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1947: When Now Begins

BOOK REVIEW 1947: When Now Begins by Elisabeth Åsbrink

What is a calendar year, beyond the 365 days of fluctuating life; days packed from start to finish with political drama, cultural exploration, scientific breakthrough, human struggle, loss and tragedy; every kind of love and crisis?

Calendar years are bookends for birth and death, markers of before and after; signposts of failure and triumph. Some years are singular for the way they resonate with the deep pain of history: consider how large the years 1788 and 1915 loom in Australia’s own contested narrative of nationhood. The calendar year becomes a convenient milestone in the development of our political and cultural systems; a key marker of our history, regardless of the debates around the shape that history itself takes, and its subsequent meaning.

The twentieth century distinguished itself for its catalogue of darkly unforgettable years, particularly in the grim spectacle of world history between 1914 and 1989. But what of 1947? An anonymous year perhaps, lost in the folds between a disastrous world war and the booming age of 1950s consumerism and post-colonial struggle; after the atom bomb but before the golden years of democracy and rock ‘n roll. A grey year perhaps, of rationing and reconstruction. As it turns out, a lot happened in that otherwise neglected year; 1947: When Now Begins from Swedish journalist and writer Elisabeth Åsbrink arrives in Australian bookshops to tell that story, and has been lauded for its new way of treating history.

Serving as another example of the way non-fiction is providing much of the most innovative approaches to contemporary writing, Åsbrink’s book introduces a series of apparently unrelated episodes from 1947, all of which she sees as having continued resonance into our contemporary world. We move chronologically through the year, month by month, jumping from Malmö to Cairo, Paris to New York, Delhi to Berlin. A pattern takes shape amid this kaleidoscope, and below the hectic clutter of events there emerges a major and unifying narrative: the ongoing fate of European Jews and their attempts to found a new state in the immediate aftermath of the war. Åsbrink charts the endless and often fruitless negotiations of the United Nations Committee on Palestine following British withdrawal, and the despairingly difficult task of determining where and how to resettle surviving European Jews. Images of refugees crammed onto boats, drifting at sea and rejected by port authorities, will be instantly recognisable to Australian readers.

Some of the events of 1947 resonate today more than others; some have been chosen for their obvious appeal to the author. It is part of the strength of Åsbrink’s narrative that she manages to accord most an abiding historical interest, even if the case for each does not always convince. On the geopolitical level there is the partition of India, the birth of the CIA and the first stirrings of what would become the European Union; a complex web of Swedish underground fascists arranging secret passage to South America for hundreds of Nazis escaping trial and conviction; we also find, running as a thread through the year, the obsessive determination of lonely Raphael Lemkin to develop and codify into law the concept of genocide; in Egypt meanwhile, the birth of the Muslim Brotherhood under Hasan al-Banna. On a more personal level, we follow Simone de Beauvoir’s affair with US writer Nelson Algren and the commencement of her manuscript The Second Sex; George Orwell’s retreat to the island of Jura to write 1984; the launch of Christian Dior’s ‘new look’ that revolutionises fashion; and the developing jazz scene in New York with Thelonious Monk and Billy Holiday. And of course, the creation of the Kalashnikov rifle.

All this might have been a fascinating yet idiosyncratic take on the year 1947 if not for the middle section of the book. Halfway through the narrative of the year we find the fulcrum around which Åsbrink’s work revolves. In ‘Days and Death’ the tectonic shifts of history give way to the tight weave of the family, and in the book’s finest pages we learn the story of Åsbrink’s own family, lost in the maw of the Holocaust, and her father’s seemingly miraculous survival.

This is a wonderfully accessible account of a year. Ultimately however, the claim that 1947 is ‘where now begins’ does not entirely convince. The subtitle may be the publisher’s rather than the author’s work; regardless, such a broad claim must account for the fact that the continents of Asia, Africa, Oceania and South America are almost wholly absent. For all its qualities and readability, this is really a book about the construction of contemporary Europe and Israel, with a few nods to the United States.

There are exquisite moments, such as Åsbrink’s conceit of Dante in Auschwitz: civilisation here a fugitive crossing its own tracks, as Primo Levi enters the death camps and two models of European civilization intertwine and confront each other. There are one or two technical false notes, too: we hear in fragments throughout the book of a young Russian soldier, Mikhail, who is designing a new type of weapon. This carries on for nearly 200 pages until the surname of the soldier is revealed: Kalashnikov. This is a terribly kept secret, given both the cover blurb and photo reveal the presence of the immediately identifiable Kalashnikov. To be fair to the author, this is perhaps a case of book design undermining an attempt at suspense; even so, this is a chronicle of a weapon foretold.

And so to now. Our twenty-first century has begun as it means to continue: amid a flurry of political upheaval, fleet technology and human pain. Next year we will receive The Year Everything Changed: 2001 from Philippa McGuinness, allowing us to ponder that critical opening to a new century. And no doubt, scribes will turn to 2016 – across much of the western world at least, considered an annus horribilis without equal in living memory. We await the opportunity that time and distance afford to make sense of our own deeply confusing age.

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