David Layton’s The Dictator explores the little-known history of Jewish refugees in the Dominican Republic

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A review by Philip Marchand for The National Post.

The Dictator
By David Layton
HarperCollins Canada/Patrick Crean Editions
320 pp; $22.99

The dictator in the title of David Layton’s novel, The Dictator, is Rafael Trujillo, a real-life figure who ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961. On board a ship bound for that exotic island during the Second World War, a band of German and Austrian refugees confess their ignorance of this mysterious figure, but are impressed when they find out that he has named the nation’s capitol – Ciudad Trujillo – after himself. “Mussolini had not renamed Rome after himself,” the passengers muse. “Even Hitler wouldn’t dare change the name of Berlin or Vienna.”

But why, the question remains, among all the nations of the earth, is this republic so eager to accept unlimited numbers of European Jews?

“Nobody liked Jews,” 16-year-old Karl Kaufmann, Layton’s protagonist, admits. But what Karl doesn’t know is that Trujillo hates Blacks – especially the Blacks of Haiti, uneasy neighbours with the Dominican Republic. Conversely, Trujillo admires the whiteness of the refugees. The young Kaufmann, Layton writes, “noticed that the lighter the skin, the higher one’s rank in government and business.” It is part of a national obsession. Trujillo, Layton writes, “attributes many of the ills that plagued his own country to the dark blood flowing through them like an infection.”

Even Trujillo tries to lighten his own skin with facial creams.

The Jews, on their part, have no interest in racial balancing, but nevertheless assume their part in Trujillo’s vision of a hundred thousand Europeans providing a barrier against invasion. For these Jews, Trujillo’s offer is simple – it amounts to a grant of survival. And on that subject there can be little to discuss. Jews and Dominicans, it turns out, are in need of one another.

This is why Kaufmann, an 88-year-old retired real estate developer based in Toronto at the start of the novel, has a mysterious link with the Dominican Republic where he spent the war in an agricultural settlement – “Jews growing bananas,” as one settler puts it. Now seventy years after Karl left the Dominican Republic for the more stimulating environment of Canada – with no intention of ever returning – he appears to want to revisit the scenes of his youth.

Unfortunately, he’s a bit late. Signs of dementia are stirring in the old man. After an episode in which he wanders off to a former address, his son Aaron tries to find a secure, custodial residence for Karl, who interprets this as finding a place with a lock-up.

Things are not helped by a constant emotional crossfire among family members. Aaron is divorced, and so is his father; Aaron’s teenage daughter Petra resents her father, though she bonds with her grandfather in the way of grandchildren and grandparents – partly as an expression of affection and partly as a strategic move in the politics of the family.

The most intense conflict is between Aaron and Karl. They are “awkward strangers,” even when they have been living under the same roof. Karl delights in needling Aaron, whose occupation is senior policy adviser for the government and whose present crusade, according to Karl, is “saving the world” through bicycle lanes. Aaron believes unashamedly that this is a project of benefit to humankind, “bike lanes threading through city streets, stitching up the world.”

Karl is not a tough guy, although the difference between the father and son is symbolized by the son’s attempt to save a dying bird at one of the father’s construction sites. Somehow, Karl’s very presence, Layton writes, robs the boy of who he is. That theft includes history, “an ugly birthmark that like Trujillo’s dark skin could never be covered up with whitening powder. He’d wanted his son to have no history, no sides or convictions foisted upon him. What was the point of offering him a poisonous past?”

A negative approach indeed. What caused it? Layton does not keep the reader long in suspense. Karl happens to be a Holocaust survivor with a more than average load of guilt – not only did he fail to help his family members escape along with himself from Nazi-occupied Austria, but he more or less destroyed their chances for an escape.

It is difficult to deny that Layton is going over well-trodden ground here. Holocaust guilt is an all too familiar commodity among filmmakers and novelists. It would be tedious to enumerate instances, William Styron’s novel Sophie’s Choice being one of the more conspicuous. And the sensitive, disgruntled teen-aged daughter is a stock character that also needs overhauling.

Layton’s solution to this problem is a two-track narrative – one track focused on the present conflicts of Aaron and his family, and the other following the course of Karl’s wartime adventures, particularly in the Dominican Republic. It’s a technique that does add drive to the narrative and affords welcome relief to the sourness of the main character as he approaches dementia.

The latter theme, however, is another increasingly familiar motif in our literature, as baby boomer novelists age. To be candid, I do not greet this new literary development with much enthusiasm. I could well wish for a different set of recurring nightmares in our story-telling but that’s the kind of thing we don’t much get to choose. Layton’s novel, thank heavens, does not dwell on clinical details. It’s an expertly drawn narrative, well paced and above all intriguing in its portrayal of an odd, little-known episode in the Second World War.

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