Berlin Wild, Elly Welt's second novel, 10 years in the making, is about a bizarre reality -- the survival of a half-Jewish adolescent in a Nazi research center as the Third Reich collapses and the Russians arrive -- and emotional catharsis much later as he confronts the costs paid by others for the misdirected and empty life he has chosen to lead.
We first meet Josef Bernhardt in October, 1967. He is 41 and working as an anesthesiologist at the University of Iowa. He smokes two packages of Camels a day. His blood pressure is 200 over 110. And he is sliding into a nervous breakdown. Feeling "extreme fatigue" and dreaming of "mangled and bloody dismembered bodies," he finally loses contact with real time one morning during surgery. His patient floats away. "The complicated defense system that had allowed him to function since the war blows apart." Josef's mind is invaded by Berlin and the war, groping love and destroyed family, and his memories as a teenage mathematical wizard saved from death by hiding in a scientific theater of the absurd. Josef decides on suicide.
Shifting back and forth between Iowa City in 1967 and Berlin during 1943-1945 and interweaving Josef's disoriented consciousness, Welt takes us to an institution that only the inheritors of Richard Wagner's visions could devise.
Everything important about Berlin Wild -- belief, pathos, comedy, horror, redemption -- hinges on what we find at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Neurological Research.
Housed in an abandoned mausoleum on a rejected graveyard in the northeastern suburb of Berlin-Hagen, the institute is a haven from the lunatic asylum that is Nazi Germany. It's a refuge for the brilliant but genetically flawed (Nazi euphemism) and a citadel for scientists whose first loyalty is a fanatical allegiance to knowledge that itself verges on madness.
The institute's presiding geniuses, a lusty Russian emigre' geneticist named Alex Avilov and an aristocratic nuclear physicist named Max Kreutzer, accept Josef as a student assistant because of his precocity and because children of mixed parentage are destined to be shipped east in boxcars.
Off limits to German officials except those with the highest security clearance, the institute is engaged in exotic self-directed government research. Among other things going on are endless studies of genetic mutation among fruit flies and special research on the pickled brains of fallen Luftwaffe aviators. With unlimited funds the research is so secret that only a Himmler or Goering could alter it. It's so complex that only the researchers themselves know what they are doing. Free in their privileged isolation, the institute's professors and doctors, women and men, create a libertarian counterculture to National Socialism. To classical serenades they distill vats of vodka, grow green vegetables, and breed rabbits for their midnight banquets. There's a linear accelerator, a homemade atom smasher, to probe the secrets of the fecund fruit fly when the machine is not in use radiating the lymphatic cancer of the resident Gestapo officer, the institute's trusted spy on outside Nazidom. And ever ready for sexual trysts, there's the popular darkroom.
In this setting, half Marx Brothers and half Einsteinian, Josef Bernhardt approaches adulthood. He witnesses betrayal and death, narrowly escapes detection, and confronts the mysteries of human personality. He fumbles with sex and learns erotic love from a woman academic he cannot call by first name. She is Frau Doctor.
Some of the strength of Elly Welt's novel rises from approximating the randomness and contradictions of modern life. Berlin Wild imitates senseless reality. Trust arrives from inexplicable sources. Safety comes disguised as danger. Passivity mocks courage.
Unprotesting, Josef's uncle, aunt, and physician mother -- German Jews back to the 15th century -- are taken to death camps. His iron-hard, authoritarian lawyer father, decorated during World War I, turns stoic in disbelief. What the Nazis can only begin, the Russians finish. Only Josef and two women, one of whom he marries for the wrong reason, escape the institute alive. But the liberating Allies catalog Josef as a Nazi anyway. No, nothing is ever as it seems.
Sometimes a romance, other times a thriller, always an investigation of the regimented German psyche, Berlin Wild has extraordinary power. It's the power of conviction. Welt compels us to believe a story that reason resists. Too comic. Too tragic. But the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute and its radiated staff do exist. Josef lives. Germany festers.
Characters in Iowa City -- Josef's colleagues, the Vietnam protesters, the nurse whose sudden affection brings Josef to perform kaddish and put the past on hold -- seem placed in service of this exotic tale of survival. One accepts their possibility but not their inevitability.
But Welt's framework holds anyway. She is a spellbinder, demanding that we see through her eyes. She sees what a wonder man is -- even in a world gone mad, a world swarming with runaway fruit flies, Berlin wilds. Humanity prevails by will.