June 2005

Arts & Letters

'Two Lives' by Vikram Seth

By James Ley

Vikram Seth’s great-uncle and aunt were a mismatched couple. Shanti Seth was a short Hindu dentist with one arm; Hennerle Caro, tall and slender, was a German Jew. This alone suggests the story of how they came to be happily married is likely to be intriguing, but Aunty Henny and Shanti Uncle also belonged to a generation whose lives were blighted by World War II.

Seth uncovers plenty of drama in Shanti’s experiences, which included losing his arm at the battle of Monte Cassino, but Two Lives is dominated by the fate of Henny’s family. Henny was fortunate enough to escape to England before the war. Her mother and sister remained behind and were among the millions murdered as part of Hitler’s “final solution”. Seth’s piecing together of the evidence in order to establish their fate, and the dignified portrait he draws of his late aunt, bring home the sheer inhumanity of a people’s systematic persecution. Henny’s letters, particularly her correspondence with former German friends who turned their backs on her family after the Nazis came to power, provide a fascinating glimpse of the personal fallout.

Memoirs and novels are habitually treated as distinct genres. In fact they often do the same thing: they provide a subjective, humanised perspective on the impersonal forces of history. That Seth is a gifted novelist is everywhere in evidence in Two Lives, which is both beautifully written and fluently expansive. If Shanti and Henny were lucky to find each other, they were doubly lucky to have a nephew as talented as Seth.

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