From Japan to Paris, through Vienna and back to Japan. In his memoir entitled The Hare with Amber Eyes Edmund de Waal recounts the fascinating family saga that surrounded 264 netsuke, traditional Japanese figurines that were given to his great grandfather on his wedding day…
When Edmund de Waal’s great uncle Iggie dies in Japan, Edmund inherits a fascinating collection of intricately-carved wood and ivory netsuke, figurines that used to be worn by Japanese samurai on their belts in the early 19th century. The mice, tigers, monks and fruit, all of them have a story to tell and Edmund sets off on a quest to give them back their voice. The author enlists the help of his father, and leaves of for Paris, in search of the traces of the prominent Jewish financiers, the Ephrussi, who were once known as the kings of European grain trade.
The Hare with Amber Eyes is the story of the netsuke, but it is also the story of their owners, a family who rose to unimaginable riches and who faced a meteoric decline of their empire after the Second World War. Originally from Ukrainian (then, Tsarist) Odessa, the Ephrussis banker patriarch moved his children to Paris and Vienna in an attempt to expand the family business and find a place amongst the European high societies. Of course, it would be impossible to name all the Ephrussi family members, after all, Edmund de Waal retraces almost two centuries of family history. However, it should be noted, that the author goes to extreme lengths to recreate the atmosphere of the lives of his ancestors – and he succeeds brilliantly. From the patronage of art, friendships with the Impressionists, and the early elements of Japonisme, to the problems of integration, hidden or overt antisemitism and the issues of recitations of Nazi-confiscated goods, the Viennese and Parisian life of the period is described in vivid detail.
One of the most relatable things de Waal says, when starts looking for the traces of the netsuke in his family history, is the fact that he should have asked uncle Iggie when he had the chance. Oh, how many of us may have – should have done same thing! Oh, how lucky the author was, that he could discover so much! The Hare with Amber Eyes has been on my to-read list for several years now, and it is perhaps the family saga of my own that inexplicably stopped me from reading it. I wasn’t quite ready…But that is for another blog post.
Overall note: 3.5*