- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 6, 2008

In his novel, Farewell, Shanghai (Handsel Books, $24.95, 404 pages), Bulgarian prize-winning author Angel Wagenstein combines anguish, alienation, intrigue, physical suffering, excitement and the arbitrariness of fate. The fine translation from the Bulgarian by Elizabeth Frank and Deliana Simeonova retains the author’s mordant and ironic tone.

The novel takes place during the Hitler years, first in Berlin and Paris and then in “the huge, multimillion, and chaotic equation of dead-end poverty and immense wealth called Shanghai,” the last refuge open to those fleeing the Nazi regime.

The principal characters are German Jewish violinist Theodore Weissberg and his non-Jewish wife, soprano Elizabeth Weissberg, both famous musicians; beautiful, blonde young Hilde Braun, an extra at the German UFA film studio who has successfully hidden her Jewish origins; and Vladek, a mysterious political agitator of vague origin who slips in and out of the story and of Hilde’s life.

These four are supported by a cast of intriguing characters: The Hungarian drug addict who plays piano in various Shanghai dives and spends his earnings in opium dens where “smoke holds you fast, like a rusty wolf trap, or an old prisoner’s chain nailed to the wall, or a stone anchor dropped in the impenetrable depths of the soul;” the amiable German ambassador in Shanghai who hires Hilde as his secretary and is forced to betray her; the gentle Japanese doctor who meets and falls in love with Hilde in Paris and is overwhelmed with grief when he sees her in prison, tortured to death.

Many of the characters are real or composites of real persons. Shanghai itself could be called the central character, in particular the neighborhood of Hongku “that enormous poverty-stricken ant-heap” where the impoverished Jewish refugees were forced to settle, living with meager rations, without sanitation, or proper shelter. Everyone sought any odd job, no matter how menial, to earn a few coins with which to buy food. Often the deprivation and degradation led to despair and death.

There were spies and there were brave men who fought the Japanese occupiers to the death. The Japanese had no mercy for those found to be opposing them; the SS officers arriving from Germany set up ghetto rules. Few of the characters survive. The courageous and strong of heart like Elizabeth and Hilde do not. The devious, like Vladek, understand that “complex-free behavior, rather than the overly cautious kind, like that of a girl in a convent, was the best defense against potential suspicion.”

Mr. Wagenstein has done his research well and the reader soon feels he is part of the city during the years of World War II. Farewell,Shanghai is an exciting read, a description of passion, courage, weakness and the ultimate irony of life and death.

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Pat Barker’s new novel Life Class (Doubleday, $23.95, 311 pages) is also a novel of civilians during a war, and it too combines real persons with fictional characters. The war is World War I and the bloody battlefields of Belgium.

The novel begins in the spring of 1914 in London’s Slade School of Art life class where young Paul Tarrant is about to confront his inadequacy as a painter, thanks to the disparaging remarks of Professor Henry Tunks (one of the real life personages).

Paul is jealous of the success of former student Kit Neville and both envies and admires the work of fellow student, Elinor Brooke. Both Neville and Elinor are from the privileged class; Paul is not. Neville paints the harsh reality of working class England while Paul depicts landscapes. Paul has a crush on Elinor and Neville wants to marry her. But Elinor disdains marriage; painting and independence are her life.

Upon the outbreak of war, Neville volunteers to drive an ambulance in Belgium. Paul is turned down when he tries to enlist and he too volunteers to work on the front. He is assigned to work as an orderly in a field hospital in Ypres. Elinor refuses to involve herself with the war, either in her life or her painting.

The second part of “Life Class”takes place in Ypres, in a makeshift hospital just behind the line of battle. Some of the experiences on the front and at home in London are told in letters exchanged between Paul and Elinor who have become lovers. She visits him on the front, but even there retains her cool sense of detachment. She looks at the “ ain-drenched fields. Reflections of gray-white clouds drifting slowly across flooded furrows. She tried to imagine this land churned up by wheels and horses’ hooves and marching feet, but she couldn’t. And why should I? She thought, … when this was the reality. Grass, trees, pools full of reflected sky, somewhere in the distance a curlew calling. This is what will be left when all the armies have fought and bled and marched away.”

Paul returns to London and Elinor at war’s end, but he has changed. Elinor realizes that “What she loved most about him was the quality of detachment that prevented his ever really loving her.” The novel is open-ended, leaving room, perhaps for a sequel.

The first part of Miss Barker’s novel seems stilted and somewhat forced. There is a reticence to her characters that is reflected in the writing. It is not until the reader gets to the wartime exchange of letters between Paul and Elinor that personalities take on complexity and depth beyond Paul’s emotional vacuity and Elinor’s superficiality.

Once the reader is transported to the front, the novel becomes vivid, even poetic. As in her Regeneration trilogy, Miss Barker’s descriptions of what happens to the minds and bodies of the young soldiers are vivid and alive. Her literary heart is bound to that war, and her best work blossoms in the blood and gore of the wounded and dying.

It is the passion and compassion in the descriptions of these soldiers, of the patient nurses who attend them, and the mud and rain where “ambulances roar, cough, hiccup, splutter, stop, unload the wounded, and drive off again churning the mud in the running circle to thick brownish-black cream” that mesmerize the reader and remind what an outstanding writer Miss Barker is.

Corinna Lothar is a writer and critic in Washington.



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