An Ermine In Czernopol by Gregor Von Rezzori (www.nyrb.com)
I’m starting this review with a warning that anyone who gets offended easily by racist language and in particular anti semitic language should avoid this book at all costs as you will be regularly offended by it.
Well when I bought this book I had no idea the authors most famous work was the Memoirs of an Anti Semite which would have been enough to stop me reading this book. I’m glad I didn’t know, as otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to shock as much as this book did shock me in places.
The book sort of tells the story of the fall of the Austro Hungarian empire in Czernopol or Czernowitz that was in that empire and has since been in Romania, The soviet union and nowadays is in the Ukraine through the eyes of a child in the 1920’s-30’s who has a seemingly bizarre and privileged upbringing.
The child narrates the story in flashback from adulthood and intrduces us to a cast of people who popluated the town form prostitutes to drunks and drug addicts to old hussars and Jewish business people and all sorts of others and what happens between them.
He doesn’t however ever manage to go more than a few pages without a tirade of anti semitic language and stereotyping that would have been normal back then but is repellant to read now and the fact that Gregor Von rezzori managed to survive world war two working as a radio presenter in Berlin suggests he was quite comfortable with that milieu.
But then most of the best caracters in the book are of course the Jews almost all of whom you’d want to have as friends or to be around especially Solly Brill who speaks in a fabulous mix of Yiddish and everything else and he sounds like many of my elder relatives did when I was a kid, I understood all the yiddish he used apart from one word Shmontses that I had to look up in my dads old Yiddish english dictionary to confirm it was a type of nonsense.
Oh and how do you accidentally enrol your kids in a jewish school without realising it, just one of the many things that happen in the book to make me scratch my head.
Still this is very well written if not a very linear tale it is engrossing and the surprising twists that include some very violent football fans are often the last thing I was expecting to happen. By the end of the book nothing was certain as to how it would end and new caracters were still arriving at the end. A book well worth reading if you have a strong stomach and best avoided if you don’t.