The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The events and characters in these novels are to some extent autobiographical. The main character, Valeska Piontek, is named and modeled after Horst Bienek’s own mother. Both are piano teachers, and both are married to sickly men who are in early retirement. In the novel, Valeska is portrayed as a strong, domineering mother figure who, on the one hand, teaches Chopin even though it is officially forbidden, and on the other hand is a shrewd businesswoman profiting from real estate speculation. With her own brand of Catholicism, rich with colorful elements of a border region, and her possessive love for her children, Valeska symbolizes Silesia with its unique qualities of a land between two cultures.

Her husband, Leo Maria, appears to be her complete opposite. He is not commercially successful in his photography studio; instead, he takes excursions into the Silesian countryside to photograph old towers and other landmarks. As his wife meddles in the studio, his last refuge of privacy, he takes to his bed and dies a few years later. Leo Maria’s love for Silesia, as exemplified in his secret production of political leaflets against the war propaganda, is devoid of the economic opportunism characteristic of his efficient wife.

His son, Josel, combines character traits of both parents: He is a member of the Hitler Youth and simultaneously a participant in the Bosco Bund, a religious organization. He stands up for his beliefs (his love of Dostoevski) but at the same time takes advantage of the soldiers whom the war has brought into town. He rents them an empty shed where they can be alone with their women.