In the 1930s, when many countries, including Canada, were turning away Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, one unlikely country actively sought out these refugees: the Dominican Republic. At the Evian Conference in 1938, the Caribbean island nation volunteered to open its doors to 100,000 European Jews, an offer eventually taken up by about 700 settlers who were granted citizenship, cheap loans, and farmland. Ironically, ruling Dominican strongman Rafael Trujillo’s motivation for extending the invitation was racial: He hoped that an influx of white Europeans would counter the unwanted migration of blacks crossing the border from Haiti.
This historical footnote serves as the backdrop to Toronto author David Layton’s intriguing second novel. When we first encounter Karl, the story’s narrative lynchpin, he is a dementia-afflicted old man living in Toronto with his emotionally estranged son, Aaron, and disaffected teenage granddaughter, Petra. It gradually unfolds that in a somewhat secret previous life, the teenage Karl had fled Nazi Germany for Switzerland, eventually settling in the Dominican Republic and starting a family he later abandoned when he immigrated to Canada.
The narrative shifts back and forth between a generational battle in present-day Toronto, with Karl and Petra predictably allying against Aaron, and a much more interesting account of Karl’s earlier life in the Dominican Republic. Karl is an elusive, not altogether likable character who invariably acts in his own self-interest, including the families he left behind in Germany and the Dominican Republic, as well as the one he couldn’t quite bond with in Canada. Although Karl’s actions are understandable, given the historical circumstances, they are sufficiently egocentric to leave the impression that he – not Hitler or Trujillo – is the dictator referred to in the title.