Scapegoats of the European tribe
The Nature of Blood by Caryl Phillips, Faber, pounds 15.99 Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels, Bloomsbury, pounds 15.99
Saturday 25 January 1997
Eva's voice is the most moving of all those we hear in this novel's collection of fictional characters made real. She speaks as an outsider not only because she is a Jew and an orphan and later a foreigner in England, but because the Nazis denied her humanity, made her a stranger to herself.
The tragedy of Othello, the other major voice here, is that he has lost sight of his identity. An African with royal blood who was once a slave, he is only accepted by Venetian society because of his military skills. His marriage to a white woman will come to grief because he is "a sad black man, first in a long line of so-called achievers who are too weak to yoke their past with their present".
Phillips, who described Jews as the "niggers of Europe" in his travel book The European Tribe, tries hard to make connections between Jews' and Black people's experiences of oppression. Eva and Othello share the novel with 15th-century Jewish usurers accused of killing a Christian boy and using his blood to make matzos, and Malka, a young Falasha woman brought from the Ethiopian desert to the ghettos of Israel.
In the last chapter, Eva's uncle, once a member of the Jewish underground in Palestine and now a retired doctor, meets Malka at a club where young women are paid to dance with lonely elderly men. In old age, beset by memories of his family lost in the Holocaust, he needs a companion, and she wants to escape the cramped life of her family.
Before he noticed her, no one asked her to dance, and even he worries that his friends will see him with a black woman. Spirited away from her home, she is never made welcome in the "promised land". Like Othello, she and her people have lost their bearings.
It is an uneasy meeting for the doctor, and for the novel. With the Black Jews in Israel, Phillips suggests not only a confluence of identities but the oppression of those who become the "other". This seems an easy irony, a convenient, contrived coda to stories about the persecution of Jews and Blacks. The doctor's memory of Eva and her sister Margot too neatly wraps up the novel; we begin and end with him yet his is not a strong enough voice to join up all the others.
Perhaps it is impossible to unite narratives and voices remote from each other, to reach any resolution of Philips' questions about identity, guilt and oppression. His expository paragraphs about Venice and Othello, meant as ironic commentary, seem pretentious. Even the thoughts of a doctor who treats Eva, though perceptive, are an intrusion into our understanding of her life.
Yet many of the connections Phillips makes between characters are subtle and interesting. Both Eva and Malka are led astray by promises of a new life. Othello's shame at leaving his family is mirrored by Malka's estrangement from her parents and Eva's survivor's guilt.
What finally sustains the book is Eva's voice. Her numbed recollections of the camps, her fantasies in which past and present merge, show us that memories may destroy us but we cannot live without them: "If only I had a photograph, so that people could see who I was." WB
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