An Exclusive Love by Johanna Adorjan

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An Exclusive Love by Johanna Adorjan

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: George Care
Reviewed by George Care
Summary: A young woman who seeks to unravel the mysteries of her grandparents' tragic decision; a tale of memory, belonging and devotion. We have a video for you - below - but apologise that his is in German.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 192 Date: February 2012
Publisher: Vintage Books
ISBN: 978-0099552673

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This moving memoir tells of the double suicide of both István (a Hungarian-Jewish form of Stephen) and his wife Vera one Sunday morning in October. The story is told by their granddaughter, Joanna Adorján and tells of her close fondness for them both but in particular with Vera, with whom the author shares many characteristics. The story begins with the systematic persecution of such Hungarian Jews in Budapest under the Nazi occupation and describes their perilous flight to Denmark after the Soviet occupation of Hungary in 1956. It ends with the police reports of the duty officer dated 15.10.91 with the discovery of their bodies in their bungalow in the Charlottenlund, a town of the Capital Region of Denmark. Entry is gained by a local locksmith who charged 297.02 kroner. It is the charm and lyricism with which this tale is related which makes this fateful, haunting and profoundly moving story about identity both sad and memorable.

The narrative is partly imaginary, in relation to the final day itself, but real in most other aspects; Adorján has her own strong feelings and reminiscences about her cherished paternal grandparents, but it chronicles the heart-rending and dark times through which they lived before she was born. A cosmopolitan couple, there are tender accounts of friends and places that the family visited from the USA to Israel and Korea. For instance, she describes how in 1949 her grandparents met the elegant French lady Hélène, a psychotherapist, and her endocrinologist husband, another medical couple at a conference for Communist doctors in Budapest and then how István, an orthopaedic surgeon returned to Paris with her fretting grandmother as translator. This meant leaving Adorján's father, now a prominent musician - his name features on many classical CDs - and her aunt behind in the care of a nursemaid. These two were most unfortunately about to be stricken with polio.

This incident points up two striking features about An Exclusive Love in general. Firstly, Johanna Adorján's magical powers of description. She notes, Hélène lives in a small neo-classical building that looks as if it had been under a preservation order for at least a hundred years. Wherever you look you see ornamental furniture, floral decoration, porcelain plates - the wallpaper is silk, the cupboards old and decorated with intarsia work. She is as good on people as places; Hélène talks fast and at length, and laughs loudest of all at herself. She wears an elegant blouse, snakeskin shoes with bows on them, and her lipstick doesn't vanish into thin air until just before the last course. I can see why my grandmother liked her. Secondly, the thought-provoking, tentative style with which she makes her commentary is the written equivalent of an evocative pencil sketch. She wonders if her questioning is discourteous, ponders motives and characteristics and detail. In exactly which arrondissiment did her grandparents have their apartment? In places the sparse style, the book is only 186 pages, resembles a prose poem.

In between the quotidian life led listening to Diabelli variations and Bach cantatas, the ever present smell of Prince Denmark cigarettes lingers and the carefully cultivated roses are pruned but now we catch a glimpse of the darkness. Her grandfather is 82 and terminally ill, her grandmother is chronically debilitated by her all-pervading lack of self assurance and to add to the torpor of life in exile there are the ravages of the past. These include the mass shootings in the city on the banks of the Danube, where in front of the grey Parliament building, during the Holocaust, so many men, women and children took in their last view of the hill of Buda. Friends, many of whom perished, included melancholy Zionists from Vienna, freedom fighters and militant communists; the dedicated, the concerned and the totally innocent. An Exclusive Love does not shrink from portraying the Mauthausen SS Camp, now a museum, in which her grandfather was imprisoned in Austria near Linz, that Adorján revisits with her own father and hears the accounts of the ghastly medical experiments, the gallows and the gas chambers. She also describes the reaction of other visitors, the glib noisy texting schoolchildren and the bored voice of the guide.

There is an interesting connection between the past and photography which emerges in several memorable vignettes. Johanna Adorján has the capacity to invoke and ponder the metropolitan scenes through which her grandparents, keen travellers moved from place to place. She describes the television programmes on Danish television, family photograph albums and her grandfather's deadpan reaction to Eva Braun's dismal movies of the home life of the Fuhrer. There is a particularly poignant passage where Adorján returns to New York to the statue in North Manhattan of the Hungarian freedom fighter Lajos Kossuth - visited by her great-grandparents in 1928. She wryly explores the pride and the perils of nationalism in her attempts to have someone photograph herself in exactly the same place. Any reader will feel aware that Anthea Bell has performed a scrupulous and sensitive translation.

The grandparents visit Elsinore, or Helsingør as it is known in Denmark and in this context it is impossible to forget those most famous lines from Hamlet, which have been translated into Hungarian as Lenni vagy nem lenni: az itt a kérdés. To be or not to be; this memoir is a meditation and a philosophical enquiry into suicide but above all it is the author's attempt to sympathetically understand and to preserve the memory of her beloved grandparents. It is a heartfelt attempt to investigate deep sadness and yet shed a healing light upon it. It is written with elegance and humanity.

If this book appeals then you might like to try The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal and House of Exile: War, Love and Literature, from Berlin to Los Angeles by Evelyn Juers.

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