Beautifully evocative and elegiac, a history of a family. You know it will not end well, as this family is Jewish and the history begins a few generations before WW II, but de Waal is determined to bring the family to life through his descriptions of their homes, their idiosyncrasies, and above all their passion for art.
De Waal traveled to all the places this family had lived, and did his best to walk in the spaces they walked, look out the windows they did, and endeavor to imagine their lives. It builds slowly as he paints in the family’s background, and how Charles Ephrussi collected the netsuke that bind the entire narrative together, but as he moves toward 1900 there are more records, and the individuals take on shape and color and personality.
This is also the story, in a microcosm, of how Jews gained the right to do business and even own land in the latter 1800s, some (like the Ephrussi) becoming quite wealthy. The Ephrussi patriarchy had enough clout to call a halt to the latest Russian pogrom by threatening to effect the price of grain. So the pogrom was halted, but the fallout was an increase of antisemitic resentment.
But this is not just another Holocaust tale, harrowing as that might be. It is also a thoughtful, painterly, sometimes elegiac examination of how human beings relate to things, especially art things. Like the netsuke.
That sets up the scene for the painfully vivid account of Austria’s fall to the Nazis, and the horrors of having your house invaded, first by angry young men with their new swastika armbands who bully their way in just to smash things and take what they want. But when the Gestapo comes, the real horror sets in, as they deliberately, with a semblance of legal exactitude, proceed to catalog everything they are stealing from this family.
Such evocative writing and small discovered detail make this a story we want to follow with him and we find that this is not, after all, a tale of acquisition but of loss. The 264 tiny Japanese carvings (netsuke) bought in the 1870s in Paris are all that now remain of the family possessions. We also come to understand another loss: the Ephrussis no longer felt defined by their Jewish origins: artists and socialites passed through their grand salons. It is shocking to discover that even those who enjoyed their patronage were casually anti-Semitic. It is hard to read the vivid account of the abrupt violence of the Nazis as they took (almost) every precious possession from them, leaving them, in the end, only their Jewishness.
If you love history and art—and the melding of the two—that I think you will find it impossible not to be taken with Edmund de Waal’s “The Hare with Amber Eyes.” This may be a non-fiction book, but I had to remind myself of that at times. I got completely caught up in the Ephussi family history and at times turned the pages as if I were reading a thriller, wanting to make sure that the family would be alright. The reason the book scored 4.5 stars is that at some points the descriptions of art work went a bit too deep for me, who has no real knowledge of or interest in art history. Other than that I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good story and is interested in history. This is a fascinating read!