Netsuke Mr eNil

Amber eyes

Ellen Lammers | 05 July 2011

Last night I finished reading a beautiful and gripping book, The hare with amber eyes. It’s the biography of a collection of 264 antique Japanese wood and ivory carvings.

Last night I finished reading a beautiful and gripping book, The hare with amber eyes. It’s the biography of a collection of 264 antique Japanese wood and ivory carvings. And of the family who passed on this odd collection from 1870s Paris, through interbellum Vienna, to wartime England, then post-war Japan (under command of the Allied Powers), and finally to London, where they rest today with the author of the book, Edmund de Waal.

A biography of objects it is, but more than that, this book is about memory and identity, about storytelling. About the extraordinary family history of the Ephrussi, Jews from Odessa, that spans a tumultuous century and a half.

It is a book about human suffering - and humaneness - in a chaotic world of shifting alliances and with episodes of brutal violence. A book that resonates with so many people’s lives today.

I mention it here because it relates to what we envisage with this thematic page about Human Security. The articles and discussions we will publish on this page, will primarily deal with academic and policy analyses of today’s conflicts and attempts at peace building, processes of democratization and the international community’s involvement with this all. However, national and international politics and policies have their equivalent in local and individual experiences of violence, insecurity and reconciliation. My years spent in Uganda taught me that the aftermath of war is about day-to-day distress and anguish, about storytelling and identity. It is The Broker’s aim to always try and relate global perspectives to local ones. Edmund de Waal in his biography craftily combines micro with macro history, rendering tangible the complexity of both.

Before closing The hare with amber eyes last night, I once more studied the Ephrussi family tree. And then wondered, could it be that the author Edmund’s elder brother Alexander is the well-known scholar on Sudan and Darfur, Alex de Waal? A quick Google search tells me, yes, he is.

Why did I pick up this biography in the first place? It was Amazon that recommended it to me, when I searched for books on Ray Finch, famous British potter. Edmund de Waal's book came up because he is not only a gifted narrator, but first of all a world-famed potter and ceramic artist. I’m sure he knows Ray Finch, my adopted grandfather, and dear friend, of 96 years old. His granddaughter Lisa and I met in Uganda, where we were both working with people who had fled violence and insecurity in Africa's Horn and Great Lakes region. Ray’s earliest childhood memory is of a nighttime bombing of London in 1917 - and how his mother played the piano as loud she could for her little boy not to hear the mayhem outside. A pacifist at heart, Ray became a conscientious objector during World War II, when the ancestors of the De Waals get scattered across Europe and beyond. Speaking to Ray, and watching today’s news, it is o so clear that human suffering always has, and always will, entail terribly difficult moral choices. Choices that need to be made. 

Photo credit main picture: Netsuke Mr eNil