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An Ermine in Czernopol (New York Review Books Classics)
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
This is a curate's egg of a novel, good in parts. The best parts are very good indeed. The chapter in which the daughter of a psychiatrist at the Czernopol lunatic asylum produces some poems composed or otherwise recalled by an inmate is absolutely first rate. So is the chapter describing a riot following an inter-community football match. By contrast, some less-inspired but over-extended descriptive sections are tedious. A passage about the wild birds of Czernopol that reveals no real familiarity with the species described is one such, though by no means the longest.

The answer to the question, 'What is this book about?' is, nominally, an army officer by the name of Tildy. Tildy's rigid discipline, especially self-discipline, dating from his time in the Austro-Hungarian army - swept away, along with so much else, by the First World War - gets him into deep trouble. The model for Tildy is to some extent Don Quixote, but he lacks a Sancho Panza to mitigate the consequences of his 'madness'. Tildy's actions have ramifications for a host of other people, and that leads us to the second and perhaps better answer to what the book is about; it's about Czernopol (modern day Chernivtsi, Ukraine) in the interwar years.

Tildy's story, and that of Czernopol, is as seen through the eyes of a child. For von Rezzori it is, therefore, to some extent autobiographical. His narrator is a young boy. He has siblings; they do most things together but, curiously, we never discover how many brothers or sisters, or anything more about any of them other than Tanya, the eldest.

In the novel, as in reality, the largest of the many racial/language/cultural groups in Czernopol in those years was Jewish. Some of von Rezzori's characterisations border on what would nowadays be considered politically incorrect. However, the two best friends made by the siblings - the only friends of their own age - are Jewish, and we learn from them of the pressures on the Jews, and the very real reasons why they felt insecure. That despite the city and its surrounding area being at that time a part of the Kingdom of Romania, with no direct link with Germany.

Blanche, the young girl who produces the mad man's poems, is Jewish, and we discover that her father too is a thoughtful, bookish person. Two of his colleagues at the asylum have been sacked because it was decided that too many of them were Jewish. Solly Brill is the son of a Jewish family running a general store. The shutters of the store repeatedly have swastikas painted on them in the night, and during the riot the shop is ransacked. Nevertheless, Solly is a consistent source of much sharp wit and fun. Notable too is the gentleness and liberal thinking of a Jewish teacher when the siblings, without their parents' knowledge, decide to attend the Jewish religious instruction classes at school. Unfortunately, when the venture into comparative religion is discovered, the liberality of the teacher is not matched by the adults of the siblings' family.

One of the foremost things von Rezzori sets out to convey about the Czernopol he knew is that it refused to take itself too seriously. The longueurs apart, there is much here that is good. It is just necessary to relax into reading it, adopting the easy-going approach of the Czernopolites themselves.
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