What are tricks for remembering geography


My first reading of this book was accidental and casual. The second time I read Edmund de Waal's “The Rabbit with the Amber Eyes” because I wanted to find out what means the author uses to transform his historical material into a narrated story.

The book is special in that the English ceramist researches the fate of his Jewish family from Odessa, neither as a historian nor as a writer. The artist who works with his hands places objects at the center of his explorations, which form a link between the generations. This is a collection of netsuke, tiny sculptures carved from ivory and fine wood in Japan, which his great-great-uncle Charles in the course of the Parisian fashion des japonisme had acquired. They alone survived the decline of the wealthy Jewish family Ephrussi and finally ended up in the possession of de Waals. These objects, originally made to be carried around and to be touched, to be explored with the fingers, are the only thing that remained after displacement and expropriation.

In order to trace past greatness, de Waal calls up haptic memory, the sense of touch and the sense of space. In this way, he wants to make the living conditions of the time understandable, to at least abolish the diaspora of family members and their property with the help of this book. Where material reparation does not succeed - a long chapter is devoted to his grandmother's unsuccessful efforts to get back the Aryanized assets and the family seat on Vienna's Ringstrasse - the overreached and persecuted should at least be thought of with the help of this reconstruction.

In addition, these objects symbolize the former geographical and social scope of the Ephrussis: In Paris, the netsuke were acquired by the sophisticated Charles, who moved among artists and writers. Then they came as a wedding present to de Waal's great-grandparents, who lived in the Vienna Palais, where they became toys for their children before the family members could only save their lives when Hitler came to power. In addition to empathizing with objects, de Waal also deals with the rooms in which they are housed, bringing interiors, architectural details and considerations about acoustics into play. All senses beyond the sense of sight become significant in this narration and transpose the past feeling of life into the present.

With a dramaturgical trick, the introduction of Anna, the Viennese maid of the family, who apparently never left the palace and was therefore able to carry the tiny objects from under the eyes of the Aryans in her apron pocket, de Waal brightens his dark story a little. Anna hid the netsuke under her mattress and slept on it like a princess and a pea all the war years, touching the memory of past life forms with her body. Each individual carving thus becomes a signal of resistance against the complete revaluation of everyday life under the Nazi regime. Anna also serves the author as a contrast to the well-documented history of his once wealthy and privileged ancestors. While this can show countless written records - for example, Charles was acquainted with Marcel Proust, who even wrote an obituary for him, grandmother Elisabeth and the poet Rilke wrote letters to each other, and de Waal found his names and clothing preferences in the social columns of newspapers of the time Ancestors again - there is not even a surname to be found from Anna. She embodies the good spirit of the house, so to speak, a counterbalance to the common Viennese malice. Otherwise, de Waal's verdict on this city is mostly devastating, the Ringstrasse architecture is a Potemkin setting for the Nazis' triumphal procession, the willingness of the Viennese Hitler to receive, covered with a layer of icing and whipped cream.

The effects of his book in the real present have been enormous. Due to the success, the novel by his grandmother Elisabeth de Waal about her struggle for restitution was published shortly after the end of the war under the title: “Thursdays at Kanakis”. In addition, some of the Netsuke, de Waals research materials, photographs, letters and paintings were honored in a large exhibition in the Jewish Museum in Vienna in 2019. Due to the worldwide fame of the book, De Waal's artistic work received an attention that it would not have achieved without his carefully prepared family history.

The experience of places and objects, the materiality of documents and photographs, in addition to their informational value, constitute an essential impetus for this memory work. In order to translate history into personal cases with which people of the present can identify, de Waal uses sensual experience. Where Proust introduced the category of remembering through smell and taste into literature, de Waal can be considered the founder of haptic remembering, which makes it possible to evoke emotional reactions in today.