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The Hare with Amber Eyes

by Edmund de Waal

When Edmund de Waal inherited a collection of finely carved netsuke (toggles used in Japanese male dress) from his beloved great-uncle Iggie it propelled him on a journey of discovery that tracks the ascent and decline of the Ephrussi family, his Jewish ancestors.

The story begins in Paris with Charles Ephrussi, cousin of Edmund’s great-great grandfather and part of the great grain exporting dynasty that stretched from Odessa to Paris to Vienna and who in de Waal’s words were “staggeringly rich”. Charles was a collector who, like many of his wealthy contemporaries, was captivated by the new obsession for all things Japanese. ( Any art or design history graduate will be well aware of the huge importance and influence of the opening up of Japan and its effect on not only collectors but producers of art – particularly in fin de siècle Paris.) And it was this (literally) mania that compelled Charles to amass these fascinating objects culminating in a collection of around 264, kept immaculate in a glass vitrine.

The collection then finds its way to Vienna given to Charles nephew Viktor as a wedding gift. Did Charles tire of them? We don’t know but they are now in the hands of a direct descendant of de Waal – his maternal great-grandfather. This branch of the family clearly were at a loss as to what to do with these strange objects and so they were discarded to the dressing room of Viktor’s much younger wife Emmy, where her children (including de Waal’s grandmother Elizabeth) would play with them while she chose her jewellery. (I love the idea of the children getting these fabulously tactile objects out and making up games with them).

Then, in March 1938, the house is ransacked. Men wearing swastika armbands break in, smash things up, steal others and banish the family to two rooms of the house. Then the Gestapo arrive and surviving objects are meticulously catalogued and disappear from the family forever. Soon the Ephrussi Palace is occupied by the Amt Rosenberg, which oversees the ideological education of the National Socialist Party.

This branch of the family escapes and survives and we know the netsuke do too and by a strange twist of fate end up back in their homeland of Japan. But to tell you how is to give too much away as the answer is truly astonishing.

Edmund de Waal takes us on an incredible, compelling journey through his family’s and Europe’s history, but, as he says in his introduction: “I really don’t want to get into the sepia saga business, writing up some elegiac Mitteleuropa narrative of loss.” And I for one am thankful for this as this is an unsentimental but heart-breaking story of a family dynasty and a Europe that is unrecognisable to us now. Maybe it’s de Waal’s profession as a potter that makes him fully understand the transient nature of people, places and things. This is a memoir that deserves every accolade that it has had heaped upon it, including, most recently, The Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize 2011.

Irene Haynes

Published by Vintage - 354pp

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