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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Farewell, Shanghai

Angel Wagenstein

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Farewell, Shanghai

Title: Farewell, Shanghai
Author: Angel Wagenstein
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 382 pages
Original in: Bulgarian
Availability: Farewell, Shanghai - US
Farewell, Shanghai - UK
Farewell, Shanghai - Canada
Adieu, Shanghai - France
  • Bulgarian title: Сбогом, Шанхай
  • Translated by Elizabeth Frank and Deliana Simeonova

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a bit sweeping and broad, but works fairly well

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
San Francisco Chronicle . 27/11/2007 Clea Simon

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) a sprawling and utterly engaging book (.....) In style, as well as scope, Wagenstein loves his broad filmic gestures. For all its epic plotting and often oversize personalities, Farewell, Shanghai is not a sentimental book and, as was the case in reality, gives up few happy endings. With so many characters, the temptation toward melodrama might have undone a lesser writer, one who fell for his strong and sympathetic players. Instead, for Wagenstein, the strong connections between the characters illustrate not only the persistence of human nature but also the illogic of war." - Clea Simon, San Francisco Chronicle

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Angel Wagenstein is a prolific screenwriter, and Farewell, Shanghai certainly has a sweeping, big-screen feel to it. It follows the stories of several characters (whose lives, of course, intersect at various points) first in Germany in the late 1930s, and then in Shanghai, still an open city and one of the last places Jews could flee to.
       There's the renowned violinist of the Dresden Philharmonic, Theodore Weissberg, whose path takes him from Dachau to Shanghai, an escape possible not because of his talents but because of what his wife, Elisabeth, is willing to sacrifice. There's Rachel Braunfeld who, as Hilde Braun, winds up in an unlikely position in Shanghai after leaving Germany via Paris, helped along the way by a variety of men -- including 'Vladek', who is even more secretive about his identity and background than most (and who also turns up in Shanghai). And in Shanghai itself there are all sorts of characters, from all the different camps: the German representative, the various locals -- Chinese and Japanese --, a rabbi, and more.
       It's all very colourful, and as Wagenstein shifts focus -- a few relatively short chapters following one character, and then on to the next -- and jumps ahead, with people disappearing and resurfacing in various places and situations, it makes for a well-paced and fairly grand adventure. Shanghai is the ultimate crossroads: distant Germany -- nominally allied with the occupying Japanese -- casts a shadow, with Baron Ottomar von Dammbach the local representative of the Third Reich an important and influential figure, and there's an English and American presence as well, not to mention the many different Japanese and Chinese figures.
        Shanghai is a teeming mess of a city. It is a place of refuge for the European Jews, but life is hard and as war rages all around many of the characters are drawn into the international conflict in additional ways. The area of Hongku, where the Jews live, is turned into a ghetto, a zone where all comings and goings are tightly controlled, a Japanese commissioner the absolute master over it ("Here I am the King of the Jews. Get it ?" he proclaims).
       The bulk of novel covers the period from 1938 through 1945, and Wagenstein occasionally pulls back to broadly describe the war unfolding elsewhere: it's very much a big-picture novel, with a few personal fates and some specific episodes (both often at least based on fact) to give a sense of the personal toll -- and individual and collective heroics (and crimes). Though sinking into some melodrama is unavoidable, Wagenstein treats his figures realistically: survival is as likely to be due to happenstance as anything else, and noble acts are just as often punished as they are rewarded.
       Farewell, Shanghai is no Suite Française, as Wagenstein plays it safe and obvious throughout: there's no way to miss anything here given Wagenstein's blunt style and approach. Still, mostly it's fine, a cinematic style where there's at least a lot of action and colour; it's only when he tries some writing-tricks that the book really creaks -- so, for example, when he sets the warning lights flashing:

And no one knew or could know that soon this not-large but strictly guarded iron bridge, the only portal linking one world to another, would play a dramatic role in the life of Hongku.
She didn't know that this hoity-toity navy blue envelope, with something like a king's heraldic coat of arms on it, was going to play a crucial role in her near future.
       Good god, didn't they outlaw this in post-19th century fiction ? Apparently not:
There was no hint that the good beginning was destined for a very different conclusion, very soon.
       Right, no hint .....
       (It's an odd tic of Wagenstein's -- especially since it's not something that he can really do in his usual métier, on screen. Though one can just imagine how he would score these scenes, the music rising to a fever pitch .....)
       Still, this is all very rich material, and if nothing else Wagenstein at least does a lot with it. These are vibrant characters, and though perhaps too many of the scenes are confrontational (regardless of the circumstances) in the end he has given a good impression of life first in Germany as Hitler's reach became absolute, and then in turbulent Shanghai.
       It certainly doesn't read like a contemporary novel (1950s is more like it), but between the action and the insight it's a perfectly fine read -- and even if it's delivered on a platter, there are worse things. Fairly effective, with quite a few good (and many tragic) stories, Farewell, Shanghai is an interesting would-be period-piece.

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Farewell, Shanghai: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Bulgarian author and screenwriter Angel Wagenstein (Анжел Вагенщайн) was born in 1922.

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© 2007-2008 the complete review

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