Book Review: The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

The Hare with Amber Eyes is a biography of the author’s family, taking the opportunity to trace the history of a collection of netsuke that he has inherited from his uncle.  It is a fascinating story, moving from England to Paris, Vienna and Tokyo, with time also spent exploring family history in Russia, Slovakia and Ukraine.  If your European history is a little shaky, this will put two World Wars, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Impressionist Age of Paris into context for you.  If you like antiques, you will enjoy the background to the Japanese carvings and many other collectibles.

I was attracted to the book through the idea of tracing the history of a piece of family memorabilia.  I’ve been learning more about my own father’s activities in his youth through transcribing his memoirs, and I find the stories that our forebears have hidden from us, not necessarily deliberately, to shed more light on who I am and why I react to things the way I do.  It is the reason why we are fascinated by programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are? and My Father The War Hero.  So although this is an adult book, it will be suitable for teens with an interest in history or sociology or family.  The more so, I think, because history we get is usually about wars and politics – this shows the impact on the people living through those times.  In this case rich people, but also Jews that had aimed to be part of their country, not part of a clique.  It answered questions I had about the Holocaust since I was a teenager.  With apologies to my Jewish readers, I didn’t understand why people let themselves be rounded up.  I wondered what I would have done in such a situation. When I first saw Schindler’s List I recognised the girl, the architect, who was shot for telling the camp commandant things were being done wrong (correctly) as the sort of fate I might have suffered at that age.  Now, with the insight from this book, I know I might have been lucky to have left everything in time, but it is equally likely that I have now reached the point where I would have clung on in hope.

But this is the third quarter of the story.  We start in light and hope in Paris, with a newly Parisianised Ephrussi family, eager to be part of the social whirl.  The Japanese netsuke are collected along with other items in their patronage of the arts.  They sponsor painters like Monet and Renoir.  The artist paints them into the picture (the Bathing Party) in gratitude.  I always wondered why the gentleman all wrapped up in his overcoat and top-hat was there, looking so out of place!  It is Charles Ephrussi – immortalised in oils.  The scene shifts to Vienna when the netsuke collection is given to Viktor and Emmy as a wedding present.  The netsuke become private playthings (well-supervised) rather than publicly admired artworks.  The fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the effect on the inhabitants of Vienna, the growing hatred of Jews, especially rich ones, and the rise of Hitler are all documented, as the netsuke sit safely in their large house off the Ringstrasse.  Suddenly it is no longer safe: Hitler annexes Austria, the Jews are stripped of their assets, and nothing is said of the netsuke among the cataloguing of the paintings, the silver, the bone china, the furniture, the library.  Viktor and Emmy are extricated from the city and Viktor, now widowed, reaches safety in England.

The author knows the netsuke are not lost.  Through all of the sadness and horror of the wars it is the discovery of just how they escaped that brings tears to my eyes.  The kindness of a servant.  I don’t know why this should affect me more than the horrors inflicted on people.  I think because someone shows kindess and care through all of the disturbances, and that kindness results in a tangible link through a family history that Edmund de Waal so engagingly invites us to share.

The section on the transfer to post-war (occupied) Japan is equally fascinating – and eye-opening.  It is easy in these times of recession to blame everyone for our ills, and complain we should turn the clock back.  But where to?  This book raises some complicated issues for those willing to think about them.  But I think I would bore my readers if I continued to talk about them.  It has stirred in me an interest in netsuke, though.  I’ve only seen them on antiques programmes on television, but they sound like uniquely touchable, handleable, and engrossing pieces of folk art.

Buy this book. I’m keeping mine.

Edward de Waal: The Hare with Amber Eyes – A Hidden Inheritance

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