My social media feeds regularly feature Character Profiles. Now it’s time to collate what we know so far about the key players in You Can Hear Chopin from the Attic…
Characters are the thing most readers look to to drive a story. At first, my current WIP You Can Hear Chopin from the Attic was quite plot-laden. Given it’s historical fiction, there is a fair bit of plot to put together. Possibly too much, which has been stirring up ideas that I may cut it much earlier than I planned, which could lead to a follow-on story in future. Possibly. We’ll see what I feel like when I finish the first draft.
During my research at the end of last year, I made a list of observations that I believed could be injected into either the character, the plot, or the setting. Primarily focusing on the characters, which at that stage had one or two dimensions. Now, in my humble opinion, I think more of them have closer to three, or maybe even more. With this in mind, I’m taking this opportunity to outline 11 of the major characters from the You Can Hear Chopin from the Attic ensemble. Beyond what you may have seen on the regular character profiles I post on my social channels.
The main man of all the main characters is Heinrich Oeunhausen. He is the general manager and owner of the Berlin hotel in which most of the novel’s action takes place. A voice of reason at the head of the staff, who vary from the jaded, the sardonic, the indignant, the paranoid. His job is far from easy, and the frustrations of running a hotel while war rages outside its door weigh heavier on Heinrich than he shows. Having to appease his formidable family friend, Minister of Hospitality Leopold Upfauer, also a high-ranking officer in the SS, only adds to the pressure. Especially as neither Heinrich, nor any of his staff, belong to the Nazi Party.
But with costs rising to keep the hotel running with the same luxury and grandeur it had prior to the war, and the possibility of spies in their midst, Heinrich realises he can only put off joining the Party for so long. With his mentally-ill wife hidden away from the world upstairs, will his membership present further complications?
Cordelia Knesebeck stirs up trouble and discord in the hotel the second she enters. Very much beginning as what many real-life hotel workers will recognise as a typical guest. The sort with no regard for standard procedures, who think they can complain and bitch and moan to get what they want. As such, Cordelia quickly meets her match in Heinrich, who, behind his youthful looks and quiet surface wields cast-iron authority over both colleague and customer.
A lot of the story focuses on the pair’s relationship, as events lead them to reluctantly work together. There is turbulence on the way, however, as many of the hotel’s staff (including concierge Alois) and other guests find Cordelia behaving suspiciously around the building. Leading some to suspect she may be more than she appears.
It was quite interesting to delve into the various ranks and factions of the Schutzstaffel. Call it morbid curiosity, or call it necessary research. You want an authentic World War II book, right? For our main protagonist, I wanted a rank that was high enough that he commanded much respect and fear, but not so high that no one would dare look down on him. SS-Standartenführer Leopold Upfauer definitely incites awe and dread in equal measure. Particularly in the hotel business, where, as Minister of Hospitality, he is the man to please. Especially where Heinrich Oeunhausen is concerned.
Heinrich’s father and Upfauer were old friends, and events lead Upfauer to owe the elder Oeunhausen a massive debt. A debt that Heinrich and his brother Konrad inherited upon their father’s death. As such, Upfauer pulls whatever strings he can to ensure the survival of Heinrich’s hotel while the war progresses. But his influence only extends so far, and he does not sugar coat the fact that Heinrich’s refusal to join the Nazi Party does him no favours.
Sofie Oeunhausen is at the core of You Can Hear Chopin from the Attic. She is Heinrich’s 19-year-old wife; sweet and beautiful, but also ultimately a sufferer of psychotic hallucinatory episodes. Knowing that her mental illness qualifies his wife as an undesirable in Nazi eyes, Heinrich smuggles Sofie into his newly-inherited Berlin hotel, shutting her away from the world for her own protection. Where she remains, comfortable but heavily sedated, and placated by the music of Chopin; the only thing beyond the drugs that ever seemed to ease her. The only thing no amount of medicine or music can remedy is her guilt, for trapping Heinrich in a marriage that puts so many lives at risk.
Here is the character that effectively started the entire story off. Itzhak Zylberman started off simply as a little old man shut away in an attic playing Chopin music. Through no shortage of twisted imaginings and morbid curiosity, he became the cantankerous old Jewish man concealed in Heinrich Oeunhausen’s hotel to play the piano to Sofie Oeunhausen. In a bid to quell her darker moods.
While Heinrich more-or-less saves Itzhak’s life by bringing him to the hotel, the old man is far from grateful. Viewing his saviour as a self-serving rich boy with no true appreciation for the lives of others.
In the character of concierge and maître d’ Alois Seyß, the reader sees what every hospitality worker would like to say and do to customers in the face of their typical rudeness, ingratitude, and thanklessness. Where the other hotel workers are restrained towards their clientele, venting their frustrations in private, Alois lacks any such capacity. It is purely by Heinrich’s discretion and ultimately forgiving nature that he has not been fired repeatedly.
Additionally, Alois is brash and impulsive, unable to restrain himself for too long when told not to do something. Something of a mischief-maker, he uncovers a lot of clues of the novel’s mysteries. He especially does not trust Cordelia Knesebeck, and keeps a much closer eye on her than might be thought suitable.
Heinrich’s dissolute younger brother Konrad is sent to stir up further trouble in Heinrich’s already tempestuous life. Konrad is a playboy, a chronic gambler, a self-destructive hedonist. Joined at the hip to his best friend Götz, he gets into trouble frequently over the course of the novel. He serves to represent some of the fashionable yet seedier habits of 1940s Berlin by the young, rich and beautiful. Konrad is also deliberately the opposite of his brother in many ways; more specifically, a foil. While he has a significant arc of his own, the younger Oeunhausen also serves a significant role in Cordelia Knesebeck’s storyline.
Nazi accountant Herr Verschuer began as a sly manipulator. Someone who could get what he wanted without even trying. But also someone who could get answers with as little fuss as possible. The research and development process has turned him into far much more than that, giving him authority and influence that rivals that of his client, Upfauer. As someone who controls the purse strings of the Ministry of Hospitality, his relationship with Upfauer is key. And the two characters serve as a foil to one another in highlighting the glimmers of humanity (or lack thereof) they respectively show.
Cloying. Sycophantic. Obsequious. Just a few words to describe Upfauer’s flame-haired chief adjutant and secretary, SS-Hauptsturmführer Hoesch. A man who cannot quite reconcile himself to the fact that, for all his loyalty and proficiency in his work, is secondary to a mere boy like Heinrich Oeunhausen. A rich kid who inherited his father’s business and social position without even trying. The irony is, as he is loath to dignify, Hoesch got his position under even more corrupt circumstances. His parents bought the job, in the form of an astronomical donation to the Nazi Party.
Within the story, Hoesch’s function is to exhibit the textbook Nazi character. Their ideals and their views, particularly surrounding the ideas of luxury, high society, culture, and fashion. He is a total philistine, which is only one reason that his boss holds him in such utter contempt.
10. FRAU ELBERFELD
There were some very overzealous female supporters of the Nazi Party back in the day. Many would send Hitler gifts for his birthday, Christmas, and other significant events. Maybe even a few instances of committing suicide over him. Admittedly, hotel head housekeeper Belinda Elberfeld does not go quite that far. But she is otherwise an overall representation of the Nazi woman. She joined the hotel staff after indignantly resigning from her previous position – housekeeper for a wealthy Jewish family. Since then, she has ruled her department with an iron fist, pledging particular dislike toward anyone who does not fill the Aryan ideal. That includes one of her best workers, Irene Ginze, as well as her nemesis Alois, and even, to a certain degree, her employer Heinrich Oeunhausen.
While more a supporting member of the ensemble, housekeeper and waitress Irene Ginze is a catalyst for many of the significant plot turns in You Can Hear Chopin from the Attic. Some of them revolve around her ability to access virtually any room in the hotel, as a housekeeper. Others are more concerned with her side hustle, where she “entertains” many of the male guests. She counts both Konrad Oeunhausen and Standartenführer Upfauer among her regular clients. However, she really only has eyes for Alois, and while she puts on a reluctant front, she is always ready to help him in his mischief.
Irene’s non-Aryan appearance – a Mediterranean complexion, dark eyes and hair – make her a prime target for the abuses of her immediate superior Frau Elberfeld. Convinced Irene is of Jewish heritage, Elberfeld uses her authority to deny her worker even the most basic of needs.
Thank you for reading. Let me know what you think. Got a favourite character already? Want to know more? Why not leave a comment or get in touch via my Facebook and Instagram pages. Find out more about You Can Hear Chopin from the Attic here.