Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Tom's Two Cents : The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

Once in a great while there comes along a book that brings together a sum of my special interests, and  "The Hare with Amber Eyes" is certainly one of them.  Told in the first person by one of its descendants, the book is the personal story of one of the great Russian-Jewish families of the 19th century, the Ephrussi's, beginning in Odessa, Russia, in the mid-19th century,  continuing in Vienna and Paris, and later spreading to England, North America, and Japan after WW II.  The author, a British porcelain ceramicist named Edmund de Waal, writes near the end of his book that he no longer knows if it's about "my family, or memory, or myself...or still a book about small Japanese things."  Well, it's certainly about all of these,  beginning with those "small Japanese things," called "netsuke."

Netsuke are very small, often intricately carved boxwood or ivory Japanese sculptures of humans, animals, reptiles, etc., often done in a whimsical or unusual manner or style.  They are so tiny that they can usually be held in the palm of one's hand or carried in a pocket.  In the latter part of the 19th century in Paris along with the wider discovery of Japanese art in general, they became all the rage for wealthy collectors; among those was  Charles Ephrussi, the third son of Leon Ephrussi, who along with his brother Ignace, had established great banking establishments, Leon in Paris and Ignace in Vienna.  These two men descended from Charles Joachim Ephrussi, founder of the family fortune, in the Russian city of Odessa, based on of all things the export of grain from Ukraine, then the breadbasket of Europe.  The next time you hold a piece of bread in your hands, think of the Ephrussi's and the enormous fortune they amassed from sheaves of wheat--yes, they were right up there with the Rothchilds!

But back to the Netsuke.  In one way this is its story, how it became a great collection of objets d 'art, how it was passed from one family member to another, how it miraculously survived in Vienna from the Nazi invasions and destruction of Jewish families in 1938-39, and how, ironically, it end up back in Japan, the country of its origin, again in the hands of a Ephrussi descendant.  If all this sound too complicated, it isn't-- it's written with the utmost style and clarity by a man who isn't even a writer by profession.  And it reads like a mystery!  What happened to the netsuke after the Ephrussi's were forced to leave them behind when they fled their palatial home in Vienna?  You would never guess in a million years who saved them and how!

As I hope I've suggested, this book is much more than a story about an art collection or the family who owned it.  It is ultimately a social and cultural history of late 19th century Paris and Vienna and the horrific 20th century wars that nearly destroyed the latter and the Jewish culture that partly produced it.  It is also, interestingly, the story of Tokyo during and post WWII, it's destruction and re-birth.  Above everything else, it is about a man who honored his family and came to know them through diligent and prodigious research in his own time.

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