Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Book Review - Cafe Scheherazade by Arnold Zable

Cafe Scheherazade by Arnold Zable

Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2003 (originally published 2001)     ISBN 1877008095

Going to University was a very formative experience for me. After two years in college, I moved into a shared house with some of my new (now life-long) friends. Needless to say, these years were ones where looking after myself physically was not high on the agenda. Missed meals, or take-away, became part of my life.

Except on Tuesday nights - on Tuesday nights a group of us would travel to St. Kilda from wherever we happened to be living, to have a meal at Cafe Scheherazade in Acland Street. This was often the only proper meal in a week's eating. Barley soup, chicken and cheese sandwich on rye, or a schnitzel with the works: I'm feeling hungry just thinking about it. The waitresses came to know us over the years, and like mother hens would encourage us to eat up. As the years went by we finished our studies and moved into the workforce, and I remember the time a friend of mine, now a lawyer, appeared on the television news and how excited the waitresses were that Tuesday when we turned up for our regular meal. We sometimes talked of how we would bring our children to Scheherazade when we had some.

Well we now do all have kids, but unfortunately Cafe Scheherazade is no more. The unstoppable gentrification of St. Kilda, and the passing of the Holocaust generation saw its demise.

As young 20-somethings, we'd often sit at our table and wonder at the histories of the other people in the cafe, with their animated conversations in Polish, Russian, Yiddish, a combination of the three, or some other language. We realised of course that it was the War that had led them to this particular end of the earth, and their European-ness was still noticeable even after what, for most, had been a long time Down Under.

Some of our questions are answered in this book by Arnold Zable: while not a history, Zable writes in his Author's Note at the end of the book that he has written "a homage to the power of storytelling, a mediation on displacement, and on the way in which the after-effects of war linger on in the minds of survivors." He goes on to note that "[w]hile Cafe Scheherazade is based on actual events, and upon tales that Avram and Masha and others have told me, I have reshaped and re-imagined them. Yossel, Zalman and Laizer a composite characters, whose fictional journeys are based upon tales I have heard from many survivors."

The book is structured around the journalist Martin, who meets and talks with the regulars at the Cafe about their experiences during the War. The stories we hear are incredible - surviving bombing raids, ghettos, Soviet prison-camps and work gangs, lucky stamps on passports that meant a journey to Japan and then Shanghai, where there were more bombings, returning home after the War only to leave again on discovering that not only homes, but entire families had been wiped out. Or stories of committed Bund members who were persecuted by the Nazis and the Communists, who formed partisan gangs and exacted revenge when and where they could. All now sitting around tables at the Cafe Scheherazade; named from a scene in the book Arc de Triomphe by Erich Maria Remarque, as Avram and Masha promised to rendezvous there in Paris after leaving Poland, Avram illegally and Masha legally.

Zable's writing is very effective - he captures the different middle European character types in his composite characters - the philosopher, the schemer, and the soldier. He shows them all in their different ways as lost souls, perpetually wandering the streets of their adopted home in search of they don't know what, drawn again and again to the coast, to look out across the bay, which leads to the nothingness of the Southern Ocean. Each try to make sense of their experiences. Laizer is given the quote "I cannot see continuity in my journey, only broken lines." His whole family perished in the Holocaust. Zalman - "...though I have lived in Melbourne for over fifty years, I have no sense of belonging. I am acutely aware that everything is temporary in life, a mere bridge." Yet he has reached a type of peace - "You have a taste for champagne, but a pocket only for beer. So the saying goes. But I have enough imagination to make beer taste like champagne. This is the great gift I received. Through losing everything, I became free."

Through these stories, the reader is perhaps able to begin to grasp something of what was lost, and to feel the horrors of that time for Eastern European Jews: what it was to be a victim of fate as the World collapsed around you not just once, but many times. There is some really powerful writing here.

Zable also captures the atmosphere of Cafe Scheherazade within the book - the groups of old men, the younger people, the future up-market denizens of St. Kilda that were sounding the death-knell of Scheherazade even as they asked for Lattes at the counter. And the food - " 'Schehererzade is a schnitzel gan eiden,' he says, 'a schnitzel paradise. It has the best. And every variety. My favourite is the chicken. But, if you wish, you can have veal schnitzel, a Parisian schnitzel, a Wiener schnitzel. Or you can order your own, the way you once had it, over there, homemade, in der alter velt.' " I can still picture the big round brown tables and simple chairs, the place mats, the 50s wallpaper, and the drawings on the wall - a true haven.

Those of the War generation who once frequented this great place have all passed now, but Cafe Scheherazade's loss is still mourned by those of us who know nothing of the suffering that the owners and their friends went through to make it to 99 Acland Street, St. Kilda.

The site of Cafe Scheherazade is now a shoe shop.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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