In 1871, a knock at the door of cattle-dealer Salomon Meijer changes the life of the entire Meijer family. But this will not be for the last time. Over a period of almost seventy years, strangers enter the lives of this family, sometimes with the most unpromising of entrances, but always they transform it, bringing love, marriage, business opportunities and, often disturbingly, news of life beyond the island of Switzerland.
Anti-Semitism is well-established and a part of everyday life in central Europe in 1871, although some prefer to keep it hidden, with both Jews and non-Jews maintaining a polite distance, curious and puzzled by the customs and habits of the other. But over the course of these seventy years, all this is changed by the rise of National Socialism. The Meijer family is luckier than most, safe in neutral Switzerland but, while Switzerland becomes a sanctuary for the lucky few to escape Germany, the Meiers are not alone in feeling under threat. Not all of them are safe. And whispering in their ears the entire time, through all the years of love, marriages, disappointments, achievements, births and deaths, is the voice of Uncle Melnitz, the man who dies over and over again, his sole job to remind his kin of the plight of the Jews, to take the edge off every moment of happiness, to forewarn and tease.
Melnitz is a grand family saga covering five generations of the Meijer family and divided into four sections: 1871, 1893, 1913 and 1937. When the story begins, Janki arrives on the doorstep of Salomon (to whom he is complicatedly related) half-dead and a refugee of the Franco-Prussian War. Janki is French and as he revives and is adopted into this family, stirring up the two young women of the house, he brings about his dream of opening a shop to sell the finest Parisian fabrics. But Janki is not only a Frenchman he is also a Jew and it takes time and trouble for his life to become established. As we follow Janki and his family we watch Janki endure increasing prejudice until one event happens in particular that will almost rob him from these pages. This is a true power of Melnitz – the characters engage us with their daily lives, their small adventures and their little achievements but sometimes something will happen and that will snap these people right back into their shells. Occasionally, characters will be inspired to undertake great acts of bravery – two stand out in particular, during the First World War and in the months leading to the Second – but some disappear into themselves. It is painful for us. We get to know these people. It’s difficult to watch them suffer.
Five generations come and go through the novel. Some characters stand out more than most, some disappear too soon, others prove themselves to be extraordinary while others are shown to be perfectly normal, living from day to day, engaged with their family and/or business. But then they get a jolt – the arrival of another outsider, and the small world of Switzerland is expanded once more. Repeatedly, though, there are shocking reminders of what the Jew must suffer. One can dress the same as everyone else, even undergoing baptism, but everyone will always know – a Jew is always a Jew.
I am such a fan of family sagas. I love to become involved with people through decades of time, watching them change and, hopefully, meet their just desserts, whether for good or bad. This novel is a little different because you know that events are underway that are outside the characters’ control and the shadow of National Socialism is about as dark as a shadow can get. Melnitz appealed for all these reasons and it was a compelling read. It is a very substantial book, beautifully written, and it develops slowly. It is full of daily life, revealing the eccentricities of the characters – Salomon in particular is quite a character while Arthur, a 1930s doctor, is such an appealing figure, taking years – and many pages – to know himself. The female characters are slightly less well developed in my opinion but Chanele, Salomon’s adopted daughter who is no daughter, is wonderful. Throughout we are introduced to a veritable host of cameo figures who come and go, each leaving their mark. The pace is slow at times but it is by no means dull. The banter of conversation, the telling of events, relationships and foibles is done with such delicacy and wit. And now and again Uncle Melnitz adds the slightest breath of fantasy.
The narrative is interspersed throughout with Yiddish terms. I can understand why but I did find these a little tiresome after a while, despite the lengthy glossary at the back. There are an awful lot of them. There are also more typos and errors than I would expect – they probably only number a few but I found them very noticeable. The prose itself, though, is really rather beautiful in places, in words and in structure. The English translation by Shaun Whiteside is excellent.
While the first half of Melnitz seems to be all about establishing the family, its relationships, its village life and business aspirations, the second half is about the impact of the outside world on that life. This meant that, for me, the second half was a much faster read and I got drawn further and further into these lives. But the second half wouldn’t have had the emotional impact it had without the background lovingly laid down in the first. Melnitz is a rewarding, thoughtful read. It contains frequent moments of light, shining in an increasingly and frighteningly dark world.