1 June 2015

An Ermine in Czernopol by Gregor von Rezzori

A masterpiece which paints a portrait of multicultural and polyglot Central Europe between the World Wars.

The book is a masterpiece, and like many such masterpieces the text is often a struggle to read, in this case as a result of sometimes difficult language, obscure historico-cultural reference and complexity of plot and situation. But don't give up; for me even months after reading Rezzori’s novel the message and images of the book remain in the head.

The story is told through the eyes of a young boy, a character who is self-consciously modelled on the author, an Austrian German from a minor aristocratic family, now living in the interwar period in what had become a provincial town in Romania. Czernopol is the fictional name, but this is a thin disguise for the town, the name of which is Czernowitz.

We are introduced to a wide range of eccentric characters, who are surviving amidst the anomie and confusion of the epoch. Most poignant in the book is the episode towards the end of the growing anti-Semitism in the town which explodes into a pogrom.

Though always perceptive, throughout there is often an unreal quality to the writing. Although the narrator is a child, much of what is written is far from childlike observation. In addition, we are often given huge stretches of description and dialogue from which the narrator is absent.

The book was first published in German in the 1966, but only received its definitive English translation in 2011.

Von REZZORI, Gregor, An Ermine in Czernopol, Nyrb Classics 2011.

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