From the author of Taking Lives: a riveting new novel, inspired by a true story from secret criminal files, about a woman who made her fortune trafficking stolen art in wartime Berlin--and the fearsome price other people paid for her crimes.
Lucia Muller-Rossi is the grandest of Zurich antique dealers, still flourishing and still respect-able in her nineties. Her past is unknown, or conveniently ignored, until the day Sarah Freeman looks into her shop window and sees a delicate inlaid table that she and her husband once owned before the war. It is a "piece from Berlin," and because of it, decades of lies and silence are about to end.
With the skills of a master storyteller and the insights of a historian, Michael Pye brings to life the devastating legacy that shadows the Holocaust. The Pieces from Berlin is the graphic story of survivors finding the courage to face a buried past, as Lucia's son, Nicholas, patches his memories of wartime Berlin into a true picture of his mother's life and crimes, and Sarah Freeman tries to exorcise her ghosts by involving an Englishman who has his own wartime scars.
Their intensely moving stories cast brilliant light on the terrible choices people must make in the very worst of times--and the human toll they exact through the generations.
- New York Times Notable Books of the Year
An agonizing moral issue beats at the heart of this searching novel about individual survival at the cost of complicity with evil. Based on the case of a real woman, Pye's narrative examines the shady life of fictional Lucia Muller-Ross, who spirited vanloads of valuable antiques entrusted to her by their Jewish owners out of Berlin and into Switzerland at the end of WWII. Sixty years later, Lucia is the elderly, proud and respected owner of an antiques shop in Zurich, when Sarah Freeman, a Holocaust survivor, spies in the store's window a table she once owned. Sarah's anguished need for emotional restitution sparks a tragic upheaval in Lucia's family. Lucia's son, Nicholas, a middle-aged professor and historian, has never allowed himself to think about his mother's murky past. Lucia's granddaughter, Helen, who has been unaware of the accusations leveled against her grandmother in a postwar court case in which she was acquitted, now feels a compulsion to bring Lucia to justice. Pye's (The Drowning Room) taut, restrained prose eschews melodrama, though flashbacks to the nights when Berlin was pounded by Allied bombing are vividly rendered. In the book's most harrowing scene, "the blast bombs [were]: timpani and fire... the sky was all neon," as nine-year-old Nicholas, alone in Lucia's apartment, watches the city die. Despite Pye's control, he leans too heavily on the repetition of "anger" and "rage" to describe the characters' inner emotions. An Englishman who becomes Sarah's friend, meant to provide another perspective on wartime moral ambiguity, is more a device than a rounded character. Yet the tension mounts, and the last few chapters reveal the terrible price Lucia paid for her amoral (but perhaps excusable?) behavior. In the end, this penetrating psychological study reverberates with an urgent message: life consists of choices, and all have long-lasting consequences.
-- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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February 09, 2004
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Excerpt from The Pieces from Berlin by Michael Pye
He went rolling down into the city, his coat like a cone of green felt all around him, like some round wooden toy: so good and kind and clever, so big and so kind, so that everyone knew he must be a truly happy man. Helen watched her father striding past the dark shine of wet shrubbery and the high suburban walls. One minute he was in a puddle of streetlamp light, then the dark, then the next light: a flickerbook man.
She double-locked the apartment door, ran down the stairs instead of waiting for the elevator, and she followed him. She was afraid of what he might do next.
The cold ached on her skin. There was mist lying sodden among the plain buildings and gray squares of Zurich, gilt clocks poking up out of lanes, the last relentless red geraniums, with linden trees bare, and blue trams snaking by the water, the lake steamers and beyond them shops that glowed with their own gold, armored with huge glass.
He mustn't see her.
He was a brisk, effortless walker, used to scampering on mountains; she followed a block or two back, just able to make sure he was still ahead: the round man, in late middle age, under the shell of his green felt loden coat. His hair was white, and carefully wild: a professorial head. He had never once been ashamed of the great globe of his belly because he was not a self-conscious man.
Purposeful people were lined up for trams. The first shop and office lights were burning. At this blank time of the morning, hardly any light yet, the fact that he was moving was enough to make him stand out. Helen shivered as she walked. Her father retired from this kind of purpose years ago, had no obligation now to stride out on a bleak morning with the frost still standing in the trees.
He turned down the hill to the lake. He didn't nod at any of the galleries on the street, not even the one that belonged to her husband, Jeremy: didn't pause at all. She thought maybe he would catch a tram at the great turntable station down at Bellevue, but he didn't. He wanted to keep moving. He didn't even have time to wait to be carried where he was going.
Along the gray Limmat now, quiet and decorous: a triangle rushing along on his broad base, not bothering to look at the city around him. It was, in any case, already perfectly clean, no condom, ticket, newspaper, or candy wrapper left on the streets to anchor it even in the history of last night.
Nicholas Muller-Rossi knew better. He remembered things, which was what made him ominous.
In ordinary circumstances, he was happy to share in the official civic memory of the city: the memory that makes James Joyce an eye patient, Wagner a bit too showy, Lenin a good quiet tenant although he had visitors the night the Winter Palace fell. He liked the anesthesia of all that convention, to feel at home in a city whose great art is the window display, whose local poet is honored for being a good government clerk, although also a drunk.
But the circumstances were not ordinary at all. Nicholas cut across the Limmat and through the lanes up to the open space of Lindenhof. Helen slowed down, even though the cold caught at her legs. Only a few lanes led up to Lindenhof, and the park itself was small, and she did not want him to see her.
He could make his own mind up, she told herself. She thought he might just need her.
He stood looking down on the houses racked up each side of the valley, little terraces and squares, an ingrown city full of plain fountains.
Three days ago, Nicholas Muller-Rossi read in the newspaper that his father had died: ancient, at ninety-five, in a small town in a valley with a lake.