Book 9: The Nature of Blood
Caryl Phillips, 1997.Genre:
Historical Fiction. Holocaust Fiction. Race. Literary. Post modern. Other Details
: Hardback. 213 pagesThe Nature of Blood
is a slender novel that is quite extraordinary in its power and scope. Embedded within are a number of individual stories that illustrate the larger history of racial politics in Europe.
It opens with Stephen, a doctor and militant, living in Palestine just before the creation of the state of Israel. Part of his work involves visiting the relocation camps where Jews wait to be allowed entry to Palestine. The novel then jumps back in time to an unnamed Nazi death camp on the day of liberation and we are introduced to Eva, a young survivor. It is Eva's story that forms the heart of the novel as we see glimpses of happier times with her family before the war as well as her time in the camp and the aftermath. Her father's break with his brother Stephen over the issue of Palestine highlights how after many centuries in Europe how strange the idea of settling in the desert "amongst Arabs" seemed before the Holocaust.
The novel also travels further back in time to late 15th century Venice to chronicle a case of 'blood libel' as a group of prominent Jews are accused of the ritual murder of a wandering Christian boy. Alongside this is the story on an African general who has been hired by the Doge to lead the Venetian army. Acutely aware of his outsider status, he wanders the streets of Venice and visits the original ghetto where the city's Jewish population resides. Although never named in the text, it is fairly clear who he is, even before the revelation of the name of the beautiful Venetian woman he has married. An elderly Stephen closes the novel as he meets Malka, an Ethiopian Jew who has also come to Palestine, only to find that the colour of her skin is held against her. It is a painful irony.
There are certain post-modern elements that in less skilled hands would have made this novel harder for me to engage with; such as unannounced shifts in time between the twentieth and fifteenth centuries and an anachronistic rant from the universal narrator accusing the African of being an 'Uncle Tom'. Its descriptions of Eva's life in the death camp are deeply disturbing as Phillips uses short, sharp sentences that cut to the quick.
The novel is melancholic in its examination of how the fear of the other has fuelled racism and intolerance throughout the centuries. Our awareness of history and Shakespearean tragedy overshadows the narrative so there is a sense of predestination of how things will turn out even if not spelt out.
The Holocaust and historical anti-Semitism in Europe is not a subject usually expected from an Anglo-Caribbean writer and yet creating a parallel between the persecution of Jews in Europe and the legacy of the African slave trade works extremely effectively. I was captivated by the elegance of Phillips' writing and certainly plan to seek out more of his work.