Books: The hero branded with a black star

Children of the Rainbow by Moris Farhi Saqi Books pounds 15.95
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The Independent Culture
For all their belief in standing by one another, for all their bravery in defiance, gypsies have suffered appallingly, and are continuing to experience the resentment and greed of the gadje, or non-gypsy, today, especially in Eastern Europe and parts of the former Soviet Union. And yet the many crimes against them are unacknowledged; it is as if even in pain and death the gypsies are denied equality.

Moris Farhi's novel opens in the hell of Auschwitz-Birkenau. No religious vision of what the damned endure after dying can match the officially commanded degradations of human beings there before they were dispatched. There were 4,416 cremations every 24 hours, and yet on the night of 2 August 1944 all gypsies who had survived disease and experimentation had to be gassed, 2,897 in all. Among these Farhi places a young couple, Todor and Zara, who belonged to the gypsy tribe known as the Ursari, the keepers and companions of bears with which they dance and wrestle. Todor and Zara are killed with all the others but they have seen to it that their child is smuggled alive out of the camp. He is, they appreciate, to have a special destiny which will be to his people's advantage. He must be called Branko, not only after a hero of ancient gypsy lore but after an enigmatic gypsy inmate of Auschwitz, a man who, castrated and under sentence of death, compiled a Gypsy Bible. This the new Branko will find and give back to the gypsies.

Branko, in whom the concentration camp survives as an almost aboriginal and incomprehensible memory, grows up in Switzerland. His boyhood will, his life long, be characterised in his mind by his experience of regular ECT treatment from the orphanage authorities. Hitler's Germany branded gypsies with a black star, for asocials; Swiss society agreed and sought to vanquish the tendency with efficient technological equipment. Adopted, Branko loves his foster-parents and rises to a good position in the Swiss army. He marries the good-looking and academically distinguished Nettie. But awareness of his provenance haunts him, and in order to discover his gypsy self, he quits Switzerland and the bourgeois life. Abandoning post and wife, he dedicates himself to restoring gypsy fortunes, to establishing an autonomous country, the Romanestan of his people's hopes. With the zeal of the convert, Branko will have no truck, however temptingly proffered, with schemes of assimilation. Experience has taught gypsies that their world- vision and that of the gadjes are incompatible.

The Children of the Rainbow is compulsively readable, and its factual and ethical bases are strong enough to give authority to the narrative voice and authenticity to the weaving of gypsy lore (fragments from old Branko's Bible) into the story of the post-War Branko and his activities. It cannot be denied that at times the novel stumbles (even while one is carried unresistingly along). The women with whom Branko has emotional/sexual relationships are one-dimensional; at times the narrative, echoing parts of the real Bible, becomes both too bare and too breathless. And the magic realist elements of the book assert themselves too abruptly, even in terms of the genre - which makes the strange last section, when the gypsies achieve their desideratum, ambiguous where it perhaps need not have been.

But these are minor objections. When Farhi depicts suffering, it is no mere writer's exercise but is truly empathic; the scenes in the camps, the appalling Gypsy Hunt in our times in Romania - these work on us because Farhi's humane passion has led him to fuse accuracy and intensity. Likewise with the novel's many lyrical apostrophes, for example the Ursaris' feelings for their bears and Branko's profound friendship with one bear in particular, Honeydew.

For behind The Children of the Rainbow is Moris Farhi's own engagement with humanity and with the cultural and ethnic tensions of post-1990 Europe. He is Turkish, has clearer eyes than most of us with which to view our confusions and evasions. Revisionism is rife, hatred powerfully justified by inhumane philosophies and creeds, the Free Market among them. Doesn't too much of Europe want to be "a white commonwealth: one stripped of the richness and beauty of racial and cultural diversity"? And how about this for a sobering conclusion in these days of Kosovan refugees? Gypsies are to return to the countries they left: "Le Monde of France listed some of these countries and the numbers they offered to admit: Canada: 100,000; Germany: 90,000; US: 60,000" and so on to "Eire: 1,000; UK: 250".

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