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Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Book Review: Two Lives

Introduction
I bought and read this book for two reasons.
The first is that Vikram Seth is a fine writer. I have read and enjoyed two of his other books: The Golden Gate a verse novel set in California and An Equal Music a book set in the world of classical music.
Two Lives is a biography of two of Seth's relatives. I am writing a Family History with my parents so my second reason for reading the book was to see how Seth approached the task of biography.


The two lives described in the book are those of Seth's great-uncle Shanti and his great-aunt Henny. These are a somewhat unlikely couple. They both lived more that half their lives in England. Shanti was an Indian and Henny was a German of Jewish extraction.

The story of how they steered their lives through the tempestuous 1930s and 1940s to finally marry is an interesting one. To read a brief description click on the link below.

How they met

Shanti decided, reluctantly, to take up dentistry at the urging of his brother, Raj who said, "In our family we have an engineer, an accountant, a judge and a doctor but no dentist. Why don't you train for that?" Shanti already had a B.Sc. qualification but was not confident of obtaining a job, so he applied to Paris and Berlin Universities in dentistry, and was offered places in both. He tried out Paris but he didn't enjoy France. He quickly went on to England where he was uncertain about studying in Germany as he did not understand the language. He went to Berlin, in July 1931, all the same and after accommodation at a number of different locations boarded with a Jewish family called Caros. The Caros had three children, Lola, Heinz and Henny. Shanti and Henny became friends but the relationship did not develop any further as Henny was being by Hans Mahnert, whose father was Henny's boss at work.

Shanti proved his talent with languages and dentistry as he succeeded in passing his course although it was in a foreign language. He had to learn German as well as dentistry. He passed his exams in April 1936, a few months before the infamous Berlin Olympics.


The rise of the Nazis formed a backdrop to Shanti's time in Berlin and the Nazi government was the reason for Shanti's departure from Germany late that year. He had been offered an academic position following the completion of his dissertation. (Incidentally, Henny's sister Lola typed the dissertation and corrected infidelities in his German.) This appointment was overturned by the Ministry of Education. Shanti reluctantly returned to England, only with hindsight realising how lucky he was.

Shanti's problems were not over though as his German qualifications were not recognised in England. He spent a difficult year in the beautiful city of Edinburgh sitting exams every two weeks and finally achieved his British dental qualification.


Meanwhile conditions in Germany went from bad to worse for the Jewish Caro family. Heinz managed to leave for South America in 1938. Henny, who knew some English, was sponsored by a relative of her boyfriend Hans. She arrived in England just a month before the war started. Her mother and sister stayed behind in Berlin.

World War II brought tribulations for all of those whose stories are related in the book. None worse than for Henny's mother and sister, Lola. Henny kept up an intermittent communication with them, which stopped after November 1942. The author found documents listing people who were transported on cattle trains to the concentration camps. He discovered that they were both transported in mid May 1943. There is of cause no record of their death, along with millions of other people, but it is unlikely that they survived in the camps for long. Henny did not discover the fate of her mother and sister until after the war.

Shanti joined the British Army as a dentist and saw action in North Africa and Italy. He corresponded regularly and affectionately with Henny. At the battle of Monte Casino in Italy he had his right arm blown off. Henny was working in England sharing with the English the privations of wartime Britain.

After the war Shanti and Henny were seen by their friends as a couple and in 1949 they were engaged and in 1951 they were married. Shanti managed to develop a successful dental practice even though he had only one arm. Their lives had been buffeted severely by the events of the first half of the 20th Century. They lived quietly as a married couple in the more relaxed and less violent second half of the century.


The structure of the book
As I read Seth's book, I was interested in how he structured it. In the family history that I am writing, I do not appear as the author. Although I am the author the sections on my father and mother are written in their voice. Dad's section is called Eric's Story and Mum's section, Edna's story. I will appear later in Stephen's story.

Seth could have taken a similar tack writing as a disinterested and non-intrusive author, but he chose another approach. He started the book with his arrival as a 17 year old to stay with Shanti and Henny. He come to England to continue his education. The first section is a brief biography of the author with regular reference to Shanti and Henny.It finishes with Shanti and Henny's deaths and describes the process of Vikram's decision to write the book.

Section 2 describes Shanti's life up to the end of the war. Section 3 is about Hunny. When the author came to write about Henny she was already dead. The conditions in Germany before, during and after the war, are described in correspondence between Henny and her friends, most of whom were in Germany. This is a fairly harrowing section of the book. The last two parts 4 and 5 describe the married life of Shanti and Henny.

The book comes full circle in the end and the author appears explicitly again. He describes visiting some of the locations described earlier in the book finishing with the house where Shanti and Henny spent their married lives.

One theme of Seth's book and our family history is the intertwining of private and public lives. Although my parents did not live in circumstances as dangerous as Seth's uncle and aunty, their lives were effected by the great events in the world, particularly depression and war.


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