Five Amber Beads by Richard Aronowitz

Old guy for sale: nice patina, slightly worn

Christian House
Wednesday 01 April 2009 22:31

At a key point in Perfect Strangers, Stephen Poliakoff's TV drama, a young man scans the various oddballs congregating at the reunion of his sprawling Jewish family and notes: "If you dig hard enough there are at least three great stories in any family." With Five Amber Beads Richard Aronowitz has drawn on his own Jewish legacy and dusted off just such a treasure from the vaults of his family's past: a long forgotten tale of Holocaust survival. By turning this into fiction he has created a fine debut novel that marks him out as a writer with a singularly pictorial style.

At the opening of the book Charley Bernstein is an art expert in distress. After being bowled over by a yellow cab he lies marooned on a Manhattan hospital bed with his legs in traction. Company comes in the frail form of a septuagenarian amnesiac called Christopher Street (named after the road on which he was discovered with head injuries). They form an odd couple but Charley recognises the human worth of this old man: "In some senses Christopher is a work of art. Fashioned by time, by an unknown hand, circa 1920... European in origin. Nice patina, slightly worn. A good investment for any discerning collector of people."

When Charley is discharged he takes on the authentication of a Modigliani in the Middle East while pledging to return and spring Christopher from the ward and his blank memory. This present-day saga is peppered with entries from the wartime diary of Charley's Great Uncle Isy. These form a litany of deprivation and monstrous cruelty, first in a labour camp and then the hell of Auschwitz. The two narratives, separated by nearly 60 years, are blended together, linked by Isy and Christopher's shared desire for an understanding of personal identity in the face of overwhelming trauma.

Whether it is entirely believable that Charley would help Christopher to such an extreme, and criminal, extent is questionable, although this is a novel that revolves around the kindness of strangers, with random compassion frequently making the difference between hope and despair, life and death, in Isy's account of the camps. Where Aronowitz really succeeds is in dazzling the reader with startling imagery, sometimes using broad strokes to capture the world at war while in others narrowing his focus to human mannerisms with the precision of a draughtsman.

Aronowitz knows the art world milieu particularly well having worked as an Impressionist and Modern art researcher at Sotheby's. The role of cataloguing masterpieces is one of detection: pinpointing the moment that Picasso doodled to the roar of the bull ring or Pollack traded a drip painting for the less abstract pleasures of a crate of beer and then mapping the work's trajectory from its origins to the auction room. Aronowitz uses the same skills to trace the secret provenance of his characters and in doing so infuses them with a greater understanding and a context for their existence.

It's an effective way of dealing with such infamous events. After several cinematic treatments, and the literary success of Bernhard Schlink's The Reader and Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated, one might wonder whether fiction has anything new to say about the Holocaust. Through his shimmering use of the language of art Aronowitz has shown that it has.

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