Author, Book review, Fiction, Fred Uhlman, Germany, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage Digital

‘Reunion’ by Fred Uhlman

Reunion

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 98 pages; 2012.  

Fred Uhlman’s classic novella Reunion — first published in 1971 — is a universal story about the friendship between two teenage school boys. But this is no average story, no average friendship, for it is set in Germany in the early 1930s, just as Nazism is on the rise.

Teenage friendship

The story is narrated by middle-class Hans Schwarz, the son of a Jewish doctor and grandson of a rabbi, looking back on a special friendship he shared with the aristocratic Konradin von Hohenfel, whose parents sided with Hitler, some 25 years after they lost contact with one another.

He came into my life in February 1932 and never left it again. […] I can remember the day and the hour when I first set eyes on this boy who was to be the source of my greatest happiness and of my greatest despair.

The book charts the rise and fall of their friendship over the course of a year. Right from the start Hans, who is friendless and lonely at school, is enamoured by Konradin’s arrival in their classroom for the first time:

We stared at him as if we had seen a ghost. What struck me and probably all of us more than anything else, more than his self-assured bearing, his aristocratic air and slight, faintly supercilious smile, was his elegance. We were all, so far as our style of dress was concerned, a dreary lot. […] But with this boy it was different. He wore long trousers, beautifully cut and creased, obviously not off the peg like ours. His suit looked expensive: it was light grey with a herringbone pattern and almost certainly “Guaranteed English”. He wore a pale blue shirt and a dark blue tie with small white polka-dots; in contrast our neckwear was dirty, greasy and rope-like. Even though we regarded any attempt at elegance as “sissy”, we couldn’t help looking enviously at this picture of ease and distinction.

It takes a concerted effort to “woo” Konradin by the shy Hans, but eventually they bond over a shared love of coin collecting. Konradin is welcomed into the Schwarz family home after school on a regular basis, but the favour takes a long time to be returned — and when it is, it doesn’t take Hans long to realise that he is only ever invited over when Konradin’s parents are away.

Tensions in the friendship become heightened — almost in tandem with the rise of anti-Semitism in German society — and things come to a head just as Hitler is about to be appointed Chancellor. I won’t say any more, but the book has a spine-tingling — and quite unexpected — final sentence that gives the story extra resonance and poignancy.

A portrait of an ideal friendship

Reunion is a beautiful depiction of an “ideal friendship” between two 16-year-old boys from different backgrounds. Though we largely experience it from Hans’ point of view, it perfectly captures the all-pervasive need to have that one special person in our lives — with whom we can share our interests, our troubles, our desires — when we are teens. It also highlights how loyalty can be tested, in this case to the extreme, by circumstances beyond our control.

I loved the mood of the book — it’s nostalgic and wistful without being sentimental — and it’s written in a perfectly matter-of-fact way but is done so eloquently the sentences feel as if they’ve been spun from silk. It’s a quick read, too, but it’s the kind of story that stays with you, not least because it shows how friendships can endure beyond the worst of human catastrophe.

My edition includes a short introduction written by French novelist Jean d’Ormesson in 1997, but the novella has also been championed by Arthur Koestler, who described it as a “minor masterpiece”, and Rachel Seiffert. It came to my attention via Armen, a member of my book group, who recommended it to me late last year.

Finally, I should point out that Uhlman wrote Reunion in English, not German. He emigrated to the UK in 1936 after stints in France and Spain. You can read more about his eventful life on his Wikipedia page.

Austria, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Hanna Krall, holocaust, literary fiction, Peirene Press, Poland, Publisher, Setting

‘Chasing the King of Hearts’ by Hanna Krall

Chasing-the-king-of-hearts

Fiction – paperback; Peirene Press; 176 pages; 2013. Translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm.

Last Christmas I treated myself to all the Peirene Press titles that I did not currently own. My plan was to work my way through them over the course of this year. Alas, with so many books — and other obligations — vying for my attention, it was only last week that I managed to pull one from the pile: Hanna Krall’s Chasing the King of Hearts.

This book is not your usual Peirene fare in the sense that it’s a little too long to be classed as a novella (it certainly took me far longer than two hours to read it), but I’m not sure that really matters. The book is a tribute to one woman’s amazing ability to survive everything that World War Two throws at her, including the execution of various family members, life in the Warsaw Ghetto, several stints in jail, torture by a cruel Gestapo officer (was there any other kind?)  and  internment in Auschwitz. And that’s only the half of it.

A woman’s love for her husband

The story is framed around a love affair between a woman, Izolda Regensberg, and her husband, Shayek, the “King of Hearts” of the title, who is taken away by force to a concentration camp. Over the next few years, Izolda does everything in her power to be reunited with him — indeed, she becomes the “Queen of Chameleons”: she changes her name, her hair, her occupation and her religion. She finds new ways to make money — selling goods on the blackmarket and acting as a secret message courier — in order to fund her journey to find her beloved.

Her life is constantly in danger as she passes herself off as a blonde-haired Catholic — and for much of the time she gets away with it. But every now and then she doesn’t:

When the train stops at Radom the German takes her to the police station.
Evidently you look like a Jew, says the policeman.
She’s genuinely surprised: I look like a Jew? I’ve never heard that before.
Can you say your Hail Mary? the policeman asks.
Of course. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with the… […] Blessed art thou among women… Because she is addressing the Mother of God, who is full of grace, she goes slowly, making every word count, to show respect.
Listen to you, the policeman laughs out loud. What normal person says Hail Mary like that? Usually it’s hailmaryfullofgracethelordiswiththee… You really are a Jew!

But despite this little “hiccup” she remains steely, determined and astonishingly resilient. Nothing ever seems to faze her: not even broken shoulders and a knocked out tooth. She simply dusts herself off and continues her quest.

And it is a quest in the truest sense of the word, for Izolda comes across so many challenges and obstacles and tests of courage, yet she never gives in. Not even the horrors of Auschwitz can dent her perseverance or enthusiasm. Indeed, she’s so self-assured she approaches Dr Mengele for a job!

Fast-paced adventure story

As you might imagine for a book that covers so much geographical territory —Vienna, Warsaw and countless other towns — the narrative has a rather fast pace. Sometimes events move so quickly it’s hard to keep up —  it’s a catalogue of train journeys, some taken on purpose, others by force  — and reads like a woman’s own adventure story.

The prose style is neat and clipped. It’s written in the third person but in the present tense, which lends the story a sense of immediacy, and it brims with tension throughout. It’s not sensational in the Hollywood sense, but it is a magnificent story told with exceptional restraint. Despite being set during the Holocaust, there’s not a shred of sentimentality or pity in it.

And yet it’s never quite clear whether Izolda’s love is truly reciprocated, and her inner life, along with Shayek himself, is frustratingly unknowable because she’s so stoic and self-contained. But on the whole Chasing the King of Hearts is the kind of story that makes you marvel at humankind’s ability to adapt and survive in the face of so much adversity. It’s also the kind of story that I know will remain with me for a long time to come…

Author, Book review, David Bezmozgis, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Russia, Setting, Viking

‘The Betrayers’ by David Bezmozgis

The Betrayers

Fiction – Kindle edition; Viking; 240 pages; 2014.

David Bezmozgis’ The Betrayers has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. It’s not the first time he’s made the cut — his first novel, The Free World, was shortlisted in 2011.

This new book is also focussed on Russian Jews but is vastly different. Set in current times, and spanning just 24 hours, it focuses on two aged men — a Russian dissident turned Israeli politician, who is embroiled in a sex scandal, and a 70-year-old Soviet exile, who is in poor health and struggling to make ends meet — whose paths cross in Yalta, a holiday resort on the Crimean peninsula.

The book is divided into four main parts — the first focuses on the politician, Baruch Kotler; the second on Vladimir Tankilevich, the Jew who informed on Kotler 40 years earlier; the third on their reunion;  and the fourth on the outfall of their meeting.

Soviet dissident meets Soviet informer

In a nutshell, the story goes something like this: in his role as a cabinet minister, Kotler has taken a stand against the destruction of West Bank settlements and has refused to be blackmailed into keeping quiet. As a result, photographs of him in a compromising position with his young assistant, Leora, have been published in the papers. Kotler and Leora decide to lay low by taking a short vacation in the Crimea, where they rent a room from a Russian woman. By coincidence, it turns out that the Russian woman is married to Tankilevich. The two men meet, have a long conversation about their past, and then Kotler and Leora return home to face the consequences of their actions.

Of course, it would spoil things to outline the detail of the conversation between Kotler and Tankilevich, which makes up the bulk of the book, but suffice to say it largely fleshes out the novel’s theme, which — as the title would suggest — is very much focussed on betrayal and its long-lasting repercussions. This betrayal is not only between the two men at the heart of the story, but also on other characters, including Kotler’s betrayal of his longstanding wife Miriam (by taking up with Leora) and Leora’s betrayal of  Kotler’s daughter, Dafna, with whom she is very good friends ( by taking up with her father).

It could even be argued that it is the fear of betrayal that forces Kotler’s son, a solider in the Israeli Army, to ignore his superiors by refusing to take part in the destruction of the Jewish settlements — even if he has to injure himself so that he is unable to do so.

Politics and humour

While The Betrayers deals with many heavy themes — including political oppression and the ways in which Soviet Russia manipulated its own citizens to turn against one another — Bezmozgis uses wry humour to lighten the load. For instance, early on in the novel, Kotler is very much aware that his relationship with Leora is preposterous given the difference in their age — and he knows this fact hasn’t been lost on the hotel receptionist who turns them away on the basis she can’t find their booking:

Perhaps someone could think, considering them, that here was a dutiful daughter vacationing with her father. But wasn’t that yet another of the changes, the increased number of daughters and fathers who seemed to be vacationing together?

And later:

What a picture they made, he thought. This voluptuous, serious, dark-haired girl with her head on the shoulder of a pot-bellied little man still wearing his sunglasses and Borsalino hat. Fodder for comedy.

Fast-paced “spy novel”

Admittedly, I have an aversion to novels that are focused on political betrayal (I’m not a fan of Cold War novels, for instance), but there was a lot I liked about this one. It’s fast-paced, too, and can be easily read in a day or two.

The male characters are well drawn (the females less so) and the dialogue is very good — short, sharp and punchy — enough to suggest it would make a terrific screenplay. That’s not to say Bezmozgis is light on detail, because he’s not — his descriptions of Yalta are particularly vivid and even the way he describes the inner life of Tankilevich, forced to beg the Jewish charity in Simferopol to extend his 10-year stipend, has a ring of authenticity to it.

But, on the whole, The Betrayers feels very much a “male book”, which may not bode well for winning a major literary prize like the 2014 Giller Prize, which will be announced in a week’s time (10 November).

For another take on this novel, please see KevinfromCanada’s review.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, holocaust, literary fiction, Merethe Lindstrøm, Norway, Other Press

‘Days in the History of Silence’ by Merethe Lindstrøm

Days_in_the_history_of_silence

Fiction – paperback; Other Press; 224 pages; 2013. Translated from the Norwegian by Anne Bruce.

A couple of wet and wild Fridays ago I managed to escape the office an hour early and treated myself to a little browse in Daunt Books on Cheapside. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, but for some reason I was drawn to Merethe Lindstrøm’s Days in the History of Silence and kept picking it up.

I had never heard of the author, nor the book, but I decided I had to buy it. There was something about it which suited my mood and the mood of the weather — cold, damp, melancholic. As it turns out, it proved to be a rather morose but elegant and thought-provoking read, perfect for a rainy weekend.

A quiet life

The story is about a Norwegian couple, Eva and Simon, who are living quiet lives in retirement — he was a physician, she was a high school teacher. But this is no ordinary couple. They have spent their entire married life together keeping secrets from their children — three daughters, who are now grown up with families of their own.

The first is that Eva had a child out of wedlock before she met and married Simon —  she gave her son up for adoption when he was six months old and has never seen him since, although she has often thought about him and once tried to track him down (secretly, of course).

The second is that Simon is a Jew from Eastern Europe, whose family went into hiding when the Nazis came to power. He was the sole survivor of the Holocaust — everyone else he knew perished in the extermination camps — but he later discovered that he had a cousin living in Berlin, which revived traumatic memories and plunged him into a severe depression.

Now, in their later lives, Eva and Simon have another secret to keep: they have dismissed the home help they hired (under pressure from their daughters) for reasons they don’t wish to discuss.

Growing old

The story is narrated by Eva, so that we only ever hear her side of events, but it is clear she loves Simon very much and that she is worried about him — he has recently become incredibly reticent and is showing signs of dementia.

His silence came gradually over the course of a few months, half a year. He might say thanks for the meal or bye. He has become as formal as a hotel guest, seemingly as frosty as a random passenger you bump into on a bus. Only now and again do I see him standing gazing out the window or smiling at something he is reading or watching on television, and I think he is back. As though it really is a journey he has embarked upon. But if I ask what he is watching, what is amusing, he just looks at me uncomprehendingly. The physician, one of his junior colleagues, say he has quite simply become old. The solution, for of course there are solutions to situations like this, why should we consult a physician otherwise, is a centre for the elderly, a day care centre where Simon spends time twice a week.

Now the daughters are putting pressure on Eva to consider putting him in a home, something she tries to ignore for as long as possible. Meanwhile, she finds herself mourning the loss of Marija, the home help, whom she treated as a substitute daughter. All of this forces her to think about her life and her marriage, episodes of which are recalled flashback style in prose that is both elegant and incisive.

Failure to deal with the past

So, while the book is essentially about marriage and family — in particular, what it is to lose family members, whether by giving them up for adoption or having them die in the Holocaust — it’s also a heartfelt and moving treatise on growing old and what happens when we suppress memories or fail to talk about sensitive subjects for such a long time.

Admittedly, it isn’t a particularly cheerful read, but it’s an intimate portrait of an elderly woman grappling with her past and her future, trying to do the right thing for her own sake and the sake of her husband. I found it a highly focused and intelligent read, brimful of humanity, wisdom and psychological insight. It’s infused with a gentle melancholia and leaves one aching to be upfront and transparent with the ones you love.

Days in the History of Silence won the Norwegian Critics’ Prize for Literature in 2011 and the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize in 2012.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Faber and Faber, Fiction, holocaust, literary fiction, Poland, Publisher, Setting, Steve Sem-Sandberg

‘The Emperor of Lies’ by Steve Sem-Sandberg

Emperor-of-lies

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 664 pages; 2012. Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death.

Steve Sem-Sandberg’s The Emperor of Lies won the August Prize — the Swedish equivalent of the Booker Prize — in 2009 and was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2012.

It is a dense behemoth of a book, with nary a chink of light in its dark fictionalised account of the Holocaust, but I read it at a time when I was looking for something substantial to get my teeth into. At more than 650 tiny print-filled pages, it certainly fit the bill. It is by no means a light or easy read, but it is one that rewards the patient reader.

Based on a true story

The book is based on the factual story of Chaim Mordechai Rumkowski, a 63-year-old Jewish businessman, who was the leader of the Jewish ghetto in Łódź. The ghetto — the second largest in Poland — was established by the Nazis in February 1940. Its 200,000 inhabitants were forced to work gruelling hours  — and in impoverished conditions marked by constant hunger, cold and fear — to provide supplies for the German military.

Chaim, who was also known as “Eldest of the Jews” after the Nazis appointed him to the role, was a mysterious figure with murky morals: was he, as many believed, a Nazi pawn, content to do as the Germans wanted in order to save his own skin and fulfil his quest for power? Or was he acting in the misguided belief that if he turned the ghetto into a well-oiled machine for military production he would not only save the lives of those Jews who worked for him but convince the Third Reich that Jews were not the vermin they were thought to be. In other words, was he a sinner or a saint?

The book, which explores this question in exacting, sometimes overwhelming, always meticulous, detail, fictionalises Chaim’s life and the lives of those who lived among him, but it does not provide a definitive answer (although the title might hint at the author’s opinion). What it does is make the reader see the man in all his many facets — some of it good, much of it bad — and leaves you to come to your own conclusions.

Problematic but still powerful

The problem I have with a book of this nature is not knowing what is real and what is not. If it is based on fact and historical research — and the appendices suggest Sem-Sandberg has devoted considerable time in this pursuit — why not write a straight non-fiction book so it’s perfectly clear? Why fictionalise something and then write it in such a way — very dry, prosaic and “journalistic” — that it reads like authoritative non-fiction reportage?

The answer, I suspect, is that the author would find it difficult to bring in the view points of the vast array of characters at the heart of this novel, all of whom were based on real people. (The book is littered with eye witness accounts.) Indeed, there are so many characters that it’s hard to keep track of them (though the guide at the back is helpful), and because it is written from so many perspectives it’s difficult to identify with any one person. I often felt like I’d just got to “know” someone, and then the story switched to a different character and I would have to start afresh, as it were.

This might sound like I am being negative, but I have to admit that I found The Emperor of Lies a truly fascinating and absorbing read. It tends to plod along, but I appreciated the detail and the way in which Sem-Sandberg examines Chaim’s moral culpability. It’s crammed with information but is also very nuanced and moving, so that the weight of the emotion builds slowly and by the final page you feel absolutely shattered. When Chaim sacrifices the elderly and the children of the ghetto to save the working population, it comes as quite a shock. And when you know the fate of those that are disappearing — many were murdered in Auschwitz and Chelmo — when they do not, it is extremely distressing.

Although The Emperor of Lies is a problematic novel, it is also one of the most powerful I have ever read.

You can read more about the real life Chaim Rumkowski on wikipedia (though the articles seems almost as contentious as the person it’s about). And there’s a terrific review — or should I say hatchet job — on the Financial Times website. There’s a more positive take on it in The Independent.

Author, Book review, Janet Malcolm, New York, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, true crime, Yale University Press

‘Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial’ by Janet Malcolm

Iphigenia-in-forest-hills

Non-fiction – hardcover; Yale University Press; 155 pages; 2011.

I do like a good narrative non-fiction book that looks at the darker side of humanity — and Janet Malcolm‘s Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial is one of those books that could best be described as my cup of tea.

The book’s title has its roots in Greek mythology. Depending on which version of the myth you hear — and there are several — Iphigenia was the innocent daughter that Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek forces at Troy, had to sacrifice to appease Artemis, whom he had offended. Iphigenia’s mother, Clytemnestra, was so upset by her daughter’s death that she kills her husband as an act of vengeance.

But in Malcolm’s true-life tale, “Iphigenia” is a four-year-old child that is “sacrificed” as part of a divorce settlement. The father, having won custody, is later killed — by a hit man. The book does not focus on the finer details of the custody dispute, but on the abhorrent murder which happened following it and then the machinations of the subsequent trial.

The case goes something like this. A 34-year-old mother and physician, Mazoltuv Borukhova, is accused of hiring an assassin to kill her estranged husband, Daniel Malakov, a well respected orthodontist. The “hit” occurred in broad daylight, at the gates of a playground in the Queens district of New York, within feet of the couple’s four-year-old daughter, Michelle. The motivation for the crime is claimed to be vengeance: a month earlier Malakov had been granted custody of Michelle, despite claims by Dr Borukhova that her husband sexually abused their daughter.

This is a murky case — Malcolm describes it as an enigma, because Dr Borukhova “couldn’t have done it and she must have done it” — but the author’s focus is not so much on the events leading up to it, nor the motivations, but the way in which justice is played out in the courtroom.

Most of us understand the adversarial system of justice in which the prosecution presents the evidence and the defence disputes it. But few of us have seen it in action firsthand. Malcolm gives us a ringside seat as Borukhova and her hitman, Mikhail Mallayev, are put on trial at Queens Supreme Court in 2009 and dissects what is happening with rare insight.

“A trial is a contest between competing narratives”, she writes.

If any profession (apart from the novelist’s) is in the business of making things up, it is the profession of the trial lawyer. The “evidence” in trials is the thread out of which lawyers spin their tales of guilt or innocence.

This evidence, she suggests, is often highly malleable. The likelihood of a successful prosecution also rests on jury selection — which isn’t always impartial — and which judge presides over the case. In this instance, the trial judge, Robert Hanophy, had such a long track record of rarely acquitting anyone on the stand that he had been nicknamed “Hang ’em Hanophy” (Malcolm’s portrait of him is not particularly flattering, and she even goes so far as to call him a “petty tyrant”.)

Of course, how the jury — and the media — perceive the accused has a role to play, too. Here’s Malcolm’s description of Borukhova:

She was a small, thin woman of arresting appearance. Her features were delicate, and her skin had a gray pallor. At the hearings, she was dressed in a mannish black jacket and a floor-length black skirt, and she wore her long, dark, tightly curled hair hanging down her back, bound by a red cord. She looked rather like a nineteenth-century woman-student revolutionary. For the trial proper (perhaps on advice), she changed her appearance. She put her hair up and wore light-coloured jackets and patterned long skirts. She looked pretty and charming, if undernourished.

What makes this book so readable is Malcolm’s narrative. This is not a dry, coolly distant analysis: it’s raw and immediate and feels all the more compelling for it.

Reporting the case for the New Yorker, where Malcolm is a staff writer, she includes her own views and reactions to the events happening in the court room. At at one point she even inserts herself in the story — “something I have never done before as a journalist” — by alerting the prosecution to the fact that Michelle’s court-appointed guardian, David Schnall, had admitted some rather kooky ideas in an interview he granted her (one of his ideas was the the world was a “place of hidden evil under the control of a Communist-like system” among other rants).

Malcolm also puts her journalistic skills to good use by befriending Borukhova’s family, not an easy thing to do given they belong to a rather closed, insular community of Bukharan Jews living in Forest Hills, New York. (Her visits with them are highly reminiscent of Helen Garner’s visits with Jo Cinque’s family in Joe Cinque’s Consolation — once she wins their trust, they reveal a lot of pain, confusion, anger and bitterness.)

But as much as I enjoyed this book, it felt too short — the ending is especially abrupt — and there are some aspects that could have been fleshed out. Still, it’s a slightly unnerving read, and I came away from it, not quite sure whether justice had, indeed, been done. And I rather suspect that’s exactly how Malcolm feels about the case, too…

Austria, Author, Book review, Edmund De Waal, France, History, Japan, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance’ by Edmund De Waal

Hare-with-amber-eyes

Non-fiction – paperback; Vintage; 368 pages; 2011.

Edmund De Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes won the 2010 Costa Biography Award. And yet this book is not a biography as such. It’s a mix of memoir and history, with a little bit of art and some travel thrown in for good measure.

The hare of the title is carved out of ivory and is one of 264 netsuke that Edmund De Waal inherited from his Uncle Iggie. Netsuke are miniature sculptures from Japan, highly collectible and presumably worth a lot of money. De Waal, who is a potter by trade, is obviously enamoured of them and is keen to learn how these intriguing items came to pass. He also wants to know how they entered his family: where did his Uncle Iggie get them from?

While the book appears to centre on this special collection of netsuke — their origin, the ways in which they have been passed through three generations of De Waal’s family — their appearance in the text is fleeting. This is more a story about De Waal’s complicated, but intriguing, family tree — he is the direct descendant of the Ephrussi family, a Jewish banking and oil dynasty that originated in Odessa, Ukraine, rose to power in Paris and Vienna, but then crumbled when the Nazis seized their assets, including the family’s famous bank, during the Second World War.

De Waal chooses to structure his book by starting near the top of his family tree, rather than working backwards as one might expect (or perhaps I’ve just watched way too many episodes of Who Do You Think You Are?) This is a gamble, because what happens if this person is the most interesting relative of the lot? Everyone else will pale by comparison and the narrative tension will be lost.

Arguably, Charles Ephrussi, whom De Waal introduces us to in Part One, is the most interesting relative he has in his tree. Paris-based Charles (1849-1905) is an art historian, critic and collector, who is immersed in the Impressionist era. He buys work from the likes of Manet, Pisarro and Degas and is depicted in Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. If that’s not enough, he is also the inspiration for Charles Swann in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. He even starts his own periodical and becomes editor several years later.

It is Charles who buys the netsuke from Japan at a time when Japanese art was coming into fashion. And it is Charles who passes them onto a Vienna-based cousin, as a wedding present, setting them on a journey that is to stretch for more than 100 years.

I have to admit that there were times when I found this book slightly tedious — and dull. De Waal has a tendency to be self-indulgent, to explore the things that interest him rather than thinking about his reader, but his prose style is elegant and effortless.

Every now and then, however, there are little bursts of excitement — and shock — that lift the text out of the doldrums and give the narrative some extra impetus. I was particularly rivetted by the section in which the Nazis seized the Ephrussi family’s palace, depriving them of their property and belongings. For a family so wealthy and privileged it must have seemed an astonishingly rude — and frightening — shock from which they never fully recovered.

But, overall, I had reservations about this book, perhaps because I’m not much of a “thing” person — material objects and accumulation of wealth don’t interest me in the slightest. The Hare with the Amber Eyes resonated more with me as a history of anti-semitism in the 20th century rather than a “biography” of netsuke. It’s an interesting book, but it’s also a strange one, too.

Alan Collins, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, holocaust, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, University of Queensland Press

‘A Promised Land?’ by Alan Collins

A-promised-land

Fiction – paperback; University of Queensland Press; 418 pages; 2001.

The Jewish immigrant experience has been much explored in British and American fiction. In Australia it’s a different story. Despite being a nation of immigrants, this is the first book I’ve ever read focusing on the Jewish in Australia.

A Promised Land? is actually three novels in one: The Boys from Bondi (first published in 1987), Going home (1993) and Joshua (1995). It is also known as the “Jacob Kaiser trilogy” because it follows the life of Jacob Kaiser, an Australian-born Jew, from his childhood in Sydney during the Great Depression to his early 40s during the Vietnam War era.

It’s clearly a semi-autobiographical work, because there are many similarities between Alan Collins’ early life and his fictional creation, Jacob Kaiser, as both were born in the 1920s and raised in a children’s home for Jews. This lends the story, in particular The Boys from Bondi, a truly authentic feel.

The first two novels, which cover the years 1935 to 1948, concentrate on Jacob’s search for identity. The third, set in 1967, addresses similar concerns, but it focuses more on Jacob’s son.

Reviewing this collection of novels is difficult without giving away crucial plot spoilers, because ultimately what happens in the first book impacts on everything else that follows. So if the outline feels vague, forgive me.

When we first meet Jacob he is 10 years old. It is 1935. His family, feeling the effects of the Great Depression, have come down in the world, moving from their stately home in Bellevue Hill to a boarding house, known as The Balconies, overlooking Bondi Beach.

When Jacob is 13 and his brother Solly is nine, tragedy strikes. They come home to find their step-mother, Carmel, has done a runner and are then told their father has died — he has “fallen off a cliff”  while working in a road gang, although we never learn if it is an accident or suicide. Now orphans, Jacob and Solly, are taken in by a Jewish charity, the Abraham Samuelson Memorial Home school.

It is while at the children’s home that Jacob gets his first taste of what it is to be Jewish. As a third-generation Australian Jew, he feels more Australian than Jewish because the Kaisers have never been religiously observant. He hasn’t even taken his bar mitzvah.

But now, surrounded by European Jews fleeing prosecution in Nazi Germany (“The survivors of destroyed Jewish communities in countries that he knew only as blobs on a map of Europe”), he realises that he has little in common with other Jews. Their language, their rituals, their well-to-do European backgrounds feel foreign to him.

This is a common thread that runs throughout Collins’ triptych: where does an Australian-born Jew fit into the grand scheme of things? And what does it mean to be Jewish in a secular, supposedly egalitarian society?

Later, when Jacob leaves the children’s home, this search for meaning continues. He gains work in a printery as an apprentice, where he confronts anti-semitism from his boss, who calls him an “Ikey” and a “Yid”, and blames him for the fighting in Palestine over the formation of a Jewish state. But this casual bigotry is everywhere. Even his Gentile girlfriend, Peg, a student nurse from Bathurst, wonders why he hasn’t got a big nose?

“How many Jews do you know, Peg?”
“Well, there’s, um, Doctor whatsisname in Casualty. A really nice bloke. He gave me some pills for my hayfever. And then there’s–”
“Okay, that makes two — one has and one hasn’t. So you’re only half-right, aren’t you?”

It is at about this time, living in a house with his Jewish landlady Mrs Rothfield, that Jacob becomes politicised. Desperately lonely, with no immediate family of his own, he discovers the local library, works his way through countless classics and then stumbles upon Robert Tressall’s book, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. His eyes are opened by the concepts of worker’s rights and of Socialism. Later, Peg, introduces him to Communism via the Eureka Youth League, and another female friend, the beguiling Ruti whom he went to school with, invites him to join the Zionist group to which she belongs.

Of course, a book about Jewish identity could not fail to mention Palestine, and it is here that Jacob eventually goes to explore his Jewish roots. There’s a particularly telling scene in the second novel in which he looks out the window of the kibbutz and sees “forlorn clusters of refugees” standing about waiting for direction.

One looked up and beckoned to him. Jacob was seized with terrible indecision. He did not want to be associated with these remnants; Jews they may be but what else did he have in common with them? In yet another guise it was the same problem that he had confronted so many times. Jews, he knew to his own longstanding confusion, came in so many varied and wildly disparate personae that one had ultimately to realise that Jewishness was their only common factor. And that Jewishness could not be definied merely as religion. The one thing that Jacob had learned was that the rituals of belief were only the externals of Judaism. It was the five thousand years of history that daunted him, which he carried on his back like the old man of the sea, unable to discard it even if he had wanted to.

In Jacob’s struggle to reconcile the Jewish and Gentile aspects of his life, we see that where we come from influences who we are and where we are going. In many ways this is a book as much about Australian identity as it is Jewish identity — and some of it, including the bigotry, prejudice and ignorance, makes for uncomfortable reading.

It’s particularly interesting to see the ways in which the attitudes to Jewish refugees (also known in a derogatory manner as “reffos”) changed during the 1930s and 1940s.  Initially they were welcomed with open arms but later, when the Anzac’s began to return from war, they were scorned for taking jobs that Australians felt that their soldiers deserved. By the same token, the Vienna Wald coffee shop set up by Jewish refugee Mitzi Strauss, once regarded by locals as a place they would not be seen dead in, becomes popular with the coffee-drinking set in the 1960s.

I loved A Promised Land? despite my initial misgivings that the story didn’t sound particularly exciting going by the rather wan blurb description. The presentation of the book, with its uninspired cover image and the poor binding quality, also let it down.

But from the very first page, I was swept away by the tale of Jacob’s troubled life. Collins has an amazing gift for story-telling. The three novels are filled with drama, intrigue, adventure, grief and joy. There’s plenty of warmth, humour and poignancy too.

And his prose has that old-fashioned effortlessness to it, which makes eating up the pages very easy. It’s the characters which really make this book, though. I loved them all, especially Jacob’s undesirable Uncle Siddy, with his nefarious money-making schemes and eye for the ladies; Peg, the nurse from Bathurst, is a feisty, tell-it-as-it-is sort; and Mrs Rothfield is motherly and kind, even if she does warn Jacob to stay away from the Gentiles!

A Promised Land? is only available in Australia. For details of where you can buy it visit Alan Collins’ official website.

Finally, many thanks to Lisa from ANZLitLovers for giving me this book; I would never have read it otherwise. I would urge you to read Lisa’s review for another take on it.