sometimes witty book reviews
The Second World War wrought almost immeasurable destruction upon humanity. The Ephrussi family of Vienna, Odessa, Paris, Milan and London were torn apart when the war forced arbitrary lines of conflict across their filial ties. A grand and eminent family was toppled piece by piece; this destruction perhaps was most keenly felt in the Ephrussi household of Vienna. Every piece of furniture, family portrait and trinket was counted, recorded, valued and sent off to the nation’s museums. The owners were sent into exile or to death camps.
But something survived – smuggled from vitrine to apron pocket to horsehair-mattress. 264 Japanese netsuke were slipped from beneath the very finger tips of the Nazis. Anna (simply ‘Anna’ – Edmund de Waal couldn’t find out anything more) saved these, the children’s favourite trinkets. The Hare with the Amber Eyes (2010) is a great-great-grand-nephew’s journey to discover where his inherited netsuke came from, who bought them, how they get to Vienna and why Uncle Iggy took them back to Japan.
Netsuke are very small ivory, bone or precious wood sculptures originating from Japan. They were most popular in West during the Japonisme obsession of late 19th century Paris. They now, after many decades, have become valuable once again. They depict the every day, the mundane and the extraordinary in artworks that just fill the palm of a child’s hand; a brindle fox, a woman in a bath tub, a monk praying, a rat catcher – a hare with amber eyes.
This beautiful book is part biography, part auto-biography. The narrative is as much the netsukes’ as de Waal’s. Though at times the sheer wealth and eminence of the Ephrussi family is awkwardly stuffed into short, unsatisfying passages, the overall flow of the story is compelling. Humourous and succinct, de Waal manages to sadden and gladden with every turn of his family’s, and the netsukes‘, twisting, turning history.
Highlights include: Parsian boudoirs, tentacles, swim suit designers, nuclear bombs and escaping the Nazis.