The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal is a book of which I have heard but never read. In November I am going Vienna to do The Third Man film tour so I decided to prep up and finally read it. I was not too sure if it was a work of fiction or fact or why it was esteemed so much prior to my reading.
The central theme of it are the netsuke: tiny beautifully crafted Japannes figures which have remained in the family of De Waal and he traces their journey from Japan to Paris, from Paris to Vienna , from Vienna to Tokyo and finally in the south London home of De Waal. This allows him to chart the rise and fall of his forebears the Ephrussi family who possessed the objets d’art over several generations.
The Ephrussi were originally Jewish grain merchants in Odessa and amassed an enormous fortune. They were as rich as the Rothschilds. Charles Ephrussi lived in Paris in the latter part of the 19th century was an enthusiastic collected principally of art. He knew the impressionists well. He first acquired the netsuke. Subsequently he gave them as a wedding gift to Emmy on her marriage to Viktoe Ephrussi . They were the great grandparents of Edmund de Waal and lived in the Palace Ephrussi in Vienna.
The Viennese Ephrussi now had a bank, properties and a formidable collection of art and furniture. The most shocking part of the novel is they were stripped of ownership of the bank, all their possessions and effectively rendered vagrants as they could not even sit on a park bench within 6 weeks of the Anschluss in 1938. A brave and loyal maid managed to secret the netsuke under her mattress during the war. Eventually Uncle Iggie who lived in Japan took them with him to Tokyo. It was equally shocking that the Austrian government did not make any restitution or reparation as they said they were an occupied country even though kristallnacht when austrian synagogues and shops were destroyed was amongst the worst atrocities perpetrated on the Jews.
Alll this de Waal recounts with a easy readable touch. When he wrote I bet many a publisher thought which reader wants to read about Japanese figurines or yet another sad story about the travails of a family in the holocaust. I do but many others obviously do too. Apart from the netsuke, you learn about three cities: Paris, Vienna, Tokyo, art, history, the true horror of the Nazis and the willingness of so many Austrians to go along with it and the rejuvenation of Japan after Tokyo was bombed to smithereens. De Waal is a researcher and observer and rarely expresses any emotion subjectively which makes the family story he recounts all the more moving and impressive.