In Babylon by Marcel Moring

culture

In Babylon coverI've just finished reading a really gripping book. 'In Babylon' tells the story of many generations of the Jewish Hollander family. They flee the Polish-Lithuanian border because of attacks by the Cossacks in the 17th Century, and gradually make their way gradually westwards until they finally reach America in the '40s. For several generations, they were clockmakers, and literally carried time and--it is implied--their history on their backs as they went. This sweeping epic is anchored in the present day by Nathan Hollander (a writer of fairy tales) and his niece, Nina, who are trapped in Nathan's uncle's isolated house by a severe snow storm. In their enforced confinement, Nathan reads Nina the biography he has written of his uncle Herman. He has the historical version of a photographic memory, something that is aided considerably by his great great great grand Uncle Chaim, and and great great grand uncle Magnus turning up to have a coffee with him and discuss past events.

The novel brilliantly evokes a feeling of homesickness and rootlessness that the nomadic Nathan begins to feel, the small events that have such catastrophic import, and the endless secrets that even the closest families squirrel away. All of the interesting relationships are between diagonal relatives rather than direct ones: uncles and nephews, uncles and nieces. The secrets are very slowly unfurled, giving the book a feeling of a thriller. The end is rather shocking and surprising, but it's also a moving, emotional and erotic book, and in places it is wryly funny. Uncle Chaim jokes that Magnus left the East because he loathed potatoes, and that Nathan's father Manny agreed to go to America because he was promised that he wouldn't have to wear a tie. There are some beautiful descriptive passages. Nathan and Nina discover a mysterious barricade made of furniture up the stairs of the house, and when they take an axe to the pile for firewood, throwing the priceless antiques down the stairs, Moring describes a mahogany chair as skipping down the stairs on delicate legs like an antelope.

The scope is so huge that it doesn't always hang together as well as it might, but it certainly held my attention. That's no small feat given the lack of time that I have to read things for pleasure. I also think that I'd like to read it again to pick up on some of the richness that might have passed me by the first time.

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