The Ermine of Czernopol

The Ermine of Czernopol is the first of Gregor von Rezzori’s semi-autobiographical novels about growing up in what was Austria-Hungary. In it, childhood is the conduit through which we must understand everything. The thing about a being a child is an unorthodox and oftentimes uncanny mode of perception, due to the foreign nature of those not yet fully socialized, coupled with a certain inability of expression. And this is an inevitable coupling as the very language that could do justice to children’s intuitions is only attainable through the very socialization that would dull these intuitions.

This is the conundrum that von Rezzori overcomes beautifully in Philip Boehm’s unabridged translation of The Ermine of Czernopol. In this memoir, we are treated to the un-opening of the world, its people and its countries, as understood by a group of children growing up in Czernopol, where there is a little bit of everything thrown together. The narrator speaks for his younger self, a young boy in this group of nigh inseparable siblings, as they eavesdrop upon the conversations of various adults, their primary source of information of the outside world. They listen to their frequent house guest, the prefect Herr Tarangolian, who gossips with authority; their tutor Herr Alexainu, who expounds on the nature of love; and countless others—all the while forming their own collective judgments and implications without fully comprehending what is being said. They dwell on the sounds of words and take delight in particular turns of phrase:

The sayings we overheard, the whimsical sentences, the amazing word formations all burst into glowing colors when touched by the magical light of association [. . .]. It was like a star dropping from the sky if one of my siblings actually used in speech one of the words that had so excited us—for instance, when Tanya spoke of a leap of a great capacity—and if we were able to trace it back, not to the gymnastic exercises which Herr Alexainu had also described as a king of capacity, but to a name—in this case that of a certain Fraülein Kapralik. Of course we had never laid eyes on her, but people said she gave Italian lessons. In any event, beyond our associations with capers and capricious—expressions our father liked to use in reference to us—her name called to mind a fun-loving woman from Capri. A similar wealth of associations opened up when a chance to overlap in pronunciation created by the miracle of fused meanings; for instance, when we heard the newly experienced word ektase—ecstasy—in the name of Năstase, which right away seemed to capture this young man’s tango-like essence.”

Von Rezzori does not condescend a child’s point of view with a child-like vocabulary, but rather uses his rather extensive supply of words with a precision and an ingenuity of combination that, stunningly, do not give a sense of some overly precious precocity but instead imbues in the reader with that sense of wonder and of first understanding that children experience but do not have power to express.

Perhaps the central figure in the text, as the object of the children’s greatest affection and curiosity is the Austrian officer Major Tildy, who they fall in love with immediately, without knowing almost anything about him. They spend the majority of the novel trying to hear more and more about him, as he defends the honor of his sister-in-law, a promiscuous woman from a wealthy family possessing a recognizable nose, and finds himself put away in a mental institution. Such is their infatuation that when they hear he is part German they spend an incredible amount of time speculating on the nature of Germans, and on the beauty of war. For them there is no such thing as a just war—there is just war. They understand the question only in terms of existence. When they are forced to grapple with their observations of Jewish discrimination within Czernopol, which culminates with a great riot in the streets, they understand not “that Jews are also people, but rather the reverse, that people are sometimes also Jews.” And so on, go the discoveries of this group of siblings, the unnoticed eavesdroppers in a city full of both turmoil and laughter.

For children find themselves in the unique position of alterity which still allows them access into realms of privileged knowledge, as it were, because they are not expected to understand the information that passes before their very eyes and ears. Von Rezzori seizes upon this privilege of youth and puts together an exquisitely recounted tale of childhood that contains not only the excitement and wonder of discovery, but also the cutting commentary and revelation that accompany such discovery when precisely expressed.

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