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Words that flow like wine

New translation of a European classic demonstrates the power of great writing to reflect a cultural melange

An Ermine in Czernopol/ By Gregor von Rezzori/ New York Review Books, £9.99

    Czernowitz: starting point for a production-line of great novelists and poets
    Czernowitz: starting point for a production-line of great novelists and poets

    When it comes to writers, Czernowitz — first Austro-Hungarian, then Romanian, now Ukrainian — surely merits its own Appellation d’origine contrôlée. There must be something in its terroir that causes (or caused) it to produce so many great novelists and poets: Aharon Appelfeld, Norman Manea, Dan Pagis, Paul Celan; not to mention Gregor von Rezzori.

    Among these, the late von Rezzori is the only non-Jew. Moreover, his most famous book is entitled Memoirs of an Anti-Semite. When it was first published, many years ago, I interviewed him for this newspaper. An irate reader, mistaking fiction for confession, ended a tirade with the words: “May you both roast in hell”. In fact, von Rezzori was probably less deserving of the curse than me, as this wonderful novel bears witness.

    An Ermine in Czernopol (first published in 1966, but newly and gracefully translated by Philip Boehm) is a fictionalised portrait of Czernowitz, as it appeared to its narrator (unnamed but presumably von Rezzori himself) between the two world wars. It demonstrates how great writing can emerge from a mishmash of nationalities, religions, cultures, political philosophies and sexual habits.

    The narrator saturates the pages with memories of his parents; his aunts; his sister Tanya (doomed to die at 20); the worldly Romanian governor; the brigand who made a fortune and built a replica of the Taj Mahal to house his dead wives; his two daughters, one a drug addict, the other a nymphomaniac; of Major Tildy, who married the first. Tildy is so dedicated to the redundant mores of the Austro-Hungarian empire that he challenges to a duel all who call into question the chastity of his sister-in-law.

    And then there are the Jews. The narrator’s parents send him to a progressive school unaware that many of its pupils and staff, including the headmistress, are Jewish. Enlightenment comes when an aunt interrupts her nephew reciting the Shema. Discovery brings a long period of harmony to a close. But the book’s trajectory only alters irreversibly when another aunt — for no reason —slaps Tanya around the face.

    The scene is devastating. “We sensed that something critical had transpired,” writes von Rezzori, “that this blow to the face had shattered something holy, something sacrosanct — a fragile mask of inviolate dignity.”
    Thereafter, swastikas begin to appear on the shutters of Jewish shops. The fault lines become particularly manifest on football pitches, each team being a representation of a particular ethnicity. “D’you hear about the game on shabbes afternoon?” asks one of the narrator’s Jewish classmates. “Makkabi over Jahn? Did they take a caning or what? Seven to three — a nice embarrassment for the swastiklers.”

    By the following Sunday, when Makkabi are due to play the Romanian poster-boys, Mircea Dobos, the locals turn up armed. Midway through the second-half, with the scores level, a pogrom commences. By the end of the day, 40 are dead. Violence disguised as historical necessity runs on iron tracks, like the runaway tram that takes the life of Major Tildy, the last of the dual monarchy’s knights.

    The concluding chapter is called Love and Death of the Ermine. That, and a lot else, put me in mind of another monumental act of familial remembrance: Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness.

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