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1947 Elisabeth Åsbrink, 1947 (1947: When Now Begins)

Natur & Kultur,  2016.

Reviewed by Anna Paterson in SBR 2017:1

Review Section: Non-fiction

The history of a short period of time – a decade, or perhaps a year – poses a few tricky problems for the historian: for instance, how to handle the background to events, or their future impact, or to explain who is who and exactly why these people matter (or not). Elisabeth Åsbrink has chosen one year – 1947 – and tightened the framework by subdividing her narrative into months. By 1947, the post-WW2 chaos had settled a little, people had begun to deal with the ruins of social systems and beliefs as well as buildings and to get a grip on what could be done next. The arts, too, were emerging from under the shadow of war. Åsbrink casts her net wide to include something of everything, from entertainment to legislation to insurgency.

It is her eclectic approach and her fascination with her own Jewish family’s fate that set 1947 apart from its perhaps closest literary relation, Ian Buruma’s Year Zero: A History of 1945. Buruma does reflect on what happened to his father during the war and later, but his main concerns are how wartime actuality differed from the ‘heroic narrative’ of the victorious nations and how the peace was shaped. By 1947, the Nuremberg trials were underway, Marshall Aid instated, the UN set up and a united Europe at least under discussion. The beleaguered British are observed as they back out of their imperial role in India and the Middle East: their efforts come across as alternately ruthless and bitterly funny.We are not told about the other shattered empires, once run by the French, the Dutch and the Japanese. While crimes against  humanity were subjected to legal scrutiny by men like Raphael Lemkin and transformed into literature by Primo Levi, a wave of solidarity united old and new Nazis. The old guard went underground in Latin America, but new centres emerged in Sweden and in a Middle East that was beginning to become fascinated by the Muslim Brotherhood and its ‘jihadist’ version of Islam.

Meanwhile, Simone de Beauvoir went to the USA and fell in love, and Dior went to the USA and was vilified for his New Look (too much cloth). America offered the European exiles prosperity and freedom, but the toxic mixture of racism and persecution of ‘un-American activities’ was already affecting native musicians and film-makers, represented by Thelonious Monk and Billie Holiday and, of course, ‘The Hollywood Ten’. So many other tantalising snapshots: look, for instance, at US Navy Rear Admiral and computer expert Grace Hopper, who is creating a powerful computer language; over there on Jura, George Orwell, sick and mostly alone, is happy in his work (we hope) on the manuscript of 1984.

Where does Åsbrink’s family fit in? They are in her mind and surely contribute to shaping the emotional, often beautiful language in which she evokes the shadowy world of 20th- century family history. She has entered that world in a previous book (Och i Wienerwald står träden kvar) and in 1947, passages are set aside for the fate of her father’s father, who was worked to exhaustion and then killed,and her father, a twice-exiled child.

That the exploration of her own past was a driving force behind her selection of people and events from 1947 gives the book its special atmosphere. For all Åsbrink’s wide reading, 1947 is deliberately not presented as a work by a professional historian – it has neither index nor systematic notes, only a list of informal comments that is maddeningly incomplete. If this sounds like carping, it is not meant to be, and should in no way detract from a wonderfully readable, insightful and often moving study of the past.

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