Reviewed by Linda Hepworth
Successful author Yoel Blum had always known that he was born in Amsterdam during the German occupation of Holland, just as he had known that his mother Sonia, having lost her husband, Eddy, and all her relatives to the regime, had escaped the Nazis and emigrated to Israel with him and his elder sister, Nettie. So, he accepted, and respected, her injunction that he should “never set foot in Amsterdam” and, following the translations into Dutch of his first two novels, had refused his publisher’s requests to do any promotional visits to the city. When a third novel was due to be published in Holland his refusal was automatic, until his agent urged him to reconsider and his wife, Bat-Ami, reminded him that his mother was now dead.
They make the trip together but he is left feeling deeply shaken following a visit to the Jewish Historical Museum where, in a short scene from the film of a wedding, they see a brief glimpse of a man holding a little girl in his arms, and a woman with a baby boy in hers … the woman was his mother but the baby was not him. An immediate phone call to his elder sister Nettie, confirms the stark truth of this and, following his return home to Israel and her subsequent explanation of how she had been sworn to secrecy by their mother, he feels that his world has been turned upside down. He immediately knows that he must return to discover the truth behind the mystery, a mystery which undermines all that he has ever believed about his origins. He knows that this is a journey he must face on his own and, just days later flies back to Amsterdam. He takes a supply of “forty-page, single-lined notebooks” to record all that he discovers as he delves into his family’s experiences during the war years, information which will not only help him to understand what happened during the years of Nazi occupation of the city, but will enable him to write the “novel of his life”.
During an extended return visit to the museum he not only re-watches the wedding movie, which is being shown on an endless loop, but also watches filmed interviews with survivors, a film about a train from Amsterdam carrying Jewish families to a concentration camp and various displays of related and poignant artefacts. When he finally leaves the museum, it is almost dark and he finds himself feeling very anxious and fearful, almost paranoid in his belief that people are observing him as, feeling inexplicably incapable of taking the tram, he hurries back on foot through the streets to his hotel. The route he takes is tortuous and for a time he is lost and feels increasingly panic-stricken, refusing to cross streets unless he can hide himself within groups of other pedestrians … “he refuses to believe that this frightened Yid is him but he can’t stop looking sideways and backward …” The following day he remains very shaken by this experience but is determined to look for some sort of rational explanation. He has no belief in mysticism but he knows that if Bat-Ami was with him she would say that he’d been accompanied by the ghosts of the tormented souls who still inhabit those spaces, whose pleas for rescue went unheard and whose grief, suffering and terror remain to haunt the streets.
Taking a room in a cheap hotel near the old Jewish Quarter of the city he begins his quest for answers. The room has a balcony, something which allows him to look out over the city, as well as through the window of a neighbouring house, allowing his imagination to conjure up evocative images of the past. Exploring archives, museums and synagogues and walking the streets, he immerses himself in the city, visualising the past laid out in front of him as he visits all the places his family and their friends would have been familiar with. As he does so his perceptions begin to change as he reflects on how the past exerts an ongoing influence on the present and, when he studies the painting of Van Gogh’s painting himself painting himself, he realises that “in his new novel he wants to be able to portray himself writing himself …”
Without going into the sort of detail which would risk introducing spoilers, I fear it’s going to be difficult for me to convey just how powerful and affecting this multi-faceted story is. In effect it’s a novel within a novel within a novel, a story which is populated with a cast of richly-drawn, memorable characters. Although the storytelling follows two timelines, this is not done in a linear, chapter-by-chapter format, instead past and present are constantly intertwined, sometimes even within the same paragraph, as the reader accompanies Yoel on his journey of discovery. Any early fears I had that this would prove to be disruptive were soon overcome as I quickly became engrossed, almost enveloped, by what turned out to be a very effective and evocative way of adding complex layers of depth to the gradually unfolding story. I think that not many authors would have the skill to pull off this complexity in a way which feels as seamless and unhurried as Emuna Elon managed to achieve. Her lyrical use of language was a constant throughout the book but there were many moments when I found the spare, haunting and insightful quality of it almost breath-taking, to the extent that I quite frequently needed to stop reading, to reflect on what I’d just read before I could carry on. (Originally written in Hebrew, this is a translation of the author’s writing. However, as there was never a moment when I felt any hint of the awkward syntax which can often find its way into translated works, I assume that it is an authentic reflection of the original, so my praise must be extended to the two translators, Anthony Berris and Linda Yechiel for doing such an admirable job.)
The history of the fate of Jews living in the Netherlands during the German occupation, particularly in Amsterdam, is explored through Yoel’s search for the truth. Being faced with evidence of so much devastating loss (three quarters of Dutch Jews were killed) and, on a directly personal level, the exposure of so many family secrets and lies, he struggles to come to terms with what he discovers before learning to forgive (himself and others) and to reconcile past and present. Early in the story he reflects that he “has always had to tell stories. In childhood he made up ones about members of his real and his imagined relatives but whenever his school friends uncovered the truth, calling him a liar, he was upset because he hadn’t meant to lie, he simply didn’t know, or perhaps didn’t want to know, how to separate the life in his imagination from reality, which to him was imaginary as well.” The emotional transformation he experiences as a result of his time in Amsterdam enables him to separate the two, to reassess all his relationships and to finally find the words to express his love for the people who are important to him.
Although I knew something of the history of this period in Dutch history, there were many new things I discovered, a major one being about the two-thousand-five-hundred Jewish children, most of whom were living in Amsterdam, who were hidden by Christian families. However, not all were reunited with their birth family after the war because:
“According to Dutch law, only those with a surviving parent were eventually returned, while according to reality only those whose surviving parent managed to find where they had been hidden were returned. Many children therefore remained with the families that had hidden them. Many of the hidden children were completely unaware that they were not the biological offspring of the people who raised them. Many are unaware of it to this day.”
That a wonderfully humane gesture would have such unintended consequences for so many felt shocking when I first read it, and is something which continues to haunt me. I think that part of the reason for this powerful emotional impact is a reflection of the way in which the author’s evocative prose enables an empathetic identification with, rather than just a cerebral response to, the horrors which were experienced during this dark period of European history.
The many themes which explore identity, the extent to which the past shapes not only our present but also our future, and the recognition that acceptance of their inextricability is essential to our psychological wellbeing, make this an ideal choice for book groups … even the very title of the book, which encapsulates the metaphorical links with flowing water and reflections which run through the storytelling, is likely to provoke much discussion.
This is a very special, beautifully written and haunting novel which I unreservedly urge you to read.
With my thanks to NB and LibraryThing for giving me a copy in exchange for an honest review.
Personal read: *****
Group read: *****
Allen & Unwin (5th March 2020)
ISBN: 978-1-91163-057-9 Hardback