Readers may be familiar with “The Hare with Amber Eyes,” Edmund de Waal’s memoir of his family’s lives, and loss, over the course of the 20th century. “The Exiles Return” was written by Edmund de Waal’s late grandmother Elisabeth. Set in the mid-1950s (it was written in the late ‘50s) “The Exiles Return” follows three people who return from the United States to Austria just at the end of the Allied occupation. Each returns with different expectations, not all of which will be met.
Professor Kuno Adler, who fled while Jews could still escape, has given up a position in an American hospital in order to seek restitution that’s been promised. His wife and daughters took to life in the United States, but Professor Adler never felt at home there. He’s pushing 50, and once he gets back to Vienna, Professor Adler finds it more difficult to fit in than he had anticipated. Many of his friends are gone, but a few remain. He has a position in a lab, but someone else is the director. The various lab technicians and assistants ignore him. On the other hand, Adler has the time, and freedom, to pursue some interesting ideas of his own, and that eventually opens up his life in a way he did not anticipate.
Theophilis Kanakis grew up in Vienna’s small but economically important Greek community – it was the source of much of the financial support for Vienna’s late-19th century growth. When Kanakis’ father died he took his inheritance to America and turned it into a fortune. He has returned in search of things — many Austrians, their fortunes wiped out during the war, are selling painting, art objects and, houses. Kanakis wants a perfect house, and he finds it. He’s also in search of experiences, sexual ones, that he thinks might be more tolerated in central Europe than in the Puritanical 1950s US.
The third protagonist is the very young – she’s about 18 and has just finished high school – Resi Larsen. Her mother was the youngest of three princesses whose love match to a Danish Lutheran – the family is Catholic – threatened the family equanimity, and Resi’s parents also went off to America when Resi was a small child. Her father is a successful chemist; her mother is effortlessly American; she has two younger siblings, both born in the US. But Resi is lost, and her parents send her off to her aunts in Austria in the hope that she’ll be able to find herself. She spends the summer with one aunt in the country, where she spends a great deal of time with her cousins and befriends several young men. They all move on to Vienna in the fall.
It’s the young men, and some extended family members, who connect Adler, Kanakis, and Larsen. Over the course of about nine months the three of them meet people, fall in love with locals, and begin to imagine their lives in this place that is both old and new. As their social circles enlarge and intersect the three head towards very different outcomes.
The stories are nicely resolved, and the setting, with the backdrop of post-war Austria and the efforts of various Austrians to persuade the exiles that they were not implicated in the crimes of the Nazis, is fascinating. (The results are mixed.) The book was not published in de Waal’s lifetime, and bears some signs of being unpolished. The pacing in the early parts is quite slow, but speeds up nicely without rushing towards the end. All the same, there’s a lot to like in this interesting novel.
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