Book review: 1947: When Now Begins

Daniel Snowman travels back 70 years and it's time well-spent


Many works focus on the events and significance of a particular year: Ian Buruma on 1945 and Victor Sebestyen on 1946, or the alarming futurism of George Orwell’s 1984 and Boualem Sansal’s 2084. But the Swedish author Elisabeth Åsbrink has produced something altogether different: a close-up portrait of a year, structured month-by-month, each chapter composed of an apparently random collection of vignettes.

Like an image created from a thousand juxtaposed pixels, Åsbrink builds a cumulative picture of 1947 through short reports on, for example, Simone de Beauvoir visiting the United States and falling for fellow author Nelson Algren; “Dickie” Mountbatten cheerfully setting off to India to wind up the Empire; the SS President Warfield being renamed Exodus; Raphael Lemkin pressing for official recognition of the term “genocide”.

We read of the Arab League and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, of the Irgun and the Stern Gang. And we meet the Swedish neo-Nazi, Per Engdahl, who teams up with the likes of Oswald Mosley and Goebbels’s right-hand man Johann von Leers. This was the year that saw the creation of the CIA, the Soviet Cominform and Christian Dior’s “New Look”.

Åsbrink makes no claim to being comprehensive, nor does she identify the precise source of all her anecdotes or include an index. Less a work of history, her book is more like an ingeniously constructed novel.

Certain themes recur, notably clocks and watches, the ticking of time. Hasan-al-Banna, son of an Egyptian clock-maker, relishes the sense of control as he takes a clock to pieces and reassembles it; later, he founds the Muslim Brotherhood.

Grace Hopper opens and investigates all the clocks in her childhood home, her obsession with mathematical calculation leading her to develop a new computer language.

Mikhail, a young Soviet sergeant, invents a system enabling the Red Army to calculate the number of shots fired by a weapon and is given a reward: a watch. Later, Mikhail Kalashnikov invents an all-purpose, widely adopted automatic gun. On the Scottish island of Jura, Åsbrink tells us, the clock strikes 13.

Eric Arthur Blair is struggling to write a new book. It will be known as 1984 and its author as George Orwell.

In Ansbach, we meet a Jewish boy called Joszéf who, having survived the Holocaust, is faced with the option of returning to his native Hungary or migrating with other young Jews to Palestine.

In a key chapter, inserted between “June” and “July”, Åsbrink focuses on Joszéf’s story, his parents, his father’s death in the Holocaust, the survival of his mother, Lilly, and the lad deciding in 1947 to return to Budapest.

Joszéf is Åsbrink’s father, Lilly her grandmother. “Maybe it isn’t the year I want to assemble,” reflects Åsbrink looking back over her work. “What I am assembling is myself.”


Daniel Snowman’s books include a study of the cultural impact of the Hitler Émigrés

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