Review: 1947: Where Now Begins, by Elisabeth Asbrink
I try to assemble the year 1947 into a splintered whole. This is lunacy, but time does not leave me alone.
Within the first few pages of 1947, I made myself slow down because I realized I was reading something special and I didn’t want it to be over too quickly. There’s a reason why librarian Nancy Pearl called this “one of the best books, certainly the best nonfiction book, that I’ve read recently.”
Swedish author Elisabeth Asbrink deconstructs events of this postwar year, month by month, from the perspectives of different people, both better and lesser known, in multiple sectors around the globe. Each year is sectioned geographically, the histories told in impressionistic vignettes. It’s heavily Euro-centric, but this was where the world was hurting most then, and also where change was most strongly radiating outward. That story, of postwar reconstruction across Europe, is a commonly known and frequently told one. Asbrink gives a quick outline of the scope of the rebuilding, but that’s not where the focus lies.
All across Europe, there is damage. The Austrian city Wiener Neustadt once had 4,000 buildings; now only 18 are intact. A third of the houses in Budapest are uninhabitable. In France, 460,000 buildings are in ruins. In the Soviet Union, 1,700 small towns and villages have been demolished. In Germany, around 3.6 million apartments have been blitzed — a fifth of the country’s homes. Half the homes in Berlin itself are derelict.
She tells enough to make the impact felt, before moving on to wheels turning elsewhere, in the private lives of mostly famous or soon to be famous or renowned figures, and the political goings-on, either those on the world stage like the UN General Assembly moving towards the partitioning of Palestine and the “world’s biggest murder trial” at Nuremberg, or more behind the scenes, that would shape the future of modern geopolitics and global conflict for decades to come. We still live in the reverberations and repercussions of what began in 1947.
Major events, movements and influencers in the US (then-president Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt), South America and the Middle East are covered. At the fore is the burgeoning issue of the formation of a Jewish homeland and what that meant for Palestine. This occupies considerable page space and Asbrink helps to unpack the complex issue, showing its step by step progression through the halls of bureaucracy and politics and the ripple effects through the Middle East.
Elsewhere, 1947 is pictured through the eyes of figures like poet Nelly Sachs, living a reclusive refugee’s life in Sweden; and Christian Dior, simultaneously riding the wave of success of the New Look and facing a backlash I never knew: “In Chicago, he is met by what he calls embattled housewives, armed with criticism and placards. ‘Burn Monsieur Dior!’…’Christian Dior, go home!'”
And Primo Levi, one of my favorite authors, an Auschwitz survivor who’s written some of the most revealing material about the camps and what they meant for humanity, not to mention surprisingly beautiful chronicles of his own experiences before, during and after Auschwitz. In 1947 he was back in his native Italy struggling to publish his manuscript of If This is a Man (Survival in Auschwitz): “Now it is early summer in Turin. A normality of sorts. A silence of sorts. Who wants to look back, when remembering it all is painful, when what happened happened, and the acts of cruelty committed cannot be mitigated by talking about them? That seems to be the tacit consensus of the majority. Let it be, move on.”
George Orwell is living and writing on the Scottish isle of Jura with his little daughter, widowed, ill, and grieving. He’s working on a book that foreshadowed much to come in government and society, still a touchpoint today.
In Malmö, Swedish fascist Per Engdahl and a coterie of former Nazis are rebuilding Fascism under a sort of Far Right rebranding. Descendants of group members are active in European politics today. “And so it continues. If one were to take a map of the world, set these men down in their respective places of refuge, and trace lines between their names, the lines would be so numerous, so close, so all-enveloping, that the world map would become as black as a Fascist’s shirt, an extinguished star.” The pendulum, Asbrink writes, is “about to strike back.”
In Cambridge, Massachusetts, Grace Hopper discovers the first computer bug. In Moscow, the USSR makes two major advances in weaponry; one in their atomic capacities, one an invention bearing its creator’s name that will become the most well-known Russian word in the world, after vodka.
Then there are the tension-ridden, ominous dispatches from the Middle East, from Cairo and Arab al-Zubayd, a Palestinian village in the last year of its existence before civil war. There, she tells stories from the perspective of a girl named Hamdeh Jom’a, as change ripples through the region. She “gives her Jewish friends presents, but they never play together. That’s the way life is. And even though every path down from the hills of Galilee can fork and lead into a new one, most people take the tracks that are already well worn.”
A man with a magic picture box entertains children in this village that soon will be destroyed, its inhabitants fled:
Every evening, when he has told his stories to an end, the man with the magic box concludes with the same words: “This is the darkness, this is the night.”
These lines show what I love in Asbrink’s writing. She makes history vivid and dramatic instead of simply relating events, which would be intense enough in these cases. Her dreamy, descriptive commentary transforms every action and decision into something lyrically evocative and exquisitely told, even when the words themselves are simple. When she describes Levi recalling Auschwitz, she writes: “Imagine the June day under a Polish sky.”
The theme threaded throughout everything is time. It’s so ubiquitous as to be cliched, but Asbrink makes it illuminating. The book opens with the sense of chaos still hovering in Europe, with Britons told not to trust their clocks. Elsewhere, time and its march is both the impetus and the punctuation for everything.
We speak of time as a flow, a broadly meandering river that one cannot step into twice; we say it forms loops, yet flows onward. As if it issues from a spring, has a direction and an ocean waiting somewhere.
She introduces a clockmaker’s son in Cairo, who’d created a movement within Islam that began to shift at this time, shifts that would trigger some of the momentous events shaping the latter half of the twentieth century, that still shape world politics today:
Two key words are shared. One is well known and familiar: the umma. All Muslims are interlinked in a universe free of racism and oppression. This community, transcending geographic and national borders, does not separate one individual from another…
The other key word has lain in a thousand-year sleep, consigned to oblivion: jihad.
The art of death: fann al-mawt. The art of dying: al-mawt fann. Introducing these concepts in earnest, Hasan al-Banna turns the march of time toward our present, bringing the love of death into his version of Islam.
There lies the land, there the olive trees stand, and the rose bushes. Dust and bloom, dryness and shade. There, strangers force their way in and colonize, aliens trampling on the very soul of home. That is why, writes the clockmaker’s son, it is the duty of a Muslim — indeed his greatest commitment — to engage in jihad.
And in 1947, a 10-year-old boy living as a refugee has to make an important, life-affecting decision. He would later become Asbrink’s father, and she poignantly tells his story as he lives this year too. The personal element to these greater world events, including a pause in her march through the calendar year to tell her grandparents’ back story in Hungary, was beautifully done.
“The days pass, one after the other, and I follow them.”
“There were days that no one can account for any longer. That is how life is; the days vanish and cannot be remembered; they merely pass through the body, leaving a deposit of time.”
The history imparted is full of surprises, both in what was germinating at the time and how many monumental occurrences saw their beginnings in these twelve months. There were some inclusions I didn’t love – Simone de Beauvoir’s lengthy love story is one – but overall an incredible feat of storytelling, a history and nonfiction book for anyone who normally avoids these genres, underscoring that history is never inconsequential, and nothing is as new or unconnected as we might think. 4.5/5
Only through detours, unraveling threads of facts, seeking out and piecing together the events of the months that form 1947, can information be found about a time when everything seemed possible, as it had already happened.
1947: Where Now Begins
by Elisabeth Asbrink, translated by Fiona Graham
published January 30, 2018 by Other Press,
first published 2016 in Swedish
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