Magazine article The Spectator

Chaos and the Old Order

Magazine article The Spectator

Chaos and the Old Order

Article excerpt

An Ermine in Czernopol by Gregor von Rezzori, translated by Philip Boehm New York Review of Books, £9.99, pp. 380, ISBN 978159017341

If Gregor von Rezzori is known to English language readers, it is likely to be through his tense, disturbing novel Memoirs of an Anti-Semite (partly written in English), and/or his ravishing memoir Snows of Yesteryear. Rezzori was born in 1914 in Czernowitz in Bukovina, when it belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After the first world war he became a citizen of Romania, from where, as a so-called ethnic German, he was 'repatriated' to Germany during the second world war.

From the 1960s he lived in Italy, at Santa Maddalena, the home that he shared with his second wife near Florence, which she has since set up as a writers' retreat. In the garden there is a porphyry pyramid, a monument to the deceased writer on which is inscribed 'citizen of Czernopol'. Although clearly modelled on Czernowitz (which is now in the Ukraine), Czernopol is a fictitious place. The inscription suggests that the world Rezzori came from is now so obscure that it survives only as myth. It may also indicate a belief that, if he were to be remembered, it should primarily be for An Ermine in Czernopol.

'Here you can find a dozen of the most disparate nationalities and at least half a dozen bitterly feuding faiths - all living in the most cynical harmony that is built on mutual aversion and common business dealings, ' says Herr Tarangolian, the sophisticated prefect of Czernopol. It is a teeming, contradictory city, a place of irony, laughter, tastelessness and 'extraordinary intelligence', portrayed through the shifting lens of a child's view recalled at an unspecified later date.

The narrative turns on the behaviour of Major Tildy, a former hussar in the Austro-Hungarian army. Fearless and totally humourless, he embodies the codes of chivalry and honour that characterised the old order, and he wishes to impose them on the chaos he sees around him. …

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