The Hare With Amber Eyes – acclaimed potter Edmund De Waal’s story of tracing his family history through 264 tiny Japanese ornaments – has been a phenomenal success despite what might be thought of as a rather niche subject matter. I was eager to know what all the fuss was about, particularly in the wake of the news that it was the cited in the annual ‘Book of the Year’ roundups more than any other title of 2010.
De Waal’s story takes us from fin de siècle Paris, through war-ravaged Vienna and Tokyo, to London. Yet it blends enormous sweep with microscopic, tactile precision. A large part of the book’s richness comes from the fact that it’s about touch, about how objects feel in your hands, the meaning they gather over time, and the way each one can tell its own story:
‘All this matters because my job is to make things. How objects get used, handled and handed on is not just a mildly interesting question to me. It is my question. I have made many, many thousands of pots. I am very bad at names, I mumble and fudge, but I am good on pots. I can remember the weight and balance of a pot, and how its surface works with its volume. I can read how an edge creates tension or loses it. I can feel whether it has been made with speed or with diligence. If it has warmth. I can see how it works with the objects that sit nearby. How it displaces a small part the world around it.’
Reading this is a bit like having a conversation with a brilliant violinist after watching them play – they just seem attuned to something separate, something bigger, that you’ve not really registered before. You just want to touch something as you read it.
But while this intimate, personal family history moves us, it also does something that history as a genre has an innate capacity to do, time and time again: shock. Here’s a passage from Austrian-Israelite Union’s summer newspaper, for example, published in the days after the First World War kicks off, which gives voice to the sanguinity of Vienna’s Jewish community:
‘In this hour of danger we consider ourselves to be fully entitled citizens of the state…we want to thank the Kaiser with the blood of our children and with our possessions for making us free; we want to prove to the state that we are its true citizens, as good as anyone…’
Then, the shocker:
‘After this war, with all its horrors, there cannot be any more anti-semitic agitation… we will be able to claim full equality.’
Germany, they believed, would free the Jews. It’s chilling stuff, made all the more unsettling by De Waal’s unerring precision.