Tuesday, 21 February 2017

I'm reviewing 'The Dogs and the Wolves'...

... by Irène Némirovsky

The story begins in the Jewish quarter of a city in the Ukraine in the early years of the twentieth century and then moves to Paris in the twenties and finally, to eastern Europe on the brink of war.

Ada Sinner is a small Jewish girl who is born into a poor family who are living in a ghetto and scratching an existence together by whatever means they can.  Ada’s mother is dead and when her Aunt comes to live with the family and brings her son Ben and daughter Lilla, Ada finds herself totally displaced in her own home.

It being Russia, these people are maligned and discriminated against and in trying to escape a pogrom and charging Cossacks on horseback in the streets Ada and her cousin Ben find their rich relatives house on the opposite side of town and are taken in.  The rich Sinners are snide and patronising and out of duty rather than genuine concern for their less fortunate cousins they clean up and feed the two children and then send them packing.  But Ada has now met her rich cousin Harry and begins the long and difficult quest to win him and marry him.

In Paris, Harry is now married to the daughter of a rick banker, Ada is married to her poor cousin Ben – it’s a marriage of convenience - and working as an artist.  Ben is working as an agent for the international bank that Harry will inherit from his elderly father and uncle.  Ada begins to draw Harry towards her and to come between him and his wife.  Ben sees what is happening and seeks his own revenge.

Avenue des Champs Élysées 
The title is interesting in that it echoes a French saying – entre chien et loup.  Translating literally to ‘between a dog and a wolf’ but meaning dusk – the time of half-light when it is difficult to distinguish between similar shapes.  In addition, dogs and wolves are from the same genus of animal, one domesticated the other not.  The Sinner family have two halves, the rich half and the poor.  There is no appropriate equivalent expression in English for ‘entre chien et loup’, unless you want to use ‘between a rock and a hard place’.  But, for me, that does not convey the underlying sinisterness of the French expression.  And that sinisterness is a theme that emanates throughout the whole story.  Nothing is quite what it seems and happiness is caught between the light and the dark.

Némirovsky’s own life was tragic. Born in Kiev in 1903 to reasonably wealthy parents, she and her family fled Russia at the end of the 1914/18 war.  Settling at first in Paris, she lived and worked as a writer.  ‘The Dogs and the Wolves’ was published in France in 1940, a few months before the occupation of the country and the subsequent creation of the Vichy government.  Occupied Paris was very different and Irène and her family moved to rural France.  She was subsequently interned and died in Auschwitz in 1942, along with so many others.  An incredible talent that was cut short way too soon.

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