An Ermine in Czernopol is an autobiographical novel by the European writer Gregor von Rezzori. Rezzori was born in Czernowitz in 1914, four years before it became a part of the Kingdom of Romania after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So in this novel, which is set right after WWI, Czernopol is based on Czernowitz in its transitional period.
An Ermine in Czernopol is narrated to us by two (or three) young siblings who describe their experiences as a collective “we” in a curiously adult voice. They have interesting anecdotes to tell for they live in a multi-ethnic city surrounded by a host of memorable characters, but it is the story of major Nikolaus Tildy that fill their childhood with fascination. In their eyes, Tildy is “the last knight” in their changing world, the only man who’d abide by the era’s vanishing moral code. However, to others, Tildy is a humorless military officer, who is mad enough to try and defend the virtue of his licentious sister-in-law, which becomes his undoing in the end.
Although Tildy plays a considerable role at the beginning of the novel, more themes such as the city’s growing antisemitism appear as the story moves along. While it was disconcerting to see the siblings becoming exposed to racial biases/ prejudices held by the adults from a young age, I liked how their perceptions changed after their interactions with Jewish friends at school.
At home we consistently heard remarks about Jews that were disparaging but also stretched into a grotesque or burlesque form that couldn’t be taken seriously, and which left us with an exaggerated impression of their essential nature – a notion that was contradicted by the reality we were now experiencing.
Out of all the NYRB Classics I’ve read, An Ermine in Czernopol is the toughest I’ve come across. I appreciated its dark, tragicomic writing, but the dense prose required concentration, and now I have this annoying feeling that I might not have understood the kernel of the book! So I think I’ll find myself returning to this in future, possibly after reading more about the history of Austro-Hungarian Empire/ Czernowitz to see if my suspicions have merit. But for now, I’m giving this 3.5 stars – there were some oddly moving moments in the novel which I treasured. 🙂
Note: Many thanks to NYRB Classics for sending me a review copy of An Ermine in Czernopol.