Book review: The Hare with Amber Eyes

It took me four days to read ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’ by Edmund de Waal. When I am enjoying a good book and am eager to know what happens next it is not unusual for me to put the rest of my life on hold in order to read it straight through. A book can do that to me; swallow me up whole to the exclusion of all else. I get tetchy with my family expecting me to pause to produce food, drive them somewhere or simply go to bed. I immerse myself in an alternative world and do not wish to leave. Reaching the last page can result in me feeling both satisfied at finishing and bereft that I must move on.

‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’ was fabulous but could not be read in a sitting. When eating a good meal, no matter how delicious, innovative and satisfying the dish, there comes a point of fullness where we have to stop consumption or spoil the pleasure. This book was like that. I didn’t want to put it down but needed to pause to digest what I had already taken in. I did not wish to risk missing out on any point of detail woven into the rich and complex tapestry of the tale.

The book is a biography that covers a family history over nearly two centuries, but is so much more than that. The central theme is based around an unusually large collection of netsuke: small, intricate, Japanese carvings. Their purchase and subsequent history allows the author to delve into the lives, aspirations and impetus behind key family members choices and actions. It covers births, marriages and deaths but these are marks along the way, not key to the story. The emphasis is on understanding the society in which the characters moved, along with the times in which they lived. It is a fascinating, historical account, very personal but never over sentimentalised, of colourful individuals living through times that are already well known through dry study in school.

The family are wealthy Jews. They left Berdichev in Poland to make their fortune buying and selling grain in Odessa, Russia. From there they  move to Vienna where a bank is founded. This expands to Paris with brothers running the business from the capitals at the heart of Europe whilst building, maintaining and travelling between immense, family properties in France, Switzerland, Austria and Czechoslovakia.

Their wealth enabled them to become patrons of artists, musicians and writers as well as to amass impressive collections of sculpture, furniture, books and pictures of great artistic value. The tale includes meetings at salons and trips to the opera with many of the well known names of the time: Proust, Renoir, Monet and Manet to name but a few. And woven amongst all the tales of patronage, fashion and philanthropy is the anti semitism that bubbles in the background, spilling over from time to time in the media or largely unacknowledged social segregation, even or perhaps especially at the heart of the elite.

Since my recent trip to Berlin I have been trying to understand why the Jews have been persecuted for so many centuries. I have yet to work out a reason that provides a concrete explanation. One of the intriguing aspects of this book is the way the wealth of the bankers was seen as wicked. The parallels with the attempted demonisation of some of today’s global businessmen are obvious.

The children of the wealthy, European, Jewish families in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were raised to speak multiple languages interchangeably. They moved between family homes in many countries and could easily converse in French, German and English from a young age. These are the type of citizens that today’s EU seems to want to create, unconcerned about borders or nationality, except these people have been drawn together by a wealth that the powerful either fawn over or decry.

The book progressed, as I knew it must, to the boiling over of nationalism and jealousy to the severe detriment of those who had been blamed for so long for each country’s ills. The wars are declared, the family suffers hardship and loss. Although this is vividly covered it is neither dwelt on nor glorified. It happens, and then the tale continues on to the present day.

One of the strengths of the book is that it does not try to retell a story that has been told so many times before. It does not try to explain the aspects that are well known already, but rather mentions them in passing and marks how they affected the individual members of the family. Much as marriages are mentioned without dwelling on the detail of romantic courtships, so the Nazi occupation of Vienna is described without judgement. Facts are laid out, repercussions described; it is left to the reader to decide how they should react and feel.

This turbulent period of history; of loss and destruction; of assimilation, persecution and banishment; is told through the lives of a family who are far from ordinary but who, day to day, get on and do their thing as we all do. They have their ambitions and desires which they work towards. It is a very personal tale, told beautifully through art, without falling into excessive nostalgia. It is a tale of creation, damage and survival.

The message I have taken away from the book is one of a need for more acceptance. In the end I did not mourn the loss of the great wealth, but rather the lack of empathy from those who saw the Jews as evil because of their success. I still cannot understand why this happened, and not for the first time in the race’s history. Pulling down those who have does not build up those who have not.

‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’ is a powerful book, not least because it tells a true tale. It is written and reads as a story, providing fascinating background and understanding that the philistine in me lapped up. Ultimately though it leaves me feeling a despair for mankind. We did that, and although it may not be the Jews who next bear the brunt of the blame, we are moving towards doing it again. However much we learn, it seems that we do not learn enough from history.