Two Lives, by Vikram Seth

The dark past of the suburban dentist
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In 1994, when casting around for a suitable subject to follow A Suitable Boy, Seth's mother suggested he write about Shanti Uncle. Initially he demurred, feeling too close to a man who had practically adopted Seth as the son he never had, and had provided lodgings throughout Seth's English residency. At 85, however, Shanti was up for the project, and 11 long interviews gradually unfolded to his nephew the bones of an exciting, impulsive younger life pre-dating his smooth career in suburban dentistry.

A trained physicist, Shanti made his way to Europe in 1931 to study dentistry, ending up a penniless student in Berlin. He took lodgings with a Mrs Caro in the Charlottenburg district and quickly warmed to her Jewish family's young circle. "Nimm den Schwarzen nicht" [don't take the black man] had been the younger daughter Hennerle's first reaction to her mother's lodger, a prejudice recorded with a tart irony given the imminent rise of the Third Reich. Shanti's affable nature soon drew out her amiability, beginning a relationship that would last more than five decades.

Accumulating animosity under Hitler's growing power encouraged Shanti to leave Berlin. Being Jewish, Henny lost her job and, through the discreet magnanimity of her former boss, was among the last Jews able to leave Germany. Both of them ended up in London and, knowing few others, their friendship became increasingly intimate. Shanti impulsively enlisted in a British army dental unit and had his right arm blown off at Monte Cassino. Giving just two days' notice, they finally married in 1951, as Shanti's dental practice was starting to establish itself.

A "trove" trunkful of Henny's posthumously discovered papers helps to flesh out this skeletal history. Most interesting, and distressing, is Henny's eventual unearthing of her family's tragic fate back in Germany. Her correspondence revealed postwar friendships that were directed by a rigorous assessment of which of her old circle actively resisted the Nazi atrocities, and which sought to gloss over their compliance.

Possibly sensing that Henny's and Shanti's general ordeal, while intriguing in circumstance, is by no means unique, Seth extrapolates into more general meditations. Here Two Lives flounders. His rather bland pontifications on "the effect of German history" add nothing to the narratives of Shanti and Henny, and give only a slightly broader context to his project. His wider lens occasionally catches an interesting shot, such as Seth's confession of his own discomfort with Palestinian dispossession.

Mostly Two Lives works best as two love stories, recording both the "strong and sheltering harbour" of their decades-long marriage, and the author's testimony to his zesty, beloved uncle and the slightly aloof, independent, houseproud woman who would answer the telephone "Hendon six double three oh".

Seth agonised over the "vexed" matter of privacy, eventually opting to use Henny's personal papers. Even so, his material is limited, yet Two Lives straggles unpruned for 500 pages. He claims there is no catharsis in documenting these fond lives, but still rather obsessively pursues Shanti through hallucination and physical infirmity into a family spat over his will. There remains an imbalance between Seth's great affection for his dignified subjects, and the slight wider interest of their determined resilience. Two Lives gives us the author's aunt and uncle with some degree of intimacy, but surprisingly little greater understanding of the turbulence through which they lived.