Shanghaied in Shanghai

By Dickstein, Lore | Moment, January-February 2008 | Go to article overview

Shanghaied in Shanghai


Dickstein, Lore, Moment


Farewell, Shanghai

By Angel Wagenstein

Translated by Elizabeth Frank and Deliana Simeonova

Handsel Books, New York

2007, $24.95, pp. 382

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Thanks to one of Hollywood's best movies, nearly everyone knows of Casablanca, but perhaps Farewell, Shanghai, a sprawling, kaleidoscopic novel by the Bulgarian novelist and screenwriter, Angel Wagenstein will bring attention to Shanghai's largely forgotten but fascinating history. Like Casablanca during World War II, Shanghai was "a nexus of economic, political, and military interests, diplomatic intrigues, and personal ambitions -a meeting place for the criminal world, international adventurers, spies, and profiteers, people uprooted and hunted, and those in search of strong sensations or easy money." In the late 1930s, when Nazi anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria was reaching unbearable, dangerous heights, most countries closed their doors or imposed tight restrictions on immigration. But Shanghai, unlike any other destination, including the United States, was an open city that required no visa, no affidavit of guaranteed support, no health or police certificate, no work permit. There were no quotas. For many persecuted and desperate Jews, it was the port of last resort.

A teeming city at the mouth of the Yangtze River, Shanghai was home to millions of destitute Chinese. Occupied by the Japanese after 1937, the city also held foreign concessions or settlements: England, France, Germany and other European countries had, in the 19th century, staked colonial claims within the city limits and exercised extraterritorial rights that were not subject to local law. More than goods passed through the docks of Shanghai, where almost anything or anyone could be bought or sold.

By mid-1939, almost 20,000 middle-class German and Austrian Jews who had been stripped of almost all their possessions by the Nazis had found a haven in Shanghai. There they joined long-established and wealthy Iraqi Jews, poor Russian refugees who had fled the 1905 pogroms and White Russian nobility driven out by the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. (Not surprisingly, there was little group solidarity among these exiles, who viewed each other with suspicion.) As seen in the 2005 Merchant-Ivory film, The White Countess, set in the 1930s, Shanghai was famous for its beautiful, aristocratic Russian women, once wealthy and trained in classical ballet, who now worked as taxi dancers or prostitutes.

Farewell, Shanghai captures this political and cultural maelstrom during World War II. Vividly written, paced like a thriller and rich with cinematic detail, the reader can practically smell the fetid, swampy air of the city. Wagenstein's smoothly translated and fluid narrative has a sardonic edge, which helps temper the omniscient tone he uses to foreshadow future events. Some characters are fictional and some are composites of real people; they all mingle with historical figures and take part in actual events. Wagenstein sorts some of this out in a useful afterword; he has benefited from recently opened Soviet files on the Far East during the war.

The novel opens in Europe in November 1938 with an ingenious musical flourish, a performance of Haydn's "Farewell" Symphony No. …

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