Blogs > HNN > Gerald Jonas: Review of Angel Wagenstein's Farewell Shanghai, translated from the Bulgarian by Elizabeth Frank and Deliana Simeonova (Handsel Books/Other Press, 2007)

Feb 10, 2008 6:58 pm


Gerald Jonas: Review of Angel Wagenstein's Farewell Shanghai, translated from the Bulgarian by Elizabeth Frank and Deliana Simeonova (Handsel Books/Other Press, 2007)



[Gerald Jonas is a former staff writer for The New Yorker and a feature writer and book reviewer for The New York Times. He is finishing a novel.]

Angel Wagenstein is a prolific Bulgarian screenwriter and prizewinning novelist. In Farewell Shanghai, he tells a little-known story of World War II-- the travels and travails of 20,000 German and Austrian Jews who fled Hitler and ended up in a unique ghetto in Shanghai. The city, devastated by battles between Japanese invaders and Chinese defenders in the 1930s, was controlled by a confusing jumble of competing powers: Japanese occupiers, Chinese collaborators, and the international “concessions,” entire neighborhoods administered by various Western nations as their own sovereign territory. When Nazi officials arrived to assist the Japanese in creating a Judenfrei Shanghai, the precarious security enjoyed by the European refugees crumbled.

Instead of grounding the story by focusing on a single setting or individual, Wagenstein chronicles the escape of a large cast of characters from various places in pre-war Europe to a variety of fates in war-torn China. To help readers follow the complicated narrative, he periodically inserts paragraphs of historical background. But these read more like hasty guidebook sketches than serious attempts to explain the larger forces at work in the world at that time.

This novel was obviously a labor of love for the 85-year old author. In a brief afterword he explains which characters are composites based on a number of historical models (including several anti-Fascist Bulgarians who ended up in Soviet intelligence), and which are intended as accurate portraits of real people.

Some of the characters, like the beautiful Hilde Braun, who looks Aryan enough to get a job as secretary to the German mission in Shanghai, and the violinist Theodore Weissberg, who somehow reconstitutes the Dresden Philharmonic in Shanghai’s rubble, are drawn with considerable skill. But just as we get involved in one person’s life, Wagenstein shifts to another thread in the story. In the end, we are left with an impressive tapestry that holds our interest throughout its awful narrative arc but frustratingly keeps our sympathies at a distance.





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