East West Street by Philippe Sands

I’m going to go against the crowd here. Frankly I’m baffled by the critical success of East West Street. To borrow from one of Woody Allen’s greatest sketches; ‘This a good book, but not a great one’ and, although this is clearly a heresy, there are some passages, sometimes extending into chapters, that are just, well, boring.

‘East West Street’ sets out to be two books. On the one hand ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’ by Edmund de Waal and on the other ‘A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide’ by Samantha Power. In the end fails badly at one and just scrapes about equal with the other. Whilst the historical scope of de Waal’s book is broader than Sands’, a large part covers the same period and describes similar atrocities perpetrated against de Waal’s relatives. The difference is that ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’ is a study in how to make a personal history engaging. I hope I’m not being too harsh in saying that Sands seems to believe that simply because there are some members of his family whose lives geographically coincide with two important figures in the story of human rights law that this is interesting enough. Erm, it’s not.

As to whether this is a good book about the birth of international human rights law; factually yes, stylistically no. The story of the Nuremburg trials tells itself and the battle between the contrasting figures of Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin to have their view of the shape that human rights law should take is a fascinating one. Somehow, however, Sands manages to empty it of any real tension, lacking perhaps more rigorous use of the editor’s scalpel. By contrast Samantha Power makes Rafael Lemkin’s struggle much more real; here his anxiety and daily stress in almost viscerally.

This having been said – and stylistic concerns aside – there is an intriguing difference between the Lemkin of ‘East West Street’ and the Lemkin of Power’s narrative. For Sands Lemkin is a rather unlikable character pursuing an ambition as much for himself than for good legal reasons. Power’s Lemkin is much more a victim and this may, in Sands’ defence, explain why Power draws forth a more emotional response.

In ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’ what de Waal does so brilliantly is to bring his scenes to life, whether it be Fin de Siècle Paris, war-time Vienna or present Hong Kong he has a novelist eye for detail and the courage to layer on the descriptive prose to carry the reader along. He’s not writing fiction, simply employing fictive techniques to achieve his ends. It’s almost as if the lawyer’s instinct for evidential truth in Sands got the better of him. His descriptions of war-time Poland are both flat and banal, as accurate as a photograph but lacking the interest of a painting. In fact, there was a distinct whiff of this being a book for lawyers written with a publisher’s nod to a wider audience.

I wish I liked it more. The subject matter is fascinating but – to use an appropriate phrase – this treatment just doesn’t do it justice.

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Martin Roberts

Martin Roberts is the founder of TTSLP.

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