The hare with amber eyes by Edmund de Waal

This book speaks of precious things in a precious way. It charts the history of ownership by members of the same family of a set of netsuke, across three generations and three cities. Netsuke are smalll, intricately carved, highly decorative yet utilitarian objects made of a variety of materials such as wood or stone, originally an accessory to clothing, a kind of toggle on cords tying kimonos as I understand it. The family members are:

Charles Ephrussi, born in Odessa in 1849, established in Paris as a teenager, was an art lover who was rich enough to become an art collector, inspiring Marcel Proust to create the character of Swann. He was lucky enough to live in a period when Japanese art, including the netsuke he acquired, was all the vogue and the Impressionists took the art world by storm. He was also unlucky enough to suffer the full force of antisemitism during the Dreyfus affair.

Viktor and Emmy von Ephrussi, his brother and sister-in-law, to whom Charles presented the netsuke as a wedding gift, were established in Vienna. Viktor was a somewhat reluctant banker and a far more passionate book collector. This branch of the family was also fabulously rich, living in the huge Palais Ephrussi, in which Emmy found the perfect location to display the netsuke in a cabinet, crying out to be opened by her three children. They loved to make the small, ornate objects that portrayed everyday objects, animals and people come to life in their games. The family escaped the holocaust, but became stateless and lost all their possessions. All except for the netsukes, which a former maid hid under a mattress when the Nazis plundered the Palais Ephrussi, remembering that they were a favourite plaything in happier times.

Ignacio van Ephrussi was one of those three children. After the war, and after having lived in the US, he moved to Japan, where he lived for the rest of his life. Thus did the netsuke travel back to the place where they were made. It is also in Japan that the author of the book, Edmund de Waal, Ignacio’s great nephew, learnt that he would be the next custodian of the netsukes, after the passing of Igancio’s partner.

Edmund de Waal has an entrancing way of describing the netsukes (and many other pieces of art) and the fascination they inspire. He also does a fantastic job of meshing descriptions of things with descriptions of people. With the hindsight of history, we know that a Jewish family from Odessa established in the 19th Century in Paris, Vienna and elsewhere in Europe is going to experience the horrors of one of the bloodiest conflicts in humanity. And de Waal manages to record the momentous events in a quasi biographical style, almost dispassionately, whilst communicating to us his love for his ancestors, and for their legacy to him.

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