More on the netsuke

I’ve now finished The Hare with Amber Eyes, and the book continued to intrigue and provide diversions through Coolangatta and Sydney airports and into the trip to Osaka. Another element has been introduced to the work, however, which also has relevance for linguistics and those who work with Aboriginal people and write about them.

I have to disagree with the Guardian’s review which I linked to in the previous post; I didn’t feel like there was a fetishism of the sense of touch, nor that De Waal had turned his book into ‘yet another narrative of loss’, despite his denials and assertions to the contrary. Yet there are two topics that the author is clearly grappling with, and another one that he didn’t grapple with and perhaps should have at least mentioned in passing.

First to the grappling. For the middle of the book, a theme that keeps coming up, from the anti-Semitic undercurrent of 1880s Paris to the overt anti-Semitism of Paris and Vienna of the early 20th Century, is how to write about pre-Holocaust European Jewish life without either overshadowing it by what follows, or by painting it as rosy and unreal. The author is clearly battling with how to write about this subject on a number of levels – how to represent his own feelings, those of the book’s characters at the time and subsequently, trying to convey how one gets from a shove in the street to a death in Auschwitz. I am not criticising the author for having difficulties here; on the contrary, I think he did a very good job of conveying why writing about such things is so difficult. (It is, though, perhaps a little ironic that the author criticises his grandmother’s writing about her return to Vienna in 1945 as being too emotional.) If one concentrates on the big picture, the people become lost, unreal, caricatured. But if one concentrates on the minutiae, one loses proportion. This is, of course, not a problem with netsuke, where the miniature is the proportion.

I see the same difficulties in writing about Aboriginal genocides. One can state facts: by 1920, the Aboriginal population of Australia had fallen by nearly 90% from 130 years before. Those words “had fallen” cover death, genocide, kidnap, massacre, revenge killing, common, sordid murder. To focus on it distorts other parts of Aboriginal lives and culture, but to play it down also distorts our views. I see this in Stephen Gray’s The Protectors, which I’m now reading thanks to the same birthday. Gray manages the juggling rather more clumsily than De Waal. In commenting on a graphic description of child removal at Wave Hill, he quotes a passage of  Justice O’Loughlin who writes that the passage “can only evoke the highest emotions of sympathy both for the mothers and children; indeed, some might even be able to spare a thought for the poor patrol officer who was the instrument of such grief.”* No one was forcing to patrol officer to take these kids. He wasn’t working at gun-point, patrol officers were notoriously short-staffed, and aboriginal families often had inventive ways of hiding their kids. Kidnapping children is wrong, and exhorting us to have sympathy for the perpetrators of such kidnappings, trying to create a balanced book, may reveal more of how complex things were in the Territory in the 1950s, but it doesn’t do anything to represent how unbalanced the situation really was.

Now back to the missing thread in the netsuke. Here I do have a real criticism of the Hare with Amber Eyes. De Waal totally overlooks what a remarkable woman his grandmother was, and that’s a crying shame. This is a woman who gained a PhD in Law from Vienna University in 1924 – a time when the percentage of female undergraduate students at the university was in low single digits. She returns to Vienna in 1938 and succeeds in getting her parents out of Austria to Czechoslovakia, and then is able to bring her father to England in the early 1940s. But we get details like De Waal’s family lamenting her lack of taste in clothes when as a 16 year old she is allowed to choose her own trimmings and clothes style for the first time. This is ultimately a book about men and their stuff; the women in this narrative are ultimately just part of that stuff, and that’s pathetic. The culture of 1880s vitrines were worth a few months of reading, but it never occurred to him to find out the last name of the servant who did so much for his family. The book ended up being a pretty spectacular example of how researchers have blind spots, and how even in the hidden inheritance, there are others who are more hidden still, or rather simply overlooked in plain sight.

*The passage (from Gray 2011:166) is “The engines of the ‘plane were not stopped at Wave Hill and the noise combined with the strangeness of the aircraft only accentuated the grief and fear of the children, resulting in near-hysteria in two of them… I endeavoured to assuage the grief of the mothers by taking photographs of each of the children prior to their departure and these have been distributed among them. Also a dress length each was given the five mothers.’” 3 yards of cloth as compensation for a stolen child? And I’m supposed to have sympathy for this bloke? Perhaps one might argue that this is a passage, an event, taken out of context. Any context that makes this less jarring just goes to show how screwed up aboriginal policy was.

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