Friday, February 13, 2009

Farewell, Shanghai

Did you know that there was a ghetto for Jews escaping the Nazis in Shanghai? I never did, till I read Farewell, Shanghai by Angel Wagenstein. I'm not sure how I came across this book - probably a review on someone's blog, or maybe it was prominently displayed at the library. In any case, I've been in the mood to read about displaced people, persecuted people, people whose government has failed to protect them or, actually, turned against them. People who've had everything except their will to survive - and sometimes, even that - stripped from them.

Maybe this reading mood has something to do with being a conservative in the US right now.

Farewell, Shanghai is, predictably, a sad book. It has elements of a spy story, history, a bit of a love story, but mostly a story of how people survive when everything has been taken from them. And, how some don't. Last year I read A Thread of Grace, a novel about Jews hiding from the Nazis in Italy. That book was both more brutal and more beautiful. But this is a very good book too.

The author is Bulgarian and I understand (from reading some review somewhere) that the book was translated first into French, then from French to English. Wow. They did a fine job. Very occasionally the writing seemed a little clunky, but that was the exception. Some of the plot was a little hard for me to follow, but I'm not sure if that was because of the writing or my usual lack of ability to follow espionage and war stories. That chapters skip from one location and one set of characters to another, but that was done well and did not make the book difficult to follow.

If you enjoy history and reading about people who are struggling to survive and maintain some shred of their humanity, you may like this book. It's hard to use the word "enjoy" for something like this, because the subject is far from enjoyable. But it's worthwhile reading.

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