FICTION A recipe for sur­vival in Weimar Ger­many

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts&books -

WEIMAR HAS AL­WAYS had a strong cul­tural, as well as po­lit­i­cal res­o­nance. A pe­riod as much as a place, it com­bined the fre­netic pace of things fall­ing apart with the slow, smoky se­duc­tion of cabaret. Its evoca­tive power is par­tic­u­larly felt now, with the cur­rent vogue for the bur­lesque.

Penny Simp­son, the latest nov­el­ist to draw in­spi­ra­tion from Weimar, works, ap­pro­pri­ately enough, with the Welsh Na­tional Opera and as a theatre critic and jour­nal­ist. The 6ft-plus hero­ine of Simp­son’s book The Ban­quet of Es­ther Rosen­baum (Al­cemi, £9.99) con­trasts strik­ingly with familiar, fac­tor-fiction cabaret per­son­al­i­ties like Sally Bowles or Mar­lene Di­et­rich, and in­deed with a sup­port­ing cast of both in­fa­mous Nazis and fa­mous cul­tural icons, in­clud­ing Ber­told Brecht.

The plot strings to­gether a se­ries of anec­dotes flow­ing from the Great War. It starts with a bang, as the ghetto ex­plodes, and Es­ther is cursed both for the pogrom it­self and for the deaths even of her own par­ents. In a tragic irony, Es­ther is at the time en­gaged in paint­ing scenery for a Purim­spiel.

Forced to flee and fend for her­self through icy win­ters and hor­rific poverty, Es­ther’s cre­ativ­ity breaks new bounds, as she adds first tai­lor­ing and then cook­ery to her reper­toire. Work­ing for the most fa­mous chefs and bak­ers of her day, she ex­presses both po­lit­i­cal and per­sonal yearn­ings through her in­creas­ingly pre­pos­ter­ous recipes, served to Jews and Gestapo alike in Schorn’s Restau­rant in Ber­lin.

Es­ther’s sur­vival de­pends partly on her bril­liant culi­nary skills, but also on her abil­ity “to pass” as non-Jewish. It is not a nat­u­ral abil­ity: she adopts a man’s great­coat and top hat, be­neath which she be­comes in­creas­ingly ema­ci­ated. Simp­son vividly con­veys how the op­ti­mistic cre­ator of “Kiss-of-Hope bis­cuits” hides, de­nies, and fi­nally re­gains her larger-than-life iden­tity. AMANDA HOPKINSON

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