Imagine layers of rice paper; remove one layer and discover yet another layer. And each stratum incredibly detailed.
When Stanislaus Demba makes his first appearance the reader is treated to both an odd and humorous scene. Demba buys bread and bologna, but won't pick up his purchases. When the proprietor leaves Demba alone he disappears with the food—and leaves the correct amount of money on the counter.
There are numerous scenes involving hands; however, Demba keeps them hidden within a cloak. He can't pick up money, food, shake someone's hand or do anything requiring him to use his hands.
These scenes, often humorous, also point out the social stratification's of Vienna in 1917. Demba, a university graduate is a poor tutor. Whenever he's in the society of those who are wealthier or titled his person is denigrated.
Demba is in love with Sonja and loses her to a wealthy young man. The two intend to take a vacation together—to romantic Venice. When Denba hears about the vacation he loses all rational control and demands that Sonja give him time to come up with the money for a vacation. She agrees because his behavior frightens her.
Demba is now involved in a quest to obtain the money. This device gives Perutz an opportunity to roam throughout Vienna society.
Finally Stanislaus confesses to the teenaged Steffi that his hands are handcuffed. The selection of Steffi as the only person to whom he can tell his secret and ask for help is because Steffi is also an outcast. Her face is scarred.
Demba tells her that he was attempting to sell a stolen book to an antiquarian book dealer. The dealer called the police who arrived and handcuffed him. He managed to take advantage of a fall by one policeman as they were going down the stairs. He then hit the other policeman. His escape involved running to the third floor, locking the door, and eventually sliding down the roof, falling and losing and then gaining consciousness. Before jumping out of the window he contemplates freedom.
Another layer in this book is the quest for individual freedom. Hands become a metaphor for the loss of identity. With his hands handcuffed and hidden in his cloak Demba is unable to participate in a great deal of society. Each encounter shows another loss. He can't pick up the envelope containing his pay so he can't participate in commerce. He can't be intimate.
The handcuffed hands act as a metaphor for the loss of individual identity. This story needs to be read in the light of post-war Vienna and the ensuing problems—social and economic.
Perutz's ending leaves the reader wondering if Demba has imagined all these incidents or if they took place in the world in real time.
There appears only one way for Demba to experience freedom and to reconstruct an individual identity. This is a book that begs to be reread and reread. It exists on so many intricate levels.