Thursday, October 10, 2013

Book Review: The Hare with Amber Eyes

The Hare with Amber Eyes
Edmund de Waal

The Family Netsuke

Netsuke are tiny works of art, smaller than a ping pong ball, intricate figures carved from ivory or boxwood before Japan entered the modern world in 1859. The author, a potter on an extended fellowship in Japan, was taught to love his Uncle Iggie’s family heirloom collection of 264 netsuke. He becomes fascinated by the family stories wound around them. The Ephrussis of Odessa, Vienna, Paris, London and Tokyo were no ordinary family.

This is a book with a family tree, but it is simpler than that sounds. De Waal writes the story of the netsuke and his forbearers who owned them, beginning with de Waal’s great, great uncle Charles, a grand Parisian gentleman connoisseur (friends with Degas, Manet, Renoir, Monet and Proust), who collected them during the Japonisme craze of the 1870s.

The author writes:

“I want to know what the relationship has been between this wooden object that I am rolling between my fingers – hard and tricky and Japanese – and where it has been. I want to be able to reach to the handle of the door and turn it and feel it open. I want to walk into each room where this object has lived, to feel the volume of the space, to know what pictures were on the wall, how the light fell from the windows. And I want to know whose hands it has been in, and what they felt about it and thought about it – if they thought about it. I want to know what it has witnessed.”

It, the netsuke, “witnessed” the ruin and murder of a glorious Jewish banking family in Europe’s virulent twentieth century anti-Semitism: the French anti-dreyfusards, the Gestapo and post-war Austrian indifference to Jewish loss. When de Waal’s grandmother was married and moved into her husband’s Viennese palace on the Ringstrasse, she remarked that it was like living in the grand hall of the opera. She ended her life a penniless refuge. Yet, the story of the netsuke continues and the true wealth of the family is revealed in the final journey.

The Hare with Amber Eyes is an account of the author’s quest to find the truth about his family’s past. Written in the first person as de Waal travels from Paris, to Vienna and the Czech Republic and Tokyo, we stand shyly, with the author, on sidewalks, staring at the Park Monceau mansion and the Ringstrasse palace, formally owned by the Ephrussis, family seats long since lost to other owners. With de Waals we are apprehensive on penetrating further into the past and the rooms once occupied by the netsuke to rediscover the inner lives of the netsuke owners. But as we do so, the writing shifts into the third person. De Waal, and the reader, find immersion in their stories.

Many readers report reading The Hare with Amber Eyes in one sitting. It is that engrossing.

Accompany de Waal on his grand, and intimate, quest.

Submitted by David Blake
Fiction Department
Central Library

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