A CRIME IN THE FAMILY by Sacha Batthyany (trans. Anthea Bell)

This was an intriguing sounding choice from a list of five that I could choose from to review. The author, Sacha Batthyany, is a journalist, born in Switzerland to Hungarian parents. He belongs to a once aristocratic wealthy and powerful Hungarian family who lost everything in the second world war, and the communist takeover immediately afterwards. Like many wealthy families, his grandmother's family chose to flee, in this case to Switzerland.  Sometime before the war, his great uncle, Count Batthyany, had married Margit Thyssen-Bornesmisza, sister of Baron Thyssen-Bornesmisza, billionaire Swiss industrialist and famous art collector, and they lived in the castle the family owned in Rechnitz, a town near the Austrian-Hungary border.  

Quite by chance, around 2007, Sacha finds out that Margit was involved in a massacre of 180 Jews that took place while she was hosting a party one night towards the end of the war at the family castle. Amongst the guests were German aristocrats and SS officers, as well as local officials. This is the first he has heard of such an appalling event, naturally he must find out more, and so his journey begins, the result of which is this memoir.  

Once I had finished reading this book, I tracked down via Google what may be the original article that propelled Sacha into investigating and answering the questions about his family's past. It is clear that the writer of the article, David Litchfield, does not have a high opinion of Sacha Batthyany, but that is another story and just as intriguing as this book. Links to the article and the writer of it are at the bottom of this review. 

After so many years, so much death, records destroyed or altered, so many people refusing to speak, it is very hard to know what is the truth and what isn't. Hungary, being behind the Iron Curtain for so long too has not helped the dissemination of information, and with virtually no-one from that time still alive, maybe the real truth will never come out. However, this does not detract at all from a most interesting and at times very emotional journey that the author must take to track down what his family members did or did not do. 

Sacha has a number of sources in his search. Firstly, his father is still alive, and as a small  boy lived in the castle, although too young to remember what happened in 1944. He is most reluctant to speak about what happened, the rumours, any coverup. Sacha's grandmother, Maritta, kept a diary during the terrible war years, and it is in reading this that Sacha comes across another tragic and violent episode involving a local Jewish family. Sacha again has to question everything he has heard about his family and what went on during those years. 

His investigations uncover the daughter of the Jewish family, Agnes, now very elderly and living in South America with her own daughters. She was a friend of Sacha's grandmother and also kept a diary during the war years, survived Auschwitz and its aftermath, but never knew what had happened to her parents or her brother. The family very generously allow Sacha to read the diaries, and eventually he is able to return to Agnes and tell her exactly what happened to the rest of her family. 

Secrets, secrets and more secrets. As the years pass, the survivors of the war years are dying. In many cases they take the secrets of what happened to them, to their communities, betrayals, good deeds and bad, to the grave with them. It was a truly terrible time, and who can blame them for wanting to bury it all as deep as they can. That their children and now grandchildren are beginning their own investigations is producing many many books of this ilk such as 'The Hare With Amber Eyes' by Edmund de Vaal. Sacha Batthyany is clearly very troubled about what his family did or did not do during the war, and the veil of silence he appears to keep coming up against is difficult for him to bear. 

This book is as much about the author's journey of discovery as it is about what actually happened. At least two trips to the town of Rechnitz, one with his elderly and reluctant father, another to Buenos Aires, and weekly visits with his psychoanalyst are all carefully documented. He actually struggles more with what happened to Agnes's family than he does the massacre. This may be because the massacre has been well documented, accurately or otherwise, but the deaths of Agnes's parents not at all. His 'family' guilt almost consumes him, and as annoying as I found them, the weekly sessions with Dr Strassberg have their own reveal. 

Sacha Batthyany is just one of many thousands of descendants of people who have lived through terrible times such as the second world war. There will be many, many other stories such as what he has uncovered, and it is indeed good that we get to hear of them, wondering what we would ourselves do in such situations that aren't really all that long ago. For these reasons alone it is worth reading, and I am putting this into my book club, because I just know it will lead to all sorts of discussion. 




Do you know the names of any seventeenth century Dutch women artists,  just off the top of your head? I googled it - three. What about male Dutch artists of the same period - twenty four. Did women paint any less than men then? Unlikely - the urge to paint is just that, a personal expression - when you gotta paint, you gotta paint I guess. Sara de Vos is a fictional character, an amalgam of several actual women artists of the time. In this novel she is the first woman to be admitted into the guild of master artists. Women artists existed, but their signatures were never on the works they did, they were signed by husbands or male artists.  Which is what happened to Sara: her husband and father of their daughter, being the earner, his signature was on her work as his own. Life takes a terrible turn for Sara, but she does  manage to paint a most beautiful and haunting picture, that survives down through the centuries.

This painting ends up being bought by a wealthy Dutch merchant, staying in the same family through the years, until it ends up on the wall of his descendant, Marty de Groot who lives in New York. It is now 1957, and one day Marty notices that the painting hanging above the bed is actually a fake. How did this happen? In a very clandestine and deceitful fashion, obsessed with revenge, he tracks down the forger - a young Australian fine arts restoration student, Ellie Shipley who is living in New York at a subsistence level, unhappy, disillusioned. Extraordinarily talented, her skill at restoration leads her down the path of making a forgery of the de Vos painting.

The story moves effortlessly between the seventeenth century, the late 1950s and the year 2000 as the lives of Sara, her family, Ellie and Marty, and the painting itself unfold. In 2000 Ellie, now in her sixties,  is a world renowned art historian living in Sydney. An exhibition of Dutch masters is taking place, and bizarrely, both of the paintings are on their way - the secretly reclaimed original back in the hands of Marty de Groot, and the fake which has been  hanging in a Dutch gallery. Will Ellie's forgery past come back to haunt her? And what will happen when she and Marty meet up again after so many years?

This is such a good story - the plot alone is enough to compel one to pick it up and read. But it is also so extremely well written. Carefully paced, and moving effortlessly across time and back again, it's strength lies in the way relationships between the key characters develop, and how the plot hinges on these relationships. The author has also researched most thoroughly old Dutch masters, guilds, painting techniques, women artists . What was most fascinating was the secret world of stealing/forging/onselling stolen works of art, how these old and valuable works are forged so perfectly, the processes museums and art galleries go through to verify and restore works of art.

Very, very good. 


I fondly remember that marvellous TV series of the 1990s - Waiting for God. Two feisty oldsters, Tom and Diana, living in Bayview Retirement Village, under the management of Harvey and his hapless assistant Jane. Continually looking for ways to sabotage and subvert the efforts of Harvey and Jane in their 'management' of the residents, Tom and Diana never let an opportunity go by. Even though it was funny, there was a serious message in the weekly escapades of the residents - how to live a meaningful life, build good and strong friendships, how to remain independent in mind and body for as long as possible, when all around you are slowly fading away, whether it be mentally, physically or both. 

Hendrik Groen is one such elderly resident of a residential care home. There is enormous speculation around the world as to whether he is a real person or not, adding a touch of frission to the story telling. In the Netherlands where it was originally published  in 2014 it has been a sensation, and taken the world by storm since its translation into other languages. Most of us will make old bones, and it makes sense for us to be naturally curious, frightened, pragmatic, even fatalistic about where and how we will live out our last days. This could well give you a few ideas to make it all bearable!

This retirement home, north of Amsterdam, sounds like a very reasonable place to be. Hendrick has his own unit within the complex, he lives independently, with like minded people living just like he is. At the beginning of the year, January 1, he decides to write a diary, documenting exactly what goes on in a rest home, because it would appear a lot goes on behind closed doors that never gets out. He has a number of good friends in the complex including the totally impossible Evert, doing everything he can to subvert the noble aims of management. Just like a bunch of teenagers really, hassling their teachers or parents. 

Death, naturally, is part and parcel of everyday life in the home. One day Hendrik has a new neighbour, Eefje,  with whom he strikes up a beautiful friendship, showing that even in your 80s, it is never too late to fall in love or find your soul mate. He, Eefje, Evert and a few other similarly rascally residents form a group - The Old But Not Dead Club - where they take it in turns to organise day outings. These outings and the camaraderie give the old people a new lease of life, some point to their increasingly constrained existences. Some great times are had, and Hendrik is a marvellous chronicler of the goings on in the home. 

We never learn much about Hendrik and his life prior to coming to the home. He is widowed, and lost his only child many years ago. He doesn't have family visiting, or taking him on outings, so becomes a very astute observer of the lives of those around him. He also has a brilliant relationship with his mobility scooter which also gives him considerable freedom, and allows him to pass disparaging comments about fellow mobility scooter users. Very funny.

It is a wonderful story, who cares if it is true or not. It is exactly the type of old person I want to be - slightly bonkers, subversive, able to have great relationships still with people, and seize the day even if at times it will be bloody difficult!