Former TV producer Hanna tackles nearly every aspect of Jewish persecution in this historical saga.
Sixteen-year-old Herschel Hartenstein feels suffocated by upper-class refinement and its social limitations, and his mind aches with questions. His well-meaning father, a prominent banker in mid-19th-century Berlin, tries without success to guide his youngest son toward the traditions of business and finance. A stint at the Akademie fails to mend Herschel’s melancholy, so his friend, Joachim Malkovitz, is commissioned by the Hartensteins to chaperone him on a sojourn across Europe, in hopes of broadening his cultural worldview. Yet rather than taking Herschel to museums and theaters, Joachim, a dabbler in radical politics, leads him into the realm of anarchists and Marxists. In the back alleys of London, the two see the misery of cholera, poverty and squalor–touring a garment factory staffed by undernourished children changes Herschel forever. After returning to Berlin, he immediately runs away to Warsaw, leaving his family distraught as he joins a mounting insurrection against the Russian Tsar. Initially a wallflower at the underground sect’s secret meetings, the banker’s son is soon caught up in a maelstrom of bombings and assassinations, clashing ideologies and passion. The Russian military quickly crushes the uprising, and Herschel becomes an undocumented fugitive. Herschel hides out with a Rabbi traditionalist in a small town on the Prussian border, but the cavalry makes quick work of rooting out Jews for a military conscription, and the protagonist is forced to defend and reconcile with his ethnicity. Hanna’s ambitious Siddhartha-meets-Marx epic takes on the big issues–persecution vs. self-persecution, racism and class wars. As with others who have traveled this road, the author’s efforts to tackle these topics often tread the line between plot and agenda. In Revenant, however, the agenda feels refreshingly born of curiosity rather than anger. While it occasionally meanders, and though the minor characters tend to slip into caricature, Hanna’s debut novel is a cascade of ornamental language, vivid detail and alluring insight.
A first-rate exploration of one of humanity’s oldest dilemmas.