1938, Anschluss, anti-Semitism, Austria, Bolivia, book review, coming-of-age novel, culture shock, dislocation, exile, historical fiction, Holocaust, Jennifer Steil, Jews, music, nationalism, spirit realm
Review: Exile Music, by Jennifer Steil
Viking, 2020. 432 pp. $27
As the 1930s progress, Orly Zingel’s family watches the Austria of their birth turn into an unrecognizable monster, hostile to Jews like them. As a ten-year-old, Orly can’t readily understand how people she’s known all her life, who’ve smiled at her and been friendly, can turn away, call her hateful names, or threaten to have her arrested. Her parents, accomplished professional musicians, are banned from performing.
Anneliese, her closest — only — friend, who lives in the same Vienna apartment building, swears that she’ll stick by Orly, always. That’s a given, for the two are like sisters, absorbed in and devoted to one another. But Anneliese’s parents, who’ve always treated Orly as a favorite niece or even a daughter, now call her filth.
Booted out of the building they own, the Zingels are pushed into a ghetto, and they try to leave Austria. Orly’s older brother, Willi, flees Vienna, hoping to reach Switzerland, and the rest of the family lives in uncertainty about his fate. Her father attempts to obtain exit visas, but the only open doors lead to Shanghai, Dominican Republic, or Bolivia. Father joins the long line snaking from the Bolivian consulate and struggles not to lose hope, especially when the SS sends its thugs to beat and intimidate the would-be emigrants. That’s yet another brutality that Orly can’t understand; if the government wants Jews to leave the country, why put so many obstacles in the way?
From the title and cover illustration, you’ll know that the Zingels eventually reach Bolivia; they settle in La Paz. But in this patient, discursive narrative, there’s plenty of “no — and furthermore” to go around. If you’re wondering how these sophisticated refugees will cope with life in the Andes, their humiliation, emotional losses, and dislocation, Exile Music has plenty to offer.
But besides the expected themes of trauma, culture shock, loss, and chances for regrowth, which the author does a beautiful job exploring in a well-delineated context, she delves into much else. You’ll get such issues as what religion and identity mean; what constitutes “home”; how music and poetry, purveyors of metaphor, may offer hope through connection; and whether revenge and justice coincide.
That’s a lot to put in one novel, but everything belongs. Where the story pushes briefly into the spirit realm, I get impatient, because I don’t believe in that. But Steil ties that theme to Orly’s identity — this is a coming-of-age novel, after all — so it makes sense, and what the author includes about local customs provides a fascinating window on a culture I’ve never read about before.
Throughout, the narrative grounds itself in physical detail, so, for example, you see Austrian anti-Semitism and nationalist fervor merge with ever-increasing strength before your eyes. Orly’s experience, though specific and individual, conveys a general atmosphere with terrifying power. The occasional crowd scene packs a wallop too, as with Kristallnacht or here, the Anschluss, the day German troops took over Austria in March 1938:
A tram swept by, its roof displaying a massive swastika. Across the street I could see a curly-haired girl who used to be in my class; my former math teacher; the waiter from the coffeehaus at the end of the block, their arms all flying upward. They threw flowers at the soldiers, blew kisses as they marched past, cheering the death of our country.
Since by this time, Orly is not allowed to attend school or go to a coffeehaus, you implicitly understand her horror, fear, and deep-seated loneliness.
Steil also portrays the friendship between Orly and Anneliese with tenderness and even passion; it’s more than a little erotic. The girls create, and tell each other stories about, a mythic kingdom where predators have no place and enemies can gain no entry. It’s a lovely touch, and their fantasy won’t change life in the street, but it does give them hope.
Orly’s parents need to come through more clearly; too often, they seem more like attitudes and behaviors than fully fledged characters. But overall, I highly recommend Exile Music, which conveys both the Jewish and émigré experience with a sure hand — and worlds else besides.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.