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Suzanne Brøgger: Jadekatten (Jade Cat)

Brøgger herself comes from a Danish-Jewish family. She herself said I don’t believe in ‘identity’ as such, Jewish or otherwise, but as long as there is antisemitism in the world, I will—like Arthur Koestler—claim my Jewish heritage. The Løvin family in this book are assimilated Danish Jews. As we shall see, the children did not even know they were Jewish till they were older. The name Løvin comes from the Jewish name Levin but, as Løve is the Danish for lion, people often thought that was the origin.

The patriarch, at least from the point of view of this story, is Isidor. He was Polish but he hiked to Denmark, where he used his family’s knowledge to open an aquavit factory and did very well. His eldest son, Max, hoped to inherit. However, Isidor sold the factory to buy himself a mansion. Max went off to the United States where he introduced the first pure yeast culture and then identified the source of the typhus epidemic. He was very keen on US-Danish relations and regularly went back and forth between the two countries.

However, it is his brother, Louis, known as Papa, whose line we will be following. Papa does not play a major role in this book, focusing on his library of first editions, but his son, Tobias, very much does. There is another son – Otto – who is somewhat resentful of his brother but his role is also limited.

Tobias marries Katze den Thura who comes from a family that is relatively less well-off but also very Danish and they resent her marrying into a Jewish family, not helped by the fact that she became pregnant at the age of nineteen, before they were married. Katze is one of the key people in this book. She is not Jewish but sympathetic to their situation.

The marriage is not a particularly happy one – both partners are unfaithful, though insisting all the time that they love one another. She considers the Løvins to be loudmouths, with some justification, though she can and often does make her views known. The couple have three children – Balder, Liane and Rebekka – each one different from the other.

Katze has firm views on a lot of things. Her motto is: men are riff, women are raff. Human beings are riffraff. She is critical of many people. I haven’t any friends, thank God, she says. While she maintains that she loves Tobias, she does not particularly enjoy sex with him and is unsure whether he loves her. Indeed, at one time, she has the marriage bed sawn in half.

Tobias manages to get himself a job with a US company, Vacuum Oil, in Riga. At that time, Latvia is independent under a firm Latvianist president. However, the locals do not do well, as the Germans dominate and the country continually fears, with considerable justification, a Russian invasion. Tobias has to travel a lot, leaving Katze alone with the children. She hates it and spends much time in bed with a headache. When Balder comes home one day wearing a Nazi emblem, he is sent off to boarding school in Copenhagen. The girls become anti-Semitic and horrified to learn that their father is Jewish. When things get difficult, Katze and the girls leave for Copenhagen but soon all are living under occupation – Tobias with the Russians having taken over Latvia and Katze and the children with the Germans having taken over Denmark. Katze finds a flat in Copenhagen and wonders whether she will ever see her husband again or, indeed, if she wants to, as both of them have started an affair.

They do all get back to Copenhagen but all of them except Katze, have to leave for Sweden as the Germans are clamping down on the Jews and Katze is the only one not Jewish. She struggles to keep the business going. In Sweden, everyone except Tobias finds a job and only much later do we (and they) learn that he has frittered away both his mother’s money and his and Katze’s mother. When the war ends and they return, not surprisingly marital relations are not at their best. Katze was not the only one to remain, Li (reluctantly) married Jas who adored her, though she did not adore him, only marrying him to give her some cover. She produced two daughters – Ester known as Zeste and Myren.

Li is, in many ways, like her mother – difficult, highly critical and subject to fits of depression. After the war she meets and falls for Rejn, who also adores her. She tells Jas she is divorcing him only to find he has pre-empted her and he, too, has found someone else. Rejn turns out to be no improvement over Jas.

The first part of the is novel is caused Katze’s Book, while the second one is called Myren’s Book and it is the sweet Myren, devoted to her mother and her mother’s nursemaid at the age of six, who should be the focus but, despite the section being named after her, she does not play nearly as big as a role as her mother, Li, and her sister, Zeste.

Li and Rejn have two boys, Orm and Tor, though Li is no better a mother of them than she is of her daughters. Rejn has had no job but finally gets a UN job, first in Ceylon and then in Thailand and later in India, Afghanistan and Algeria. Brøgger cynically comments re the UN job The ruling class, which was threatened or obsolete in many wealthy countries, now had a fresh chance to rule the so-called underdeveloped nations under the guise of helping them.

We follow this branch of the family and they turn out to be just as chaotic and psychologically disturbed as their predecessors. Two turn to acting – Balder (TV) and Zeste (stage). Li finds her comfort in bridge (the card game) and Sung porcelain (she manages to find a rare jade cat at a bargain price in Bangkok, hence the title of the book) and when she cannot get either of those two, e.g. in Afghanistan and Algeria, she falls into a deep depression.However, for most of the others, things do not work out well and, in some cases,quite disastrously.

Uncle Otto said the family was broad-minded with no sensational stories apart from infidelities and card playing and whatever else bourgeois families go in for. When one of them seriously breaks the law, he has to revise his view. However, for us, the readers, it seems that, the family (that is the extended family, including spouses marrying into the family and close friends) is entirely dysfunctional. They fight with one another, have serious mental health issues, have no idea how to manage money, are all too often terrible parents(Li was not a normal mother, she did not value marriage or maternity in the least) and terrible spouses (I’ve been divorced from a crowd of women; to tell you the truth all women are totally mad, says Jas, maybe the maddest of them all) and unable to sustain a career in any area. Rebekka, for example, who wanted to be a doctor but cannot make it ends up publishing a book by Hitler’s alleged daughter, fails to secure the rights and watches in horror as it makes millions for someone else.

Myren considered the two families sick and pernicious with Zeste as the clearest proof, though while Zeste certainly has her issues she is certainly saner than both her biological parents, her stepfather, and her youngest brother. Orm may well be the worst. He is an orphan in his own family, never fitting in anywhere. The book more or less ends with his diary, which shows him to be a drug addict and religious fanatic but his saddest entry may well be Today it finally dawned on me: the party is over forever.

The party seems to end but we have one last gasp. There is an offshoot of the Løvins that few know of. Indeed, when the horrible Sharpy (spouses of the Løvins can he just as awful or even more so than the Løvins themselves), wife of Balder finds out about it she tries to challenge one of them for stealing the name. She does not succeed. The survivor of this breach is called Tobias but though he knows nothing of his relatives, he, too, proves the streak of Løvin insanity runs in him as well.

This is really an amazing saga as there seems to be virtually no-one in the extended family who could be described as more or less normal at least not in the generation that begins with Otto and Tobias. The earlier ones do seem relatively sane but, thereafter, things fall apart. It may be, at least in part, because of who they marry, Katze being an obvious example. However, while she may be somewhat peculiar, her husband, Tobias, is certainly no better.

While most of us, doubtless, have a few eccentric relatives, this family does seem worst than most. However, the advantage for us is that it makes for a highly colourful story as you can never predict what they are going to do next. Indeed, you can be sure that one of them will do something that is both unpredictable and unwise. We can just be grateful that it is not our family.

Publishing history

First published in 1997 by Gyldendal
First published in English in 2001 by Harvill
Translated by Anne Born