Weaving a narrative of family history alongside that of major world events during 1947, Elisabeth Asbrink reveals the connectedness among seemingly unrelated occurrences and the crucial significance of the titular year to our present.
The Swedish journalist Asbrink’s 1947 is an extraordinary achievement. Careening around Europe and the Middle East as well as South Asia and the United States through a singular year, she deliberately juxtaposes the intimate and the ephemeral with immensely consequential political and diplomatic developments ... Amid all these gleaming fragments are meditations on the nature of historical time, the mysteries of human motivation, the endless riddle of causation and the heart-rending loss of once-possible alternatives. Asbrink is throughout attentive to the complex dynamic produced by the Holocaust’s multiple aftermaths, the urgently necessary and terrifyingly confusing process of decolonization and the consolidation of the Soviet bloc ... Ultimately most compelling is 1947’s relationship to our present. A chilling recurrent subplot involves the remarkably rapid regrouping of undeterred ex-Nazis, already inventing denialism, networking transnationally and dreaming up a renewed pan-fascist future.
What is unusual about her book is that she creates a sense of history unfolding in real time. Asbrink presents scenes from around the world alongside one another, making for juxtapositions that are sometimes ironic, sometimes damning, and always tinged with sadness ... Memoir is not Asbrink’s strength. Her reflections on traumatic inheritance, on the unreliability and loss of memory, on the paucity of language for the crimes of the 20th century are often overwrought; she needlessly strains to underscore the gravity of her subject when in fact the history, riddled with ambiguities and cruel ironies, speaks for itself. But without her short diversion into personal history, Asbrink’s work would seem incomplete. Her difficulty capturing the contingency of her father’s life, and her own, has a way of bringing author and reader closer together ... Asbrink’s contribution is to underscore the contingency of the post-war period, to give it a fitting form, and to show that we must learn not only from what happened, but also from everything that might have been.
The year and the book begin slowly, with a feeling of disconnection. But as they roll on, Åsbrink’s fragments take shape as a coherent form, much as an artwork that creates one large picture by putting together many small ones. And the central theme that finally emerges is that of the Middle East — the struggle between Jews looking for a homeland and Arabs seeking to keep hold of their own ... Her story develops a power that needs no metaphor to help explain it. It’s a tale of the things that make up the essence of human existence: love, family, uncertainty, horror, belonging.