Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The Hare with the Amber Eyes - A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal

Beautiful cover. This is the first page and...
This is a book I have heard of for quite some time. It was the title that first caught my attention, it
sounded so mysteriously in a way. And that is what this book is about. A mystery. A quest for finding out the story of a family, an international family that was scattered all over Europe. Furthermore, recently several bloggers have mentioned this book, so, when I went into Waterstones last week and this book looked at me from the shelves, there was no way back. I just had to have it...NOW! In spite of the fact that my own shelves are wearing down with books I have not yet read. I can only say that it was an excellent choice.

I did not realise though that it was a biography. That makes it even more fantastic. Edmund de Waal, a renowned ceramic artists, sets out to find out the history of his family when he inherits 264 netsuke figures from his great uncle. How did they come into the family? How did they travel within the family? How did they survive in the family through two World Wars and a Europe in ruins? This is more exciting than any mystery book.

The search takes him to Odessa where the Jewish family Ephrussi made their fortune. Two brothers left for Europe; Paris and Vienna, and there the two branches of the family grew. The netsuke came from Japan to Paris where Japanese rarities were popular in the latter half of the 19th century. A member of the family bought them and later gave them as a wedding present to his cousin. It went from Paris to Vienna and then into the hands of the Nazis when they annexed Austria to Germany in 1938. How the netsukes were saved I will not reveal here, but it is a most fantastic story.

...this is the second cover
This is an entirely international family with members in many different countries. When you were a Jew in Vienna in 1938, it did not really matter what kind of passport you had. Victor and Emmy the then heads of the Ephrussi family in Vienna, finally manage to leave the city to go to their 'summer house' in Kövecses in southern Slovakia. Emmy dies there and the children are trying to get Victor, the father, out of there.

How could they get Victor our of Slovakia? All his property had been sequestered and he was stranded in the middle of the countryside, with an Austrian passport that should have been valid until 1940, but now has negligible value as Austria no longer exists as a separate country. As Viktor had been expelled he could not apply at a German consulate for a German passport He had started to apply for Czech citizenship, but then that country too disappeared. All he has is a document showing him to be a citizen of Vienna and another document concerning his renunciation of Russian citizenship and acquisition of Austrian citizenship in 1914. But that was in the Hapsburg era.

The Ephrussis were a family in the diaspora, who made their lives in different countries, and always tried to assimilate to that country and being proud of making a contribution. But when you are and emigrant you always have a dual attachment to your original country. This is of course a huge problem also today with our changing world.  Iggie went back to Vienna in 1973, the first time he had been back since he left in 1936. He visited his childhood places and decided to revoke his American citizenship and applying for an Austrian citizenship.

It makes me wonder what belonging to a place means. Charles died a Russian in Paris. Viktor called it wrong and was a Russian in Vienna for fifty years, then Austrian, then a citizen of the Reich, and then stateless. Elisabeth kept Dutch citizenship in England for fifty years. And Iggie was Austrian, then American, then an Austrian living in Japan.

You assimilate, but you need somewhere else to go. You keep your passport to hand. You keep something private.

Being an emigrant myself, having lived 17 years in Belgium, which is the longest I every lived in one place (I lived longer in Sweden but in three different places) I can understand the feeling of belonging somewhere. No matter where I live and I have lived thirty years outside Sweden, in wonderful countries and different cultures. But I will always be a Swede at heart!

A few worlds to sum up the idea of this wonderful book.

'Don't you think those netsuke should stay in Japan?' said a stern neighbour of mine in London. And I find I am shaking as I answer, because this matters.

I tell her that there are plenty of netsuke in the world, sitting in velvet-lined trays in dealers' cabinets off Bond Street or Madison Avenue, Keizersgracht or the Ginza. Then I get a bit side-tracked onto the Silk Road, and then onto Alexander the Great's coins still being in circulation in the Hindu Kush in the nineteenth century. I tell her about travelling with my partner Sue in Ethiopia, and fining an old Chinese jar covered in dust in a market town and trying to work out how it had got there.

No, I answer. Objects have always been carried, sold, bartered, stolen, retrieved and lost. People have always given gifts. It is how you tell their stories that matters.

So true, and this is a fantastic story that has to be read. It is very well written and following the story of the netsuke is as exciting as anything you can make up. But this is real. It is written in an honest, straight way and takes you from one exciting place and time to another. It covers the times from mid-19th century up until today and five generations of Ephrussis.

A must read!


  1. Lisbeth, you have a books blog! This makes me happy :) I really loved The Hare and it's still today one of the books I recommend most often. I read somewhere that de Waal is writing a book about the history of the colour white - looking forward to that!

  2. I did not know he is writing another book. Looking forward to anything he will be writing. I have already recommended this book to several people, and like you, I will probably continue to recommend it.