I thoroughly enjoyed this interesting book, not only because it concerns great art treasures and the notorious theft thereof by the Nazis during the WW II. It is also the tale of a two-fold odyssey: that of Matisonn’s journey of self-discovery and making, which takes place with remarkable speed and maturity, and his quest for his murdered great-uncle’s stolen paintings, which takes a lifetime.
Matisonn is described in the reviews as a “Jo’burg Maverick”; who would have connected a Jo’burg family with Nazi-looted art treasures in faraway Norway? Matisonn’s life story begins in post-war Johannesburg – commonly referred to as a “dusty little mining town” – where he suffered pitiful neglect at the hands of his drunken father and heartless mother, and anti-Semitism from the boys at school. But he made good. He educated himself as well as his medical student brother, and, after abandoning all prospects of becoming a professional violinist, he became a successful attorney. He worked exceptionally hard, and gradually built his own life – and considerable wealth. Part of the latter went into establishing a successful theatre restaurant – or supper club – in Hillbrow, starting several businesses, learning how to fly aircraft, and the collection of valuable art works by such South African artists as Ephraim Ngatane, Ben Macala, Cecil Skotnes (an erstwhile friend of my parents), Bill Ainslee, Mark Enslin, Zoltan Borboreki and Herman Wald (whose sculpted springbok adorned a fountain outside my university in Johannesburg) and Armando Baldinelli. I hadn’t heard of some of these masters, and enjoyed learning more about them with subsequent research.
The story of Matisonn’s Jewish great-uncle Karnielsohn begins with his career as a successful lawyer in Oslo, and ends with his brutal murder at the hands of Nazi thugs and the disappearance of his collection of exceptional art works. These included several drawings and paintings by van Gogh, Degas, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Mary Cassatt, Marc Chagall and Gauguin.
Matisonn’s single-minded search lasted many years, and took him into underworlds both in apartheid South Africa, and Europe, and into dealings with Mossad – Israel’s national intelligence agency renowned for its successful pursuit of war criminals and their trial and execution. Having grown up in Johannesburg, the descriptions of this city and its surrounds resonated with me personally, while the author’s masterful evocations of Cold War Europe made for thrilling reading.
Regarding the “Dust” part of the book’s title, Matisonn has this to say: The “dust” theme is important as I was trying to pursue something after a lot of time had already passed, and of course most of the people from that era have already “returned to dust”. The book takes a good, hard look at the legacies we leave behind long after we are gone, and our art is a very important part of that.
The author himself draws comparisons between apartheid and anti-Semitism; “…anti-Semitism is the godfather of racism and the gateway to tyranny and fascism and war, it is to be regarded not as the enemy of the Jewish people, I learnt, but as the common enemy of humanity and civilisation” – to quote Christopher Hitchens.
The author claims that there is much in this book for “wonderful talking points at dinner parties”, but possibly only in a South African context. Otherwise, it is a jolly good read.