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Celebrating the Life

[Longhorn Review] The Hare with Amber Eyes

Material Type: All, Books — Posted on November 1, 2011, 1:40 pm

By: De Waal, Edmund

In 2011, there is a drumbeat of political discourse about immigration when, in
truth, the real topic we should be considering is the experience of emigration, the
act of running and hiding. While America is a nation of immigrants, we have spent
the last century and more living in a world of émigrés, a world of people in various
states of homelessness, statelessness, asylum seekers, refugees, boat people,
diasporans of one stripe or another. Global war and global economy have given us
mass movements and migrations, some under force of arms, some under crushing
economic necessity, but today, nearly everyone is or is recently descended from
émigrés.

There is no end of tales from these people under the sense of Hegel’s
‘Aufhebung’, peoples zeroed out in the name of creating new societies and new
worlds. We, I, who are their descendants, produce and consume these explorations of
the fragility and insubstantiality of time and history with wonder and sadness, but
we ourselves never see it coming. We hear the phrase ‘never again’, and we think we
understand that, but almost no one in America understood the first time, and almost
none of us have understood that ‘again and again’ would be a more appropriate
description of global forced emigration since the fall of the Hapsburg Empire in
1918.

Edmund De Waal has written a family saga around a collection of 264
netsuke – tiny carvings in ivory and wood from pre-modern Japan. De Waal’s
forebears, wealthy and powerful Jewish grain dealers from Odessa, Vienna and Paris,
thought that their European assimilation was complete, that their business ties and
social integration would protect them from the winds of history, and yet, when
everything changed, in a matter of weeks they found themselves with one suitcase and
an exit permit each, and they were the lucky ones.

De Waal is a ceramic
artist, and this tale, lovingly told through and around the artistic and literary
movements of the time, is tactile, intimate, personal, and almost mythological, like
the netsuke that are at the center of the family biography and which, as the
collective soul of the Ephrussi family, are all that is saved, and that under the
mattress of the maid with no last name. Are the Ephrussi’s more to be pitied because
they stood so close to the center of the society that so violently rejected them? Or
does this only serve as a warning to the rest of us that it is not only the
benighted who find themselves in the crosshairs of modern economic history? Satchel
Paige reportedly said ‘Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.’ This
little gem of a book is an achingly sad look back that reveals that something is
indeed gaining on all of us, and that maybe art can save us after all, if anything
can.

Reviewer: dennis trombatore

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