Melnitz by Charles Lewinsky; trans. Shaun Whiteside, book review: 'There is no safety'

Saga explores what it was to be Jewish in Switzerland
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The Independent Culture

A work of both old-fashioned appeal and contemporary relevance, this family saga encompassing five generations was first published in Switzerland eight years ago.

Spanning the period from 1871 to 1937, the narrative is interwoven with the wry voice of Uncle Melnitz reminding both the characters and the reader not to get too cosy in the minutiae of individual stories, for beyond the particular is the long shadow of what it is to be Jewish: "There is no safety," he warns. "Sometimes they shout, sometimes they whisper. Sometimes they are silent for a long time … But they don't forget us… Perhaps we Jews only continue to exist because we have so many enemies..."

Which makes it sound a far bleaker read than it is. For this is a work of humour and charm with a fetching cast of characters, from pithy patriarch Salomon Meijer, the cattle-dealer, to daughter Mimi, dramatic diva and vivacious aunt to her foundling half-sister's children; from Janki the Parisian master-tailor to Pinchas the kosher butcher's son and Torah scholar whose amorous declarations fall short of Mimi's heightened expectations: "You are fabulously beautiful … like a herd of goats from the hill of Gilead"; from Arthur the doctor to Hillel his nephew the Zionist; from fiercely independent Rachel to her fiancé, a Berlin cabaret artist whose back bears testimony to his 1930s story, and François who converts to Christianity leaving his son Alfred suspended, neither a "goy" nor a true Meijer. The family grows, delights in the joys and copes with the sorrows of every family, in a tone reminiscent of the radio adaptation of War and Peace, with the joie de vivre and melancholic tug of Fiddler on the Roof.

Lewinsky explores what it was to be Jewish in Switzerland, the role anti-Semitism played in that "innocent" country. Melnitz pokes fun while recognising how lucky these Meijers were to be born there and not over the border: "He loved this country, in which you could complain of hunger when chocolate was in short supply." Switzerland, then, as a protected place, a refuge for some, but not unblemished either, the naivety of "that couldn't happen here" only true to a point, and with limitations as to how far necks should be stretched out. As a Zurich bureaucrat points out to Dr Arthur Meijer, who wants to extricate Rosa, mother of child refugees from Germany: "It cannot be the task of a Swiss authority to solve German problems."

Why do so many books in translation come with the obligatory "International bestseller" tag? This novel is confident and accomplished enough to make its way without that while Melnitz's being the voice of Jewish history ensures this remains a pertinent read in our times.