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Boyd Tonkin: The magnificent Morpurgos

The week in books

Call it professional nosiness, or simply a taste for busman's holidays, but when abroad I like to see a bookshop flourish on a premium site. And it would be hard to find a more picturesque spot to sell books than the corner address near the pocket-sized Venetian Gothic governor's palace on People's Square in Split, on the Dalmatian coast in Croatia. The green-painted bookstore there was founded as long ago as 1860; this summer, it has run a programme of anniversary events. All of which would make for a cute bit of vacation trivia were it not for the name above the arched window: "Knjizara Morpurgo". Down a little alleyway in the labyrinth of Split's old town, you will also find a Morpurgo Place.

Countless British readers (and countless parents) have long had reason to bless that name. The first Children's Laureate, Michael Morpurgo had for decades enriched young readers with his captivating stories of children – and, in several books, animals - overcoming the trials and ordeals of war, disaster, environmental threat and persecution. Then the National Theatre's hit production of War Horse took his fame into a new dimension. The drama opens in New York soon. Steven Spielberg has been filming it in Devon (where Morpurgo has lived, and through his Farms for City Children project introduced urban youngsters to the natural world, since the 1970s) for a cinema adaptation due next year.

But a bookshop in Dalmatia, and one launched 150 years ago? Surely a story lurked here? Indeed - and what a tale. Michael Morpurgo was not born a Morpurgo; he became one. His stepfather, the publisher, author and scholar Jack Morpurgo, had for long acted as executive sidekick – and effective heir apparent – to Allen Lane, founder of Penguin Books. Jack went off after various fallings-out to run the National Book League and serve as professor of American literature at Leeds University. His stepson Michael, as many people know, married Lane's daughter, Clare.

Through his original family, Michael already had literary ancestry: grandfather Emile Cammaerts was a celebrated Belgian poet. But in acquiring the Morpurgo name, he became part of what (as research soon showed) is an extraordinary multi-generational narrative that might grace one of his own books. Ultra-English Jack, however, seems from his stepson's quoted comments to have wanted to bury or deny this background.

Originally from Marburg in Germany (Morpurgo is just the Italianised "Marburger"), the family moved into the Habsburg domains of Istria and Dalmatia. There they thrived - under the relative tolerance of the 19th-century Austro-Hungarian empire – as one of the most eminent Jewish dynasties in both Trieste and Split. In those days, a Morpurgo could rise from synagogue caretaker's son to be the leading banker of Trieste, complete with a Habsburg knighthood. That city boasts, in a former family home, the Morpurgo de Nilma civic museum.

But what struck me forcibly about the Morpurgo heritage is its consistent literary current. In Trieste, Rachel Morpurgo (1790-1871) became the first woman ever to publish poetry in modern Hebrew. Critics treat her as a feminist pioneer as well as a linguistic innovator. In Split, Vid Morpurgo not only set up that bookshop but created a public library and helped to steer Dalmatia's cultural life. Lucciano Morpurgo, poet and publisher, later carried on the family tradition. Then, during the darkest days of Fascism and the Second World War, Morpurgos in both cities stood in the vanguard of dramatic efforts both to safeguard their own communities and to succour refugees. To my knowledge, the nearest that Michael's fiction has come to this turbulence is in The Mozart Question, with its Venetian violinist Paolo Levi remembering his traumatic youth.

For all their heroic endeavours, the Jews of Split eventually suffered the same effects from Nazi occupation and local collaboration as similar communities all over Europe. Yet a congregation, and a synagogue, happily remains active in the city today. A local electrical engineer now heads it. His name? Inevitably: Zoran Morpurgo.

A hidden hero of Hollywood hype

Much media excitement over the news that ingénue Rooney Mara has trounced star rivals to snare the role of Lisbeth Salander in the Hollywood remake of Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. As yet a bland-looking lass, Mara has a way to go before she can match the scary Goth glamour of Noomi Rapace (right) in the first, Swedish film. Still, it's heartening to think of those studio execs poring over the work not just of Larsson but of the forgotten hero in this saga: his English translator Steve Murray, aka "Reg Keeland". Fans should sample his other fine translations (as Steven T Murray): of the African novels of Henning Mankell, and of thrillers by Karin Alvtegen and Camilla Läckberg.

Losing the language of history

After an astonishing two-year swansong of essays, polemics and memoirs following his diagnosis, the great historian Tony Judt last week succumbed to the variant of motor neurone disease that ravaged his body but seemed to set his mind ablaze. The author of Postwar, that masterpiece of pan-European narrative, embodied the gifts of a generation that may not be replaced. In Cosmopolitan Islanders, Cambridge professor of history Richard Evans asks why so many British colleagues of their age came to specialise in, even dominate, interpretations of the past of other European countries. Judt himself began as an expert in French radical politics. They owed much, Evans shows, to an education system that, post-1945, gave bright students from non-privileged backgrounds a solid grounding in other languages. That legacy is now almost defunct. Yet, in Nick Clegg, we have a deputy PM of enviable polyglot skills. Could he not use his summer stint to plead, and even act, for a rapid British revival in language-learning?