The Hare with Amber Eyes

15 Jun

It was last fall that a friend recommended I read Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes. How right he was! I didn’t get around to buying it until March, but from the moment I started reading it I only put it down for the most urgent of professional obligations and bodily requirements. It isn’t precisely a book about Vienna, but there is a lot about Vienna in it nonetheless. And it is riveting.

Most of all it is the story of a family and of the author’s search for his family history, set off when he inherited a collection of small Japanese figurines called netsuke. This search takes the author–a world-renowned ceramic artist who, unfairly, also writes exquisitely–from his home in England to Japan, where he gets to know one of his great-uncles better, to Paris of the late 19th century, to Vienna, and finally to the starting point of the family saga, Odessa. In the course of the book one realizes that de Waal knows how to do original research and that he was probably doing his research in the original languages–Japanese, French, and German–at least until he got to Odessa, where he mentions hiring a translator. This gives the book an immediacy and a weight rarely achieved in people’s explorations of their own family histories.

The whole book is wonderful but living in Vienna as I do the long section on the branch of the family in Vienna was most alive for me. The cafés, schools, and streets mentioned, the Opera, the Palais Ephrussi at Schottentor, the pace of life, the food, the people described … they are all familiar to me, even though de Waal is writing about the first half of the 20th century. It was a tour through the city I love, offering me new perspectives for better or worse.

In the preface de Waal plainly states that he doesn’t want to write “… some elegiac Mitteleuropa narrative of loss” and he doesn’t. When the family’s life in Vienna ends abruptly with the Anschluss in 1938, however, and he portrays Viennese anti-Semitism in the details of its viciousness it moves me more than all the accounts I have ever read about Hitler’s march into Vienna and the waves of violence and pillaging it unleashed against Jewish families. It made me accept what I never could before–that many Viennese, in fact probably the majority, welcomed Hitler and Nazism not just because Austria was in such political chaos that they were relieved to have “a strong leader” (a point de Waal, in a striking spirit of fairness, mentions) but because Hitler spoke a message of hatred and envy toward the Jews that resonated so thoroughly with so many of them.

But it is doing injustice to the book to focus too much on that one point  and to turn the story, against the author’s explicit will, into a narrative of loss. A quick re-visit of its pages reminds me of how he brings everything–the various backdrops to the story, the people, who in spite of follies are never censured, and above all the netsuke themselves–alive through his descriptions that are carefully detailed but never too heavy. The netsuke could just have been a clever jumping off point to his family story but they remain, in fact, the focus and thread throughout, giving insight into the people who touched them, representing the very essence of craftmanship, and providing joy to the reader as they must in real life.

A journey for which de Waal allowed himself one year ended up taking closer to two years, and we are the beneficiaries. I recommend the book now, in my turn, most highly.


One Response to “The Hare with Amber Eyes”


  1. Visitors | ecbinvienna - May 14, 2015

    […] out Palais Ephrussi because of our mutual Japanese connection, and because I’m pretty sure “The Hare with Amber Eyes” is a book this friend would […]

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