The Far Side of the Sky

8/3/12 Although Daniel Kalla’s captivating novel concerns the Jewish community who escaped to Shanghai when Jews could still get  out of Nazi-occupied territories, I think it’s important to note that there has been a Jewish presence in China for nearly two millennia. At every point in Jewish history, there have consistently been more Jews living in the “diaspora” than in the lands to which Moses led them, and one area where they settled intermittently is China. As early as the 7th or 8th centuries, as Jewish traders set off along the silk routes, and stayed put, at least for a bit, in the far east. Some have asserted that Jews in China were part of the 10 Lost Tribes – no proof of that. But Marco Polo mentions meeting Jews on his travels. They were certainly a presence. In the late 19th century, some Sephardic Jews settled in Shanghai and made fortunes; another influx, Ashkenazai this time, took place after the Russian Revolution. It wasn’t until Mao Zedong kicked out all foreigners in 1949 that the Jews left for good. Kalla imagines well the tensions between the older communities who saw the new immigrants as interlopers, and those who managed to flee there from Nazi-occupied countries. What’s remarkable and historically accurate is that the Japanese more or less left the Jewish population alone after they occupied Shanghai, even though they were Nazi allies. Life in Shanghai was precarious, especially for the newest wave who often arrived penniless, but the Jews managed to survive, and, in general, had fewer problems than the native Chinese. Kalla’s plot follows a Jewish doctor, his young daughter and his sister-in-law, whose husband was murdered on Kristallnacht. Thrown in for plot purposes is a gay artist friend, who is being similarly persecuted by the Nazis and escapes with them. Once they get to Shanghai, an American/Chinese nurse joins the crew, along with a “typical” Jewish American who leads the group to the Jewish hospital around which the plot revolves. There is even a prostitute with a heart of gold. Yes, some of these characters are a bit stereotypical and flat. Still, Kalla spins a great adventure story and portrays harrowing experiences well – the account of Kristallnacht, the horror of trying to leave Vienna, the discomfort of the native Shanghaiese, the poverty of the Jewish immigrants are done well. The Far Side of the Sky is perfect for book groups: it’s long enough to be involving (about 450 pages), and there’s much to be discussed — character’s motives, plot twists, even the narrator’s voice, which is consistent and appropriate throughout. I finished this novel still caring about the characters and even wondering what would happen to them after the final page. They have made it through one more crisis, but the war is not over. And eventually Franz Adler, his half-Chinese wife Sunny, his daughter, sister-in-law – and even the gay artist who seems to be in hiding with the “rebels” (i.e., Mao’s forces) will have to pack their bags and become exiles again. (Clicking on the cover photo will take you to the Amazon website where you can purchase the novel.)