Jewels and Ashes – A 25th Anniversary Edition: a book review by Alan Gold

April 25, 2016 by Alan Gold
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Virginia Woolf once said that every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works. Perhaps the finest example in Australia today of the elemental truth of Woolf’s words is in the body of work produced over the past quarter of a century by Arnold Zable.

Arnold Zable

Arnold Zable

Twenty five years ago, as a young Melbourne writer, Zable published a book of evocative and heart-wrenchingly beautiful stories called Jewels and Ashes, immediately establishing him both as a master storyteller and as a voice for the rights of refugees, migrants and the displaced.

Since then, Zable has gone on to write and publish some of the most haunting and eloquent literature in our canon, a small but glorious library of books which have become our heritage, including Café Scheherazade, The Fig Tree, Scraps of Heaven, Sea of Many Returns, Violin Lessons and soon, his latest novel, The Fighter.

And to mark this literary milestone, the vibrant publishing house Scribe has re-issued a 25th anniversary edition of Jewels and Ashes. Readers who loved the first edition will enjoy their re-acquaintance with the places and faces, smells and tastes, voices, history and traditions of Poland and the stetls of Europe

Jewels and Ashes | Book | Scribe Australia 2016-04-25 14-56-55I first read Zable’s masterpiece when it was freshly published. I was astounded by the way he created people, landscapes, and ancient communities trying to hold on to their traditions, and especially the achingly authentic humanity which make this into a truly great book. I saw my own grandparents, uncles and aunts in his characters.

Jewels and Ashes is, in part, an account of a journey, and the stories are interwoven into an overarching quest, a search for the missing link in the ancestral chain.

Reading it for the first time told me that this was more than a brilliant work of literature. Reading it a second time a quarter of a century later confirmed my view that Jewels and Ashes is a masterpiece. It was obvious from the beginning that this book was a challenge to the manner in which cavalier governments and an indifferent public treat those who escape trauma and come to find peace by relocating to another land; that all human life is sacred, regardless of race, religion or creed, and that our treatment of displaced persons, refugees, migrants and the flotsam of wars is so often inhuman. These nomads who enter our lands are not statistics, but men, women and children like us, simply asking for the right to live in peace.

Alan Gold

Alan Gold

Re-reading Jewels and Ashes after a quarter of a century convinces me that Zable’s first book is more than a classic of world literature, deserving a place on a shelf beside the works of Elie Wiesel and Saul Bellow, but should be made mandatory reading in universities and parliaments, where issues of human rights are discussed in intellectual abstraction.

To call it a Holocaust memoir is to undermine its universality, its grasp of the ages. To call it a book about Jews and their ancient way of life is to negate its ability to resonate with all peoples. Its characters, its landscapes, its stories are ubiquitous and by relocating them to another country and another time, they would speak to any peoples. Like Shalom Aleichem’s tales and characters, Zable’s are ourselves, writ small but perfectly. We feel their hopes and frustrations, we suffer their anxieties and apprehensions.

Jewels and Ashes is a book which will reward new readers, and delight those who return to its pages with a better understanding of humanity. Rediscovering its stories and renewing my acquaintance with its characters has been an intense pleasure and privilege.

“Jewels and Ashes” is published by Scribe.

Alan Gold is a novelist whose latest book, The Mechanic, about the final Nuremberg Trial, will be published in America and Europe in June.

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