Veza Canetti

"The Tortoises"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple AUG 8 , 2007)

"What is going on here is past hope.  It may well lead to war, but how hard is that way out!  The painter with his brush, the poet with his pen, the orator on the podium, they have all pointed out the horrors of war, and Man has understood…But then the violent criminal steps up.  He stirs up the earth, he will always appear and destroy, because there will always be violent people.  He who clings to the surface of the earth is doomed."

The Tortoises by Veza Canetti

In simple language that sometimes takes on the cadences of the psalms, the soaring intensity of opera, and the beautifully repeated phrases of canons, author Veza Canetti tells the semi-autobiographical story of an artistic couple trapped just outside Vienna at the time of Kristallnacht, November, 1938, a terror she and her husband had also endured.  The Canettis managed to escape from Austria just ten days after Kristallnacht, and immediately upon their arrival in England, Veza Canetti began to write this book. Using fictional characters, she fills the narrative with vibrant details from her own recent experiences, completing the "novel" in the spring of 1939. 

The main characters, Eva and her husband Andreas Kain, a Jewish writer, have been told that they will be shot if they remain in Austria, but they cannot leave—they have no visa for any other country, despite applications.  Eva and Kain view the world differently from each other.  Eva sees the changes in her Austrian neighborhood as terrifying, while Kain sees nothing of the violence and death.  A poet who believes that if you like someone, that person will like you back, Kain's naivete is partly responsible for the delay in their plans to leave.  In the face of swastika flags appearing even on their own balcony, and their landlady's announcement that they must vacate their apartment because a German couple plans to move in, Kain still goes to a local coffeehouse to read the paper, surprised when another patron points him out to the waiter, who requires him to leave.

Focusing on day-to-day life in a neighborhood in which Jews have always lived peaceably among their neighbors, the author emphasizes the human interactions and the major and minor tragedies which arise when the Nazis take over.  By keeping the focus on the small and the immediate, the author emphasizes by contrast the monumental scope of the "cleansing," which has affected thousands of similar, ordinary communities. Many characters, such as Kain, do not believe that the horrors can possibly be real.  Educated and intellectual, Kain lives in an academic cocoon, protected from political and social realities.  Kain's brother Werner, a respected geologist, does not even believe that "there is such a thing as this Fuhrer."  Ironically, he has a visa, but, tied to the earth and his collection of rock treasures, he refuses to leave. 

Two Nazis manage to control nearly all aspects of their neighborhood life.  The first is a German SS officer, who moves into the large villa where the Kains live to supervise the occupation and control the population, primarily through intimidation.  In one dramatic scene, the sadistic German strangles a sparrow while performing in front of children, then berates them as unfit to become Hitler Youths when they become upset.  The other Nazi is Baldur Pilz, an Austrian who is particularly proud of his "low number," proof that he was among the first Austrians to join the Nazi movement.  Both men are venal and ignorant, representative of a level of society that people like Eva and Kain have never known. 

Pilz is particularly dangerous because he is Austrian, and some Jews in the neighborhood think that, as a result, he is more approachable and perhaps "friendlier" regarding their problems. As the magnitude of the horrors gradually becomes real, the attempts by Eva, Kain, and their friends to cope with the unbelievable become both heartrending and futile. 

Throughout the novel, the tortoise acts as a symbol of the Jews' plight.  When the novel opens, Kain brings home a small tortoise, which he "has rescued from humiliation."  In the city, he says, tortoises are being branded with swastikas, "burned for all time into their shells."  Because Kain has saved it, this small, but long-lived tortoise will not have to carry the swastika forever on its back, and it may even outlive Nazism.  Like other tortoises, it carries its "home" with it.  It can "live off nothing, off air, off leaves, needing only warmth," and though vulnerable to vultures or wild animals, it can survive because of its "inner shell."  It is man who is the most sadistic towards the tortoise, cutting flesh off its living body to get tasty, fresh meat, cutting its heart out, or detaching its brain.  Even then the tortoise can still go on creeping.   It does not die quickly—unless it is deprived of warmth.

The immediacy of author Canetti's own experience is obvious in small, homely details and realistic characterizations which bring this story to life.  The contrast between the dignity of the betrayed Jews and the carnality of their oppressors contributes a stark elegance to this narrative of betrayals.  Particularly poignant is the inclusion throughout the novel of Hilde, the lively seventeen-year-old daughter of a wealthy Jewish neighbor.  Determined to buy an airplane which will fly Eva and Kain out of Austria, she is willing to flirt with Pilz and pay him large amounts of money to attain her ends.  Other characters, such as Kain's brother, also make willing sacrifices.  These moments of warmth and tenderness make the inexorability of the conclusion particularly heart-rending.

Though this novel was scheduled for publication in 1939, Britain's entry into the war prevented this, and it remained among Canetti's papers after her death in 1963.  Prepared for publication and released for the first time in 2001, sixty-two years after it was written, it has just been released in paperback.   Intimate and unforgettable, the novel is both an important record of life in Vienna in November, 1938, and an elegant tribute to people who refused to betray their own beliefs in the face of unconscionable terror.  (Translated by Ian Mitchell.)

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About the Author:

Veza CanettiVeza Canetti was born in Vienna in 1897 into a mixed Sephardic-Azhkenazi Jewish family. She was part of the avant garde in 1920s Vienna, from 1932 she wrote radical short stories drawn from everyday life. After censorship under the so-called Corporate State reduced her opportunities for publication, she disguised her critique in irony and humor, but from then on published little. She married novelist Elias Canetti in 1934 (1981 Nobel Prize in Literature winner). With the rise of Fascism, she and her husband left Vienna for Paris in 1939, and then finally settled in London in 1952. She died in London in 1963.

Until 1990, when her first novel, Yellow Street, was finally published, Veza was known only as her husband's muse and literary assistant. As more of her writings appeared, critics became convinced that it was he who was responsible for her decline into obscurity, notwithstanding his protestations of support and admiration.

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