Love’s place in history
Debut novel charts a poignant and painful journey in letters
28 April, 2017 — By Piers Plowright
CAN love redeem history? That question is at the heart of Gerald Jacobs’ powerful and sometimes upsetting first novel. It begins with two letters: one dated June 1941 written in Baghdad and one dated March 1944 written in Budapest.
At different times and in very different places two ancient Jewish communities that have survived hardship and persecution, but have generally lived peacefully in a richly diverse net of cultures, are falling apart.
In Baghdad the Haroun family in the increasingly violent atmosphere of a pro-Nazi Iraq, are separated. Son Yusuf and his bride Farah are in London, in the safety of Stamford Hill. Matriarch Rivke, who writes the first love letter – to her son – is sticking it out in Baghdad with her ailing husband Sami, proprietor of the long-established “Haroun Silks”. And two days before Rivke writes her letter, the “Farhud” [pogrom] has hit the Iraqi capital: “In the space of two days, two thousand years of rich and fruitful Jewish life in Mesopotamia had come to a sudden, savage end.”
In Budapest, nearly three years later, the second love letter is from a father to a daughter. Respected doctor Chaim Weisz has just been picked up by the Hungarian secret police and manages to scribble a note to his beloved Anna, before being taken away to an unknown destination.
We do not discover his fate till much later. Hungary like Iraq, and after similar persecution of the Jews, has fallen to the Fascists. And what happens to Anna and her mother Sarah is the worst: the journey via the ghetto to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
So the twin narratives of Nine Love Letters are set up and become by a trick of fate intertwined. Each letter twists the threads a little tighter: among them, a love letter from a young British officer who’s one of the first to enter the hell of Belsen – and I’ve never read a more harrowing account of that moment – to Anna; a love letter from a married Anna settled in England to the mother she has no news of; a love letter, written in a Surrey psychiatric clinic, from Yusuf and Farah’s English born son, Eli, to Anna’s English born daughter, Belinda; and, most poignantly of all – the last – a love letter from Belinda’s daughter, Sarah, to her dead father, whose fate she has finally discovered.
It’s a long and often painful journey, though full of moments of celebration and restoration, and it covers a lot of ground both chronologically – from 1941 to 2003 – and emotionally.
For me, the landscape is a little too densely populated, names and places and characters sometimes threaten to overwhelm the plot, drowning the story in detail. But hang on in there. The book is about love and what it can achieve across cultures, religions, and prejudices. And love, it seems, can redeem history.
• Nine Love Letters. By Gerald Jacobs. Quartet Books £20