Kristallnacht. Crystal Night. Such a beautiful name for such a horrific event. Daniel Kalla’s The Far Side of the Sky begins right in the middle of this Nazi attack on Jews in Austria, and the pace never lets up. Surgeon Franz Adler is a secular Austrian Jew who just wants to stay under the radar. Unfortunately, as the “incriminating large red J” stamped on his passport proves, his very ancestry already puts him in the Nazi crosshairs, no matter what he does or doesn’t do.
So Franz takes his family (daughter Hannah and sister-in-law Esther) to Shanghai, a major refugee base for European Jews because visas aren’t required to enter. Thing is, Shanghai at that time was occupied by Japan, so it really wasn’t so much of an escape as it was a movement to a different atmosphere of fear. In Shanghai, Franz meets a Chinese-American nurse, Soon Yi “Sunny” Mah, who works with him at the Jewish refugee hospital and who is prevented from becoming a doctor only by her gender. Far Side is about people who want only to live a simple life, and yet are prevented from doing so by circumstances and their heritage. It’s tragic, yet made somewhat more bearable by their relationships with people around them.
A lot of books have been written about World War II and the years before and after it, yet most of the ones I’ve seen are about either the West or the East. Far Side stands out to me because it shows how Europe and Asia connected during this period, and how the situation in Asia was just as horrific as the one in Europe.
I love that Franz isn’t really a hero — all he wants to do is to live as normal a life as possible — and yet circumstances force him to do heroic things. I also love that both Franz and Sunny have complex backgrounds — Sunny, for example, is Chinese-American, so she faces discrimination both from the Japanese soldiers who look down on the Chinese and the Chinese who look down on those who aren’t full-blooded Chinese. In Franz’s case, his being a non-practicing Jew makes his troubles with the Nazis even more tragic; he is ostracized for a belief system to which he doesn’t even subscribe and for a race he has himself rejected.
The supporting characters are just as fascinating. The American Simon Lehrer, for example, is delightful, almost relentlessly cheerful and a welcome respite from the darkness of the material. Ernst Muhler, who wages war through his art, is a charismatic, engaging figure. Ernst is the most defiant, political figure in Franz’s community, and his fear at the realization of what he might have to sacrifice on a personal level makes him an absolutely sympathetic character. Like the victims whose unjust deaths he depicts in his art, I cheer Ernst on in his crusade; yet like Franz and other friends in Ernst’s life, I also want him to stop, and perhaps find some measure of happiness and peace.
In war, it’s far too easy to see different factions as either all good or all evil. So I love how Kalla portrays Hermann Schwartzmann and Colonel Kubota. A senior attache with the German High Commission, Hermann has no ill will towards Jews and even tries to befriend Franz. He chooses to compartmentalize, to not speak out against the Nazis so that he and his wife can have a stable life. I can understand why Franz finds Hermann’s silent complicity cowardly, even reprehensible, yet I can’t help but feel sorry for Hermann. Like Franz, Hermann also just wants to live as normal a life as possible; only difference is, Hermann is better placed to benefit from compliance. With Hermann, Kalla presents the other side of the story, the moral difficulties faced by non-Jew Germans and Austrians.
Colonel Kubota, head of the Japanese contingent in Shanghai, acts with honour and compassion. Kubota’s admiration of Ernst’s work and Ernst’s refusal to have Kubota own his art provides a kind of tension that I love. Kubota and Ernst are figures from opposite sides of two different wars, and their desire to connect or repel through art is just beautifully portrayed.
One thing I really did not like happened near the end, where Sunny does something that has a dramatic impact on a historical figure’s actions. In a novel that focuses on the struggle to live an ordinary life, that explores mundane human relationships to evince emotion, Sunny’s dramatic act rings false. It made me question, “Since this is based on history, and this character doesn’t exist in real life, then what really happened?” That part disconnected me from the story, which is a shame because of the major emotional impact already created by all the smaller scale heroic actions in the story.
Also, we are told several times that Franz’s daughter, Hannah, is handicapped. This is significant because Franz worries about how she’ll survive if he is killed or arrested. However, I see no symptoms from descriptions of Hannah herself and her actions, and so have to keep turning back to be reminded of the cerebral palsy that has other characters so worried. A small detail that shows Hannah’s “spastic weakness of left arm and leg” would have helped me picture her and better understand why Franz is especially concerned about how she would adjust in a foreign country.
Overall, Far Side is a wonderful, emotional book. Highly recommended for fans of historical fiction, romance, and David Mitchell’s Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.