Book Review: Sweeping epic ‘Farewell, Shanghai’ will have you at hello

Farewell, Shanghai
By Angel Wagenstein, translated by Elizabeth Frank and Deliana Simeonova

Like an epic movie director from Hollywood’s Golden Age, Angel Wagenstein takes as the subject of his new novel nothing less than humanity – particularly, the humanity of Europe and Asia as it was tested during World War II in the Shanghai ghetto. Here, in one of the last open cities willing to take European Jews fleeing the Holocaust, the Bulgarian novelist sets refugees, spies and a few true believers into play for a sprawling and utterly engaging book, “Farewell, Shanghai.”

In style, as well as scope, Wagenstein loves his broad filmic gestures. His opening, for example, features a nameless narrator, “an anonymous supernumerary in the crowd scenes of a play,” who sets the stage at a rehearsal of the Berlin Philharmonic. The war is over, and famed conductor Herbert von Karajan is back in charge, but he’s dissatisfied. Too many of his musicians sound undisciplined, and he accuses them of talking in “Chinese.” They are returned Jewish musicians, of course, who had fled to China to escape the Holocaust, and the conductor’s outburst makes way for a broad sweep back, as the narrator introduces the recent past and Shanghai’s unique political situation.

This narrator tends toward purple prose, introducing the musicians’ coastal Chinese refuge as “the city of their damnation – and their deliverance.” Although he soon disappears, replaced by a variety of voices swooping in to reveal one character’s internal monologue and then withdrawing to lay out a political development, this heavy hand can be felt throughout the book. Lovers are constantly drinking and singing, at least while the wine and song last; villains, Nazis as well as the Kempeitei, the Japanese secret police, are unrelentingly cruel. But this overblown prose (translated into English by Elizabeth Frank and Deliana Simeonova) is soon justified by the flood of characters and their adventures.

Many of these characters are hiding a secret. Hilde Braun, the closest thing to a heroine in this book, is a beautiful blonde, “a typical representative of the Master Race” as depicted by Nazi film director Leni Riefenstahl. Except that she’s far from an Aryan. The lover she finds while hiding out in Paris calls himself Vladek and claims that the Slavic-sounding language she overhears is really Portuguese. A gay morphine addict, known simply as “The Hungarian,” has uncharted strengths and sympathies, and a German photo colorist, considered “beyond suspicion” by Germany’s new allies, the Japanese, makes more use of his knowledge of film than the authorities know. And then there are the known Jews, such as violinist Theodore Weissberg, who will wash up, with most of his fellow musicians, in the crowded ghetto of Hongku.

That horrific ghetto, described in precise detail, tests everyone, and it is when the author finally maneuvers his characters here that “Farewell, Shanghai” takes off. One of the Holocaust’s less well-documented chapters, the Shanghai ghetto is a fertile ground of human nature for the author. Approximately 30,000 refugees crammed into the open city, and with the onset of the war, the occupying Japanese authorities compressed this community further, mandating that Jews, even those who had lived prosperously in Shanghai for centuries, move into an already overcrowded, unhealthy section. The conditions were unlivable, and the daily struggle to muster food, potable water and, perhaps, a modicum of civility, overwhelms many. Some, against ridiculous odds, find ways to keep their souls intact, working with the resistance or playing music at the end of days of manual labor. Such little victories, often offset by the sheer weight of hunger and disease, are heartening. But for many, the respite is temporary. Starvation, sickness and bombs from both sides take their toll, killing young and old alike while humanity rails against fate – or at least Allied bombers.

“Rabbi Leo Levin climbed on the roof of his improvised synagogue, which had already been burned once during the time of the Japanese bombing, and shouted out to the sky: ‘Bastards! Crazy idiots! Don’t you see where your bombs are falling?’ ”

For all its epic plotting and often oversize personalities, “Farewell, Shanghai” is not a sentimental book and, as was the case in reality, gives up few happy endings. With so many characters, the temptation toward melodrama might have undone a lesser writer, one who fell for his strong and sympathetic players. Instead, for Wagenstein, the strong connections between the characters illustrate not only the persistence of human nature but also the illogic of war. Some survive, many die for no apparent reason, as when Weissberg, a seemingly weak and rigid type, somehow makes it through, while his vibrant wife falls prey to despair. On Wagenstein’s big screen, the people are moved like so many chess pieces, showing the various power plays between nations and movements, and how some fall and by what means.

Clea Simon is the author of several novels, including the coming ” Cries and Whiskers.”


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