Somewhere, buried deep beneath layers of Jewish humour and outrageous English, this book contains a novel about one man’s personal quest to solve a Holocaust mystery. The story is so hidden, though, so completely suffocated with humour (to the point where it stops being funny), that it would takes at least a couple of readings to fully appreciate the plot.
The protagonist (who shares the same name as the author) goes to the Ukraine in search of the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. The story is told from a variety of perspectives, with large parts told in the form of letters in hilariously broken English from the protagonist’s Ukrainian translator, Alex.
Anyone as clueless about Jewish humour as I am would probably be able to tell you that while most of this book appears to be funny, they can’t actually identify where the punchlines are. That’s how I feel. The deeper Holocaust narrative is inaccessible to me because it’s been concealed so heavily by slapstick wordplay. The film looks much clearer, though:
Everything is not Illuminated by this book. I’m a little disappointed with its lack of clarity. While some people can understandably give this 4 or 5 stars, I can only give it two. ★★
Mass-Observation was a government-led initiative to monitor a representative sample of British citizens via regularly-submitted diary entries. Thousands of participants, from youth to old age, of all political viewpoints, consented to the project from 1945 to 1949, documenting their lives during and after the Second World War. The resulting diaries were archived for decades before being compiled in date-order for this book, Our Hidden Lives.
I’m surprised by how little these diarists thought about the war. Most of their musings are about food, family, hobbies and what they’ve read in newspapers (only a fraction of which might be war-related). One diarist, “Herbert Brush”, a London pensioner uses his Mass-Observation diary to play with numbers: on page 32, he looks for a “book of prime numbers”, on page 40, he proves his “law of 37” (incorrectly!); on page 54, he tosses a coin repeatedly to see whether it’s biassed; on page 152, he redesigns the Gregorian calendar so that certain days always fall on weekends; and on page 184, he bores a group of women with a game he invented. He almost never comments on the war.
Food rations changed with weather-like uncertainty. And all diarists commented on the wildly-changing prices of tea, persimmons, and bananas in local stores. There are four times as many entries about food than about the war. And I find that comforting.
There are four times as many entries about food than about the war. And I find that comforting.
B. Charles, a gay antiques dealer, gets audibly giddy from his garden experiments with DDT. He goes on to describe how the British have become accustomed to queueing for absolutely everything (since rations required regular shop visits for small quantities of items).
“This queue business is simply amazing. I can’t think of how it was that there were none of them prior to the war. When I was coming home on the tram, I spoke to a naval officer and his opinion is that, now people have become so queue-minded, they just fall into a queue instead of hanging about the counters of shops, as they used to before the war… a great many women LIKE queueing: the queue is, really, the 1945 edition of the Mothers’ Meeting” – page 138
Does that explain Brits’ love of queueing? Probably. But the Chinese were also taught to queue during the Communist era. What caused them to regress back to primitive push-and-shove tactics? Alight at Beijing Zoo station and you’ll understand.
This book also highlights the uselessness of daily news. And weekly news. And monthly news. News (including financial news) should be read at no more than quarterly intervals. The diarists of Our Hidden Lives illustrate this by occasionally commenting on throwaway news stories in too much detail. On most days, nothing of interest happens, so junk news takes the headline slot. Our Hidden Lives reminded me never to let “news” clog my brain.
Our Hidden Lives was much more interesting than I expected. This book reminds you of life’s tiny pleasures. It reminds you not to dwell on negative events; just as the diarists resisted dwelling on the war. Food, family and hobbies are the most important aspects of life, even in times of war. ★★★