(credits: Edmund de Waal)

I finished this book the same way I finished In Cold Blood: thinking I had never read another non-fiction quite like it. You can read it as a family saga or an insightful look at the European history from the late 19th century to the mid-20th. It can also be seen as a personal journey into the world of family heritage and how that influences who you are.

Edmund de Waal is a British ceramicist who inherited 264 netsuke and decides to discover more about how they came down the Ephrussi family line. (He’s now writing a history of the color white – looking forward to it!)

The book is mainly divided into three sections that mark the different stages of the netsuke’s life: the first is set at fin de siècle Paris where a Japanism-obsessed Charles Ephrussi first buys them from an art dealer. The second takes us to early 20th-century Vienna, at the time of its annexation by Hitler, and finally to post-WW2 and bombed-out Tokyo, a place I knew almost nothing about.

I was afraid that amidst all the family history the netsuke would become irrelevant, but they’re cleverly woven into the story. They become a sort of vessel that embodies the zeitgeist of the different times. In Paris they’re a collectors item and objects of art, in Vienna they’re on display in an intimate recess of a golden house, where a Lady dressed to go to parties and meet lovers, but they also become toys to the children allowed to witness that ritual. In Tokyo they are once again in the world they were build for and become a symbol of family history and resilience. I wonder what the future will bring to these intriguing objects.

(favorite Paris anecdote: Monet’s asparagus)

I found de Wall a remarkable writer, one that’s able to bring an artist’s awareness to another format, paying careful attention to the language, its pace and its evocative potential. He often tackles abstract topics, but always in a very accessible way:

You take an object from your pocket and put it down in front of you and you start. You begin to tell a story.

When I hold them I find myself looking for the wear, the fine cracks that run alongside the grain of some of the ivories.  It is not just that I want the split in these wrestlers – a tangle of hopelessly thrashing ivory limbs – to have come from being dropped onto Charles’s golden carpet of the winds by someone famous (a poet, a painter, Proust) in a moment of fin-de-siècle excitement.  Or that the deeply ingrained dust lodged under the wings of a cicada resting on a walnut shell comes from being hidden in a Viennese mattress. It probably doesn’t.

One of the great strengths of The Hare with the Amber Eyes is that it doesn’t ignore the excesses of the nouveaux-riches. It doesn’t downplay the extent of their wealth and privilege, nor the self-indulgence of their way of life. I couldn’t help but make parallels to the current social movements against the 1% and the financial sector in general. The 99% of that time were angry and laid open the way for Hitler and his comforting blame game. But although I believe most readers thought  “this is too much” at some point in the book (a jeweled turtle – are you kidding me?!), we were never allowed to share the “they got it coming” philosophy.

It is on this visit that I go to the Jewish archive in Vienna, the one seized by Eichmann, to check up on the details of the marriage.  I look through the ledger to find Viktor, and there is an official red stamp across his first name.  It reads “Israel”. An edict decreed that all Jews had to take new names. Someone has gone through every single name in the lists of Viennese Jews and stamped them “Israel” for the men, “Sara” for the women.

I am wrong. The family is not erased, but written over. And, finally, it is this that makes me cry.

*goose-bumps* It reminded me of the time I crumbled watching Alan Cumming’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are.

For a book that goes so deeply into family history, I learned a lot about history in general. The gradual infiltration of Nazi ideals in Austrian society was especially interesting. It coincided with some of the book’s most moving scenes: de Waal’s grandfather isolated in his country estate, penniless and without a nationality, the courage of his grandmother in entering the country to rescue him, and the story of Anna, the faithful servant. Her part in the netsuke’s history is the stuff of legend.

Anna gave me lots of food for thought. What made her stay and rescue the netsuke? Loyalty? Her own personal form of rebellion? And then, shockingly, the family didn’t even remembered her last name. There is no excuse for this, although I also saw her as someone self-effacing and easily over-looked. How else could she have lived all those years in the occupied house?

There is such pedigree in the Ephrussi family, they were all so amazing and influential (Charles has a cameo in Monet’s Luncheon of the Boating Party and was the inspiration for one of main characters in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past) that I can’t help but keenly feel just how utterly obscure my ancestors are. More than that, I feel sorry there’s almost no family history or objects that have trickled down to my brother and me.

By the end of the book de Waal is in possession of the netsuke. Apart from frail letters and documents, they’re all that’s left of a great family that once had everything. The netsuke are once again ready to begin yet another chapter in their amazing history.

***

Other thoughts: Savidge Reads, Shelf Love, Reading Matters, things mean a lot, Tales from the Reading Room, chasing bawa, Hannah Stoneham’s Book Blog, Boston Bibliophile, Winstonsdad’s Blog, My Book Year, Vulpis Libris, Novel Insights, Canadian Bookworm, Lucybird’s Book Blog, Page 247, Desperate Reader, MarysLibrary, Cornflower Books, Eve’s Alexandria (yours?)

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