are downright distasteful (Kaufmann elicits some sympathy, but the hotel guest who takes incestuous advantage of his daughter does not), but it's clear that none of them deserve the cruelties descending upon them. At lot of the violence does happen off the page, but there are notable exceptions (such as the castration of poor, conflicted Kurt) that are so physically and emotionally powerful that you need to put the book down and walk away for a bit.
Vienna Dolorosa is a book that's entirely too sad, deeply depressing, and almost entirely without hope - and, considering the historical context, that's precisely as it should be. While we may want happy endings for many of these characters, we are painfully aware of the fact that such hopes are entirely unrealistic. A chosen few do make it through the end of the book, but to what fate we will never know. As difficult a read as it may be, however, this is an important book. While the themes of religious/social/cultural discrimination during the Nazi era have been explored quite thoroughly, those of gender/sexual discrimination are more often hinted at than brought into the open. Mick has chosen to tackle a tough subject here, and he does so thoughtfully and honestly.
It's been said often enough that history is doomed to repeat itself, which is precisely why we need people like Mick to keep reminding us of why that must never happen. For more information about Vienna Dolorosa, or to purchase direct, please visit http://www.viennadolorosa.com/.