The narrator of the book is a boy. The focus is on his development: how he learns about his town and its present reality, his family, his teachers, and what he should think about the many strange and quirky characters he encounters. For most of the book, the narrator and his sister do everything jointly and share a growing awareness as they emerge from childhood, so instead of “I” he writes mainly about “we” – adding to the strangeness. At a certain point late in the novel, he switches to “I” – when he and his sister are severed from having a sort of common identity.
The boy struggles to grasp reality. He writes: “we sensed that nothing we might ever encounter … would frighten us more than what Herr Tarangolin called the horror of the literary existence – the void that engulfs us when we have too little actual experience.” (p. 50 or Kindle location 997)
The narrator’s town, his family, his teachers, and the people around him are so strange that the focus often shifts to them. Some reviewers, in fact, see the central character as Tildy, a “Hussar,” displaced by the break up of the Austrian Empire. Tildy’s story and that of other aristocrats is important to the boy as he learns the values of his elders, but I think that it's only one of the key themes of the novel.
The family of the brother and sister is complicated. His parents are poor but high status, and have a number of servants; his mother’s three sisters live with them. All play a major role in the family and in the lives of the children. The parents hire one governess and two tutors who are very important as well. The earliest Jewish character in the novel is the governess, whose pretense is that she is not Jewish, but who clearly is – to the children’s confusion. The children eventually go to school, where they learn about the headmistress, the teachers, and their fellow pupils, many also Jewish.
Earlier in the novel, descriptions of people and events are often incomplete because the children are protected. Often, their mother sends them out of the room when the adults discuss or learn about things she doesn’t want children to hear. Thus the narrator is fascinated by adults who do tell him lurid things, like an elderly woman who loves to retell the story of her husband’s suicide and how she and her children watched it through a keyhole. He also realizes how women and men in his society have very different rights and possibilities (a very interesting theme that I’m not going to pursue here).
Above all, he becomes conscious of two types of people: aristocrats like Tildy and Jews like two school friends who are very important to him. The focus of the book slowly shifts to how he sees these groups.
From Tildy, the lesson the narrator learned is about destiny: “Destinies have become as rare as people with character,” he wrote, “and they are becoming harder and harder to find, the more we insist on replacing the concept of character with that of personality. Major Tildy, however, was a man of character ….” (p. 29 or Kindle location 620)
His two Jewish friends taught him many things, which he described in detail; early in his narrative about them he says “We have these two Jewish children to thank for the realization that the seat of the soul is found in the forehead and not the stomach, although we didn’t quite know at the time they were Jewish.” Not knowing and finding out that they were Jewish, and what that meant, is a key part of the story right up to the end; he writes“Only later … did we find out that they were Jews. So we didn’t make the usual discovery that Jews are also people, but rather the reverse, that people are sometimes also Jews. … in other words that there were no ‘typically Jewish’ traits, but rather a characteristically Jewish way of expressing traits that were simply human.” (p. 223-224 or Kindle location 4245 and 4273)
The way the narrator learns to think about other people is the most interesting part of the book. The other people in the parents’ lives are mostly from the upper classes of the town, along with some of the shopkeepers – mainly Jewish -- and a lot of military men or retired military men. People speak Russian, German, Hungarian, Romanian, Yiddish, and various local dialects, and bring many points of view and self interests into the story.
The parents and their friends belong to various Christian denominations (which are numerous, thanks to the complex legacy of the town, which includes its Austrian, Russian, and Hungarian populations and influences). But the shopkeepers, teachers, and other children include many Jews. The most unusual thing about the book is that it describes the relationship of Christians and Jews, the persecution of Jews, and the anti-Jewish sentiments of Christians all from a Christian point of view. In my reading experience, I have rarely read this much about Eastern European Jewish-Christian relations seen from any but a highly self-aware Jewish perspective. This is the most interesting part of the learning experience: the discovery of how people’s attitudes towards Jews varies, and how the children’s natural reaction that Jews are like other people isn’t shared by the adults in their lives.
The fictitious town, Czernopol, is in Romaina or Ukraine – it may be based on the “real” town of Czernowitz where the author grew up, but that’s not important because it’s clearly meant to be iconic. The town’s present, though also not identified specifically, seems to be in the 1920s or maybe 1930s – World War I is the important past, which has separated the town from the Austrian Empire, but has left its legacy. And one important part of the present is the looming threat of Germans and Nazis.
Recent reviews that doesn’t see the book quite as I do:
These reviews see Tildy as the center of the story. I see Tildy as one of the object lessons through which the boy narrator learns about humans and about how they form their ideas. Tildy’s nutty idealism leads him to challenge his military superiors to a duel, so they have him committed to an insane asylum. This is one side of human nature. Another side of human nature leads the townspeople to engage in a furious riot or pogrom, where the Jews’ shops and homes – including those of the children’s schoolmates – are destroyed. Idealism or furious antisemitism: these seem to be primary choices in this decaying remnant of Austrian Empire.
The epigraph and contributor to the title of the novel is “The ermine will die should her coat become soiled. – from the Physiologus.” Reviews interpret the quote to apply to Tildy; I think it resonates with the theme of antisemitic violence as well, though perhaps more subtly.