Really good books reward close reading, and committed readers who crave superb contemporary fiction will find much to nourish them in the unfortunately neglected Conspirators. Those that invest their time and readerly gusto into the novel will discover an utterly absorbing vision. If the book is challenging at times, its composition is so strong and confident that we can rest assured that any difficulties are deliberate; Bernstein wants to make us question the how we make sense of history and of ourselves.
We learn from the novel's Overture that before the onslaught of W.W.I there occurred an assassination in Galicia, a frontier town in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Evident foreshadowing seems to occur in that we deduce who is very likely responsible - but not all conspiracies end the way we think they will, and human acts themselves are finally not reducible to mere cause and effect. When by the most circumstantial chain of events things turn out so differently, all of a sudden history's retrospective inevitability is severely shaken, for the past is felt to be something endlessly complex, every instant being an infinite divergence of possibilities.
In Conspirators there is always a sense of how easy it could all be otherwise - a sense of possibility emerging out of the rich openness of life, and also out of the variousness inherent in human consciousness. Bernstein's characters are unusually lifelike; a result, I think, of their amazingly human capacity for cognition. They seem to think for themselves, rather than in the service of a novelistic plot. Instead of focusing on the life-story of a single protagonist there are several main characters, all irreducibly part of an historical era. It is through the subtle juxtapositioning of a diverse array of characters that the inhabitants of Galicia are related to us, with the result that their individuality is revealed along with their surprising similarities. Their minds are never quite graspable by each other, and when they miscalculate the motives or complexities of others they give away much more about their own.
Bernstein's prose is at once intellectual and mystic, precise and erotic. These adjectives also accurately describe Brugger, a mysterious wonder rabbi who has seduced legions of followers with his prophetic exuberance. With this extraordinary character is the allure of absolute self-change - a breaking with the past that is the creation of a new self. His purpose is nothing less than the making of an inward will into an outer world. Antithetical to Brugger is the cynical Count Wiladowski, who achieves a striking pathos in his anxiety over the irrepressible change always occuring in himself, irrespective of his own will. He yearns to find a continuity of self, a harmony with his personal past, so that he can still have some faith in the integrity of his present thoughts and desires.
Questions of how we relate to ourselves and to the surrounding world are at the heart of Conspirators. In a subtle scene at the end of the novel, a peripheral but very important character, Batya, struggles to assess the impact of the obscure killings in Galicia, which so effected the course of her own life, along with the mass bloodshed of W.W.I.. Reflecting on a universal horror together with what is close and painful specifically to herself , she is gripped by a feeling of incommensurability as her moral and intellectual premises try to come to terms with the inheritance of the external world. She cannot allow herself to think of the assassinations only in terms of leading up to the Great War, because this would reduce them, assign them a secondary meaning only in relation to the first principle of the war. Similarly, by the end of Conspirators the reader is not permitted to think of the novel's "climax", the assassinations, as the inevitable outcome of the story, and the point up to which everything has been building; for this would reduce the haphazardness and particularity of the individual moments of the book which Bernstein emphasizes have a significance all their own, and could have brought about quite other things.