Set in Vienna in the mid-'80s, “The Dreamers” is a brilliant and unsettling first novel that reverberates after its conclusion, suggesting the lives of the central characters beyond the final pages of the book.
At first glance, it may appear that author Brian Hall attempts too much: AIDS, interracial relationships, anti-Semitism, suicide, Hitler’s influence on Austria--but all this is woven into the lives of the characters and becomes the fabric of their experience. Hall is a remarkable young writer who has the skill to explore significant issues without turning them into propaganda.
He portrays his male and female characters with equal conviction. At the core of “The Dreamers” is the volatile relationship between Eric, a Harvard graduate student on a Rudolph Wiederholt Memorial Fellowship, and Jutta, an Austrian student at the University of Vienna and mother of a black child.
Reared by unloving grandparents who never touched her, Jutta has been attracted to men who mistreat her and leave her. Eric doesn’t fit into that category: He accepts her and her 5-year-old son, Timo; he even does most of the housework in the cluttered apartment on Lazarettgasse that she shares with two other women and their small children.
Eric is very good at accepting--after all, he’s been conditioned since childhood to adapt himself to the needs of others: research assistant to his German-born father, “utterly truthful son” to his mother. “I only lied about those things that no one could check, such as my feelings and desires.”
He is in Vienna because he felt obligated to accept the fellowship that is named after his dead father and based on his study on the “role of the common German soldier during the years of Nazi rule,” a story that concluded that “Nazi Germany could have happened anywhere.”
Nauseated by the recognition that now it has become his work, Eric drifts and postpones his research on Austrian Nazi Party members from 1934 to 1938; he feels like a fraud as he writes his monthly progress reports to the Brigham Fellowship Committee. He is haunted by the disappearance of Jews in Vienna--180,000 before the war, 600 at the end of the war--and by the city’s amnesia when it comes to the war.
Having attempted suicide eight times, Jutta isn’t frightened that Eric has tested positive for exposure to AIDS and possibly is a carrier. She tells him, “A danger like AIDS doesn’t mean anything to me. It’s too far in the future.” She sees his condition as “something romantic. . . . Perhaps she even hopes that it is our condition now . . . a Liebestod .”
What makes the sex scenes in “The Dreamers” disturbing, are not the graphic details but Timo’s presence. He “had seen us make love before and he had always known his mother did this. . . . He never came to lie between us until it was over. . . . He “undressed and crawled in naked with us, and I let him have his mother to himself while I went out. . . .”
While Eric’s relationship with Jutta becomes increasingly unhealthy, he develops a strong, caring bond with Timo who, for the first time, lets himself trust a man. Eric has long talks with him, listens to him, feeds birds with him. In a moving resolution, Eric pulls free from the vortex of Jutta’s self-destruction and creates a safe place for Timo and himself.
Hall’s writing is sure, swift and vibrant. Throughout “The Dreamers,” his vivid descriptions evoke the essence of Vienna: Schonbrunn Palace and other historical buildings, the prostitutes who have to register and work legal hours, guards carrying Uzi machine guns, and transvestites who “bum a light from out of the evening shadows.”
Most of the older Austrians are shown as provincial and prejudiced--not the best environment for Timo or for Eric’s Jewish friend, Josh, a French horn player from Georgia who stays in Vienna despite his contempt for the Austrians and plays in the “ Tonkunstler Orchestra, the same orchestra that Mozart used to conduct.” His wife Jun, a Japanese musician, can’t find work in Vienna where the orchestras are composed primarily of white males; she spends her days “listening to the tapes of herself from old Japanese concerts.”
“The Dreamers” is a complex novel about boundaries: a child in bed with his mother and her lover, Jutta and Eric’s struggle against co-dependency, four adults and three children in the cramped apartment, Eric’s lies to his mother and the fellowship committee, even the boundaries Hitler violated in the Anschluss when he annexed his homeland because of the enthusiastic welcome in 1938.