on 19 May 1999
This book concerns blood, or rather how we have allowed our notions of blood to determine our cruel actions towards others. It is a book not to be read lightly, nor for those with a weak stomach. It is book full of compassion and wisdom. It is a story that spans centuries, countries, fates, and yet is tersely written, no wasted description, no loss of pace. It ties together the fates of the Jews and the blacks in a way that is moving and plausible. The coda set in modern day Israel brings together the thematic threads - showing too that the Promised Land is not so perfect either; not all the promise was fulfilled. I wept in the Holocaust scenes: the style becomes indirect, impersonal, terribly frank. I have read the same (or similar) elsewhere, but the shock never diminishes. This is a book that should be read because it has real moral force, it has seriousness. It is not (like so much modern fiction) merely a story for its own sake, a tale to shock or provoke, shruggingly amoral, but is clearly and yet poetically telling us about the way we are, the way we think. It is saying: look, this is what the Venetians did to the Jews, how they justified their persecution, this is what the Germans did, what next? And it is also saying: look, yesterday's war heroes are lonely and wistful. No action, no matter how heroic, no decision no matter how right, is without a certain price to be paid. There is much here (historically) that one already knows, but the seriousness and the power of the writing, the structure, the poignancy and the truth of the book: all this is Phillips' achievement.
on 20 February 1999
In this novel Caryl Phillips considers the nature of oppression and its universality. He tells the story of Eva, a German Jew and her family as they live through their last days of freedom before they are sent to the camps. Running parallel to this story is the tale of Othello attempting to make his mark in a Venice which is segregating and punishing Jews for 'their own good'. Phillips conveys both the whimsical nature of prejudice as well as the terrible impact that it has and still has in society today. Surrounding these stories is the sense of dislocation and injustice that is engendered by indiscriminate discrimination that has been the history of the Jewish people. The novel ends with a modern black woman still experiencing a sense of inferiority in a world that claims to believe in equality. The only mistake to make when reading this book is to assume that Phillips is placing all these experiences under the single title of 'oppression'. He does more than this as he endows his characters with the spirit of resistance that allows them to defy the labelling of the oppressed and the weak. This is a novel that challenges the way we think about people and the way in which we assume that the experience of oppression is a collective experience that denies autonomy.
on 18 May 2000
I have read several of Caryl Phillips' novels, and they never fail to impress. Although The Nature of Blood focuses mainly on Europeans rather than West Indians or Africans, the themes of belonging and exile, possession and dispossession are the same. He deals with these issues so subtly and with such a personal touch, that the novel never feels didactic, and is easy and beautiful to read. This book will make you think about the people, places and history around you in a different way.
Eva, a 21-year-old concentration camp survivor, shares her life, thoughts, and memories in the primary plot line of this moving novel. In a second major story line, Othello, hired by the Doge to lead the Venetian army against the Turks in the late 15th century, reveals his passionate love for Desdemona, the daughter of a Venetian aristocrat. These two seemingly disparate stories are connected thematically, rather than narratively, as the book alternates from character to character and across time lines. Two other characters (Eva's uncle and an Ethiopian Jew who immigrates to Israel) have their space here, and a 15th century trial of Jewish money-lenders in Venice also connects obliquely with the Othello story.
The novel, which is not linear and does not follow a typical narrative pattern, is very impressionistic, more like a symphony than a traditional novel, with movements and complimentary themes playing in counterpoint to each other, The author experiments successfully with a variety of voices and points of view, switching back and forth through nearly 500 years of history and several pain-filled settings as he illustrates his themes. It is an intense and emotionally involving story of cultural, religious, and ethnic persecution, stunning in its impact. Mary Whipple
on 5 June 2011
There were parts in this book of outstanding beauty. The story of Eva and her family was superbly told. The simple, matter of fact story telling, was the only way to portray the inhumanity of concentration camps. Describing horrors without emotion and emphasis is an incredibly powerful way to make it all the more effective.There is no need to add anything when writing is of this quality! There is not a more convincing way to show what hell must be like. It is heart wrenching and beautiful at the same time. And for those who never knew that period there is the everlasting question of how it is possible to treat people this way. It was therefore all the more surprising to read Othello's story at the same time. I didn't care at all for this part which didn't tell us anything we didn't already know. If a parallel had to be drawn between persecutions suffered by jews and discrimination suffered by black people I wish the example told had been an original story. As it was it left me with the impression that the book wasn't long enough and that some padding had to be added.
on 7 December 2010
This is no doubt a remarkable book. Phillips' style is cold and clinical, even when dealing with the stomach-churning horrors of the holocaust; his approach to his material is refreshingly free of sentiment and any attempt at spurious redemption. Yet for all this the heart of the intertwining stories are all passionate and determined characters, caught up in moments beyond their ability to control, but determiend not to let up. Phillips is at his weakest when he enters into tedious expanses of flow-of-consciousness rambling; he is at his best when writing in lucid and uncluttered prose that seems to veritably shake with hidden passions. A great read.
Caryl Phillips' ambitious novel tackles an essential human problem. After closely reading his text, one comes to the conclusion that his vision on mankind is ink black.
The story evolves `across the years'. The main characters are, in the 15th century, the Moor Othello, a black general in the service of the world's hegemon at that time, Venice, and, in the 20th century, a young Jewish woman, Eva (sic!), who survived a death camp experience.
The core theme of the novel is the deeply disturbing universal human `commandment' to maintain one's blood `pure', not only on the race level, but also on the tribe, class, family and, most of all, on the personal level. You have to stick to your own kind, for `the river that does not know its own source will dry up.'
The Moor: `I was born of royal blood, and possessed a lineage of such quality that not even slavery could stain its purity.'
Eva's mother is stained: in the face of `stern opposition, Mama married beneath her.' But, Mama herself defends mightily her own tribe: `Mama spoke firmly: `(Rosa) married outside her people', as though she wished me to understand that this was the greatest crime that one person could commit.' And, `(Rosa) should forget him and live among her own kind. With them she had a chance of life.'
On the `society' level and its traditions: `For the aristocratic Venetian marriage was a carefully controlled economic and political ritual, and it was therefore important to keep the bloodlines pure.'
In this context, the adage of `do not to others what you would not want done to yourself' is in practice only valid for your own bloodline. Foreign blood can be spilled.
Faced with all these horrible truths (`this Holy Land did not deceive us. THE PEOPLE DID (I underline)), Eva chooses `to remain alone. I locked myself in the hut among the ghosts of strangers. A stranger in a world of strangers.'
In that kind of world, only furtive sexual encounters are possible.
Caryl Phillips' novel is not an easy read, and certainly not a joy to read. But, it is of world class.
on 1 May 2009
This thoughtful, passionate and heady novel threads together stories of people separated by time and space but linked together in one way or another however tenuously.
What threads the different sagas together is the theme of the loneliness of the outsider struggling to find their way in an alien society.
The novel includes stories written from the viewpoint of a German Jewish girl who survives the horrors of the Holocaust and the British internment in Cyprus, where the British interned hundreds of thousands of Jews to prevent them returning to their ancient homeland, in order to appease Arab greed. Vivid descriptions of the horrors of the Holocaust and the shattered lives of the survivors.
After all this is it too much for the world to live with a tiny homeland (smaller than Wales) for the Jewish people where they can live in safety in peace, in a region where Arabs control 22 states?
It also focuses on her uncle, who sacrifices all to go to the then 'Palestine' to rebuild the Jewish homeland, and of an Ethiopian Jewish girl's life decades later as anew refugee in Israel.
The trial of the Jews of the Venice ghetto faced with persecution and prejudice and the horrific blood libels designed to frame them for persecution (relevant at a time when modern blood libels are today are used to justify hatred of Israel and the Jewish people today in order to prepare the world for another Holocaust).
Through his observations of the Jewish Ghetto in Venice, the newly arrived Black Moorish general in Venice, Othello, is introduced to the saga-serving in a society both alien and hostile, and his romance with the beautiful daughter of a wealthy Venetian nobleman.
The concurrent theme is one of suffering, survival and renewal, the tragic repetitions of history, and the voices and emotions of the very real individuals caught up in the vast and cruel sweep of history.