The adjective “cinematic,” when applied to a novel, is usually meant to suggest that the book describes bounces from one action-crammed scene to the next in a manner abrupt enough to delight those who find it difficult to concentrate on one thing for longer than 30 seconds.
So prevalent are films of this sort that one understands why “cinematic” is burdened with connotations that call to mind not so much art as a medical condition: attention-deficit disorder. There does exist, however, a less frenetic style of filmmaking — the work, for example, of Terrence Malick.
“Farewell, Shanghai,” a novel by a filmmaker, the Bulgarian Angel Wagenstein, reminds us that novels can be cinematic not only in the juddering speed with which they zip through a world, but also in the precision with which they evoke that world’s sensory details.
The leisurely pace with which Wagenstein proceeds, his willingness to stop and describe the world around him, is perhaps surprising in a novel that takes place during World War II and the action-packed years leading up to it. When the city at the center of the novel is as intriguing as wartime Shanghai, however, one can excuse the author for taking his time in setting the scene.
Enjoy, for example, the picture Wagenstein gives us of the Shanghai docks at dusk: “the air was chilly and humid, with the sticky smells of frying, canals, and muck. The sea breeze brought no freshness, but rather the stench of the innumerable swamps at the mouth of the river Huangpu.”
We understand that Wagenstein’s Shanghai is not a charmingly exotic pearl of the East, but rather a chilly, mucky, fetid place attractive only to those with no other place to go.
Foremost among those displaced by the horrors of World War II were, of course, the Jews of Europe. Wagenstein recounts, near the beginning of this discursive novel, the true story of the Saint Louis, a ship that left Hamburg packed with German Jews expelled from the Reich in the Nazis’ first move toward a “Final Solution.” This ship was refused permission to dock at its initial destination, Cuba, and then President Franklin D. Roosevelt turned it away from the United States.
Rejected as well by several other New World ports of call, the ship sailed back to Europe, but the refugees were as unwelcome in France, England and the Soviet Union as they had been in the Germany from which they had been driven. Finally, having no other choice, the ship docked again at Hamburg. “The final part of this fairy tale,” Wagenstein writes, “is recorded in the archives of Auschwitz and Treblinka.”
Historical set pieces like the tale of the Saint Louis, along with the detailed word paintings, form the core of “Farewell, Shanghai,” but they are, of course, strung together by a story and the characters who move through it. As is often the case with historical novels, however, the plot and the characters take second place to meticulous recreation of the time and place, and the history lessons the author wishes to impart.
The characters through whom Wagenstein views Hamburg, Paris and, most centrally, Shanghai, and who make it possible for him to illuminate their time, have lives that diverge, intersect and diverge again, and this is what gives the novel its form: story lines now separate, now tangled.
We follow, for example, the actress Hilde Braun, “a remarkably beautiful young woman, slim, blue-eyed, and blonde . . . a typical representative of the Master Race — exactly the one stipulated by the idealized model.”
The hitch is that this perfect Valkyrie is a Jew, but her beauty and impeccable Aryan looks allow her to get a position as personal assistant to the diplomatic representative of the Third Reich in Shanghai. She had earlier been a lover of a member of the Communist resistance in Paris, and he, too, resurfaces in Shanghai, now a member of the circle around the real-life spy, Victor Sorge. The lovers’ Shanghai reunion allows a bit of intrigue a la Alan Furst into the book.
This sort of intrigue — and Furst does it better — is not, in the end, what drives the novel. Rather, Wagenstein’s main aim seems to be to remind us that ghettos were not entirely a European phenomenon, and that as awful as conditions in the Shanghai ghetto were — overcrowding was so great that people were often forced to live 10 to a room — those compelled to reside in it were able to make lives there.
The novel plods occasionally, and Wagenstein’s prose, translated from “richly colloquial Bulgarian” often seems, in English, ham-fisted. Still, as memories of the Jewish ordeal in Shanghai grow dim, “Farewell, Shanghai” will be an essential novel for those interested in the period.
David Cozy, a writer and literary critic, teaches at Showa Women’s University.