A Sea Change by Michael Arditti

Rite of passage under the Nazi flag
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The Independent Culture

'There is no court more unjust than that of hindsight," observes Karl Frankel at an early point in his narrative. By the time we have heard him out, we appreciate both the truth of this opinion and the rigour with which he himself has resisted temptations to such injustice. Writing in old age, as British citizen and retired Oxford professor of philosophy, he records his boyhood in the Third Reich as a member of a rich, prominent Jewish family in Berlin and his fraught escape from Germany (the principal subject of the book) in May 1939 on board the SS St Louis.

He thus encounters two difficulties of presentation. First, he has to show us sophisticated and internationally connected German Jews (Karl's grandfather was head of a Berlin department store) who were nevertheless naive, or ostrich-like, enough to remain in the Hitler regime, even though continually harassed and reviled. Second, he must invite us into the mindsets of the passengers on the St Louis, at once full of hope and riddled by anxiety, when all the time we ourselves know just how deluded they were as they left the port of Hamburg. The author triumphantly succeeds in both respects, thanks to his unflagging attention to the personal, to his fidelity to the many-layered nature of individual experience.

As we come into closer contact with Karl's grandfather and witness the interactions between his mother, father and Aunt Annette, and learn more about his dead uncle, also called Karl, we understand the deep and instinctual innocence of them and their kind, so proud of being assimilated into a culture of which they were surely a firm, contributing component, so reluctant to believe that the obscene and the violent could ever be the officially instigated and prevalent. Most of us use a qualified trustfulness for getting through daily life; so too, we see, did these people, only in their case it was tragically misplaced. But the November 1938 Kristallnacht revealed, even to them, a society out of rational and moral control.

The well-documented fortunes of the St Louis constitute in themselves a paradigm of the fate of German Jewry and the inadequacy of international response to its plight. The 937 passengers, the vast majority Jewish, were permitted to cross the Atlantic. leaving Hamburg on 13 May, for Havana, Cuba. Officially sailing under the Nazi flag, the ship's Captain was a humane, morally courageous man who encouraged those he was transporting to enjoy a freedom denied them on land, despite the aggressive presence of Nazi Party personnel. On 27 May the St Louis arrived at Havana, but Cuba was in the throes of a governmental and economic crisis. Such is the tension that Arditti creates that for those readers who are ignorant of what actually happened to the ship it is best to say no more here. As in his last novel, Unity, Arditti brings historical events and private emotions seamlessly together, his instrument here his storyteller's steady yet flexible voice.

Karl is a superbly realised 15-year-old. He is, like the ship's captain who befriends him, a passionate ornithologist, excited amid all his troubles by his glimpse of a wandering (or is it a royal?) albatross. The crossing makes of him, as he says, both a man and a Jew. He becomes a man through facing up to the complexity of his long-estranged parents' relationship, where previously he'd preferred narrow partisanship, and through the intensity of his feelings for a girl on the ship, Johanna, half-Jewish, half-Catholic. He becomes a Jew because, though often prickly, arrogant and assertive like young males everywhere, he can't stifle his sense of oneness with his fellow-passengers. He translates this into action by arranging, even in precarious transit, his own bar mitzvah, perhaps the novel's true climax.

Less formally experimental than Arditti's previous fiction, A Sea Change is an advance in sheer intellectual authority and breadth of sympathy. For me, this last is nowhere more movingly shown than in Karl's constant concern for his retarded younger sister, a member of another group for whom Germany had neither heart nor room.