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Rose McClelland - The Unbound Underground (online review), 7 Mai 20124 Stars out of 5: A great book to read slowly and meditate over, and maybe read again. It’s a great book for people interested in a sober look at how family and cultural events shape identity, even collective identity, and what it means to live without having a sense of either. The prose is not difficult, but it is unique in the language that it uses, which will please readers who have any kind of affection for poetry. And while “Five Amber Beads” is an amazing read that I would recommend without question, it is written in a particularly literary way which may not appeal to readers who prefer genres with more action or a faster pace.
“Five Amber Beads” is a novel by Richard Aronowitz which intertwines the lives of two hospital patients: one an amnesiac without an identity, and one recovering from a traffic accident that left both his legs broken. Charley Bernstein, a British art historian, was visiting New York in order to place his great-uncle’s concentration-camp diary in a Holocaust museum, when he stepped distractedly into a bone-shattering traffic collision.
As he recovers, he becomes friends with another patient in the hospital who is entirely without memory and identity, but who has been nicknamed ‘Christopher’ by the hospital staff. When Charley is finally released from the hospital to return to his home in the U.K., he vows he will help Christopher prove his existence to the government anyway he can. But as Charley works to aid Christopher in obtaining the appropriate documentation of his citizenship, Charley begins to understand the complex nature of identity, and begins to see himself and Christopher as similar to the works of art he has spent his life researching.
There are lots of interesting and thought-provoking elements to Mr. Aronowitz’s novel. First, the prose is wonderfully poetic and gives the book a kind of musical repetition of thoughts and phrases, which have a different meaning in each new context. But Mr. Aronowitz is wise enough to restrain his obvious talent with words in order to give each moment a special resonance, and does not overuse the technique. Perhaps part of this is due to the fact that Mr. Aronowitz does not have to add much to the subject of his story in order to convince readers of its impact, as Mr. Aronowitz has chosen to write about one the of the most shocking events in modern memory: The Holocaust.
Charley, who is part Jewish by descent, spends much of his time plotting the past trajectory of works of art, many of which were looted by the Nazis in the Second World War. As he tries to help Christopher regain his memory, Charley becomes more and more intrigued by his own family’s past and seeks to construct himself and Christopher both as he would the life a million-dollar painting.
Another excellent aspect of “Five Amber Beads” is that Mr. Aronowitz skillfully weaves the relationship of past and present together in a strangely overlapping and a repetitious pattern (not unlike his prose). The story is told in present tense (a feat in itself, really) and shifts between Charley’s perspective and the diary entries of his great uncle’s experiences in a concentration camp.
Additionally, Mr. Aronowitz gives the diary entries the sober respect they deserve and doesn’t attempt to mix in any melodramatic schmaltz. The tone of the diary entries (which we learn at the end of the book are from an actual first-person account of the Holocaust) reminded me a great deal of Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” which has a similar recollections of the mundane daily details of on-going genocide, and Mr. Aronowitz leaves them unmolested.
The voice of the diary entries is powerful like a horror-film camera frame which shows some violence, but only implies the worst. While I’m not entirely sure it’s right to credit Mr. Aronowitz with the impact of the diary-entries he includes, he was at least wise enough to let them stand alone without adding any over-the-top staging of death-camp atrocities. Even before we are told the diaries are real thoughts of a Holocaust survivor, we believe their authenticity.
The only real problem I can find in this “Five Amber Beads” is the pacing which is contemplative and even idea-driven over either plot or character. It’s not necessarily a bad pace, but it is slower than some readers will like, in the beginning particularly. Beyond that, people looking for an entertaining beach-read, or something to read while killing time at the dentist's, will be out of their desired depths by quite a lot. This is a book that demands a reader's full attention.
Christian House, Independent on Sunday, 9 April 2006“Five Amber Beads by Richard Aronowitz: Old guy for sale: nice patina, slightly worn ”…At a key point in Perfect Strangers, Stephen Poliakoff's TV drama, a young man scans the various oddballs congregating at the reunion of his sprawling Jewish family and notes: "If you dig hard enough there are at least three great stories in any family." With Five Amber Beads Richard Aronowitz has drawn on his own Jewish legacy and dusted off just such a treasure from the vaults of his family's past: a long forgotten tale of Holocaust survival. By turning this into fiction he has created a fine debut novel that marks him out as a writer with a singularly pictorial style.
At the opening of the book Charley Bernstein is an art expert in distress. After being bowled over by a yellow cab he lies marooned on a Manhattan hospital bed with his legs in traction. Company comes in the frail form of a septuagenarian amnesiac called Christopher Street (named after the road on which he was discovered with head injuries). They form an odd couple but Charley recognises the human worth of this old man: "In some senses Christopher is a work of art. Fashioned by time, by an unknown hand, circa 1920... European in origin. Nice patina, slightly worn. A good investment for any discerning collector of people."When Charley is discharged he takes on the authentication of a Modigliani in the Middle East while pledging to return and spring Christopher from the ward and his blank memory. This present-day saga is peppered with entries from the wartime diary of Charley's Great Uncle Isy. These form a litany of deprivation and monstrous cruelty, first in a labour camp and then the hell of Auschwitz. The two narratives, separated by nearly 60 years, are blended together, linked by Isy and Christopher's shared desire for an understanding of personal identity in the face of overwhelming trauma.
Whether it is entirely believable that Charley would help Christopher to such an extreme, and criminal, extent is questionable, although this is a novel that revolves around the kindness of strangers, with random compassion frequently making the difference between hope and despair, life and death, in Isy's account of the camps. Where Aronowitz really succeeds is in dazzling the reader with startling imagery, sometimes using broad strokes to capture the world at war while in others narrowing his focus to human mannerisms with the precision of a draughtsman.
Aronowitz knows the art world milieu particularly well having worked as an Impressionist and Modern art researcher at Sotheby's. The role of cataloguing masterpieces is one of detection: pinpointing the moment that Picasso doodled to the roar of the bull ring or Pollack traded a drip painting for the less abstract pleasures of a crate of beer and then mapping the work's trajectory from its origins to the auction room. Aronowitz uses the same skills to trace the secret provenance of his characters and in doing so infuses them with a greater understanding and a context for their existence.
It's an effective way of dealing with such infamous events. After several cinematic treatments, and the literary success of Bernhard Schlink's The Reader and Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated, one might wonder whether fiction has anything new to say about the Holocaust. Through his shimmering use of the language of art Aronowitz has shown that it has.
John Sutherland, “In from the wilderness”, Financial Times, 19 Mai 2006Richard Aronowitz’s Five Amber Beads is another first novel, and a good one. Charley Bernstein, the narrator, is an art detective who tracks down paintings stolen by the Nazis. His mother came to England as a Kindertransport refugee and married an Englishman. Charley has assumed his mother’s Jewish surname (”amber” in German). In New York, after an accident, he wakes up in a ward with an old man who has lost his memory. He is European, perhaps German, and was clearly involved in the second world war. But how? Charley adopts “Christopher” and procures a passport for him in the name of his Jewish grandfather. They both go hunting their lost identity.The narrative follows three convergent tracks. One is the murky provenance of a Modigliani painting, now in Israel. The second is the gradual uncovering of Christopher’s mysterious past. The third is the diary of Charley’s great-uncle, an Auschwitz survivor. Everything finally links, as in the amber necklace that is Charley’s relic of his mother. A postscript confirms that Five Amber Beads is as much autobiography as fiction - which is how it reads. Very effectively.
Rachel Hore, “Original researches”, The Guardian, 29 April 2006Questions of identity inform this tender debut. Narrator Charley Bernstein, a London art whizz hired to investigate the legal ownership of paintings offered for sale, is holed up in a New York hospital following a road accident. There he befriends an elderly fellow patient, "Christopher", who was scooped up off the street with neither papers nor memory. Back on his feet, Charley decides to help the confused man, not least because he, too, is researching his own origins. His mother Eva, a German Jew who travelled to England on the Kindertransport in 1939, has recently died. From among her papers emerges a secret diary written in a labour camp by the only family survivor of the Holocaust, her uncle Isy. Haunting extracts from the diary are interwoven skilfully with Charley's reflections as he and his wife accompany Christopher on a journey into the past. Familiar subject matter, perhaps, but the writer's distinctive poetic voice offers a welcome fresh perspective.
Simon Baker, “A Choice of First Novels”, The Spectator, 15 Juli 2006:Amnesia plays a role in Richard Aronowitz's début, too. In Five Amber Beads Charley Bernstein, an English art expert in his thirties, spends time in a New York hospital after being hit by a car. There he meets 'Christopher Street', an elderly patient who was found semi-conscious on a sidewalk, with no witnesses around to provide a clue as to how he got there, no identification, and, worst of all, no memory (his 'name' happens to be that of the place where he was found). Charley and Christopher become friends, and when Charley recovers and departs for England, he agrees to help Christopher in any way he can. The first of the novel's two strands involves Charley's attempts to deliver on his promise. He gets hold of a fake passport for Christopher (who may not apply legitimately for a passport since he does not know his own personal details), and plans his illicit escape. The second strand concerns a diary written by Charley's great-uncle Isy, who was interned in a concentration camp during the second world war but, thanks to his leadership qualities, was given a supervisory role over his fellows. Though separated by 60 years, Isy's and Christopher's quests for identity are closely bound, and Aronowitz portrays with elegance and thoughtfulness what it means to lose one's sense of self.
Margaret Studer, Wall Street Journal Europe, 29th Dezember 2006:... a poetic novel based in the art world... Five Amber Beads is a first novel by Richard Aronowitz, a restitution specialist at Sotheby's in London The novel caught my attention because restitution of art confiscated by the Nazis during World War II has become a major area of interest as more works are returned to heirs, many of which subsequently come up at auction.
Mr. Aronowitz tells the story of a young art consultant's friendship with an older man who has lost his memory. The art consultant is an expert in determining if an artwork has been stolen by the Nazis, and in the book, he examines a work by Amedeo Modigliani for a New York dealer that he identifies as stolen. The character's mother was a Jewish refugee from the Nazis who came to England, and one of her few possessions was a necklace of five amber beads, which reflected the history of the family. Through the art consultant's research into his family, the importance of keeping a memory of the past comes graphically alive. Told in almost poetic language, the novel contributes to our understanding of the human need for restitution.