Jerome Charyn likes to unsettle readers. For more than 50 years, this protean writer has ranged across genres, from mysteries (the Isaac Quartet) and literary criticism (“A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century”) to memoirs that blur the boundaries between fact and fiction (“The Black Swan”). Some of his best novels probe the surreal nature of reality by plunging protagonists into turbulent periods of world history, including Stalinist Russia (“The Green Lantern”), the American Revolution (“Johnny One-Eye”) and the Civil War (“I Am Abraham”). Charyn is fascinated by people who traffic in deception and situations in which moral values are either unstable or upended; wholly good behavior is rarely a viable option for his characters.

These preoccupations take extra-grim shape in Charyn’s dark, troubling new novel “Cesare,” which moves across 16 months as the Third Reich thrashes toward defeat. It opens in February 1943 with Adm. Wilhelm Canaris, head of military intelligence, reluctantly attending a Nazi social gathering. The titillated guests want to hear the latest about his agent Cesare, “who strangled enemies of the Reich at will and then returned to his coffin.” Canaris despises Nazis but remains a loyal servant of the German state. Subordinates whisper that he orchestrated the 1919 killing of anarchist Rosa Luxemburg, which squelched a socialist uprising and paved the way for Hitler’s rise. “Did it matter that I wasn’t even in Berlin?” Canaris asks wryly. “My minions had to shove their Old Man into the middle of history. In times of crisis, Dr. Caligari was always there.”

Luxemburg’s murder haunts the novel alongside “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” the 1920 Expressionist film that gives Canaris and his star assassin their nicknames. (“Alice in Wonderland,” “Hamlet” and “Moby-Dick” are also touchstones in a text steeped in literary references.) Cesare is Erik Holdermann, “born in Berlin the same year Rosa Luxemburg was thrown into the Landwehrkanal.” Although he’s not Jewish, Erik lives in Berlin’s Jewish slum, Scheunenviertel, and — when not strangling enemies of the Reich — rescues as many neighbors as he can from the Gestapo’s roundups. “You must save only one Jew at a time,” the admiral cautions him, “or they’ll catch onto you in a minute.” Canaris is in a wary standoff with the SS, and his maneuvers to buttress the war effort while clandestinely thwarting Nazi domestic policies drive much of the thriller-like plot.

The funhouse atmosphere of “Caligari,” with its porous border between sanity and insanity and deliberate confusion between the real and the delusional, makes an apt metaphor for Nazi Germany, ruled by ideologues increasingly disconnected from reality yet still lethally dangerous. And Luxemburg’s murder spotlights the complicity of men like Canaris and wealthy Jewish magnate Baron Wilfrid von Hecht, who supported Hitler to preserve their power and privileges. They were “more frightened of the Reds than of a lunatic with foam in his mouth,” says the baron’s daughter Lisa, a Mischling (half Jew) married to a Nazi to protect her father and herself. Erik has obsessively loved Lisa since she and her father plucked him from a Scheunenviertel orphanage when he was 12, but she is a shape-shifter who eludes him. Is she a communist? A lesbian? Leader of the Jewish underground? Does she love Erik, or is she using him — and if so, to what ends? The many uncertainties surrounding Lisa incarnate the novel’s moral and philosophical ambiguities.

As Lisa and Canaris both come under threat and Erik strives to defend them, Charyn reminds us that it’s impossible to make simple judgments about human beings. Nazi hypocrisy is a given — “cabarets and ‘boy clubs’ could be found five minutes from Gestapo headquarters” — as is Nazi brutality; there are several chillingly matter-of-fact scenes of torture and execution. But it’s a Nazi barber who warns Erik to get Lisa and her father out of Berlin and a Jewish informant who betrays them. The wealthy Jewish Prominenten at Theresienstadt refuse pleas to tell a visiting Red Cross delegation the truth about conditions at the Nazis’ “model” concentration camp because the SS has promised to send them to “their very own colony” in Madagascar, “without lice-laden Jews.”

“Cesare” reaches a bleakly transcendent conclusion at Theresienstadt. Uncompromising to the last, Charyn allows a surprising redemption that is swiftly punished, pushing Lisa to despair so complete that she tells Erik, “We were all Hitler’s helpmates.” “Cesare’s” clear-eyed tour of Nazi Germany’s moral contradictions and complexities acknowledges the truth in that statement. But it also acknowledges unlikely kindnesses and loyalties as tenacious as they are conflicted. And no matter how wrenching the subject, Charyn’s blunt, brilliantly crafted prose bubbles with the pleasure of nailing life to the page in just the right words. “Cesare” is by no means lightweight fare, but it’s provocative, stimulating and deeply satisfying.

Wendy Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”


By Jerome Charyn

Bellevue. 365 pp. $26.99