Within two lives, so many stories

A writer pays tribute to his aunt and uncle - an unlikely couple who lived so much and were loved so well

'Behind every door on every ordinary street, in every hut in every ordinary village on this middling planet of a trivial star ... riches are to be found." So claims novelist Vikram Seth ("A Suitable Boy") in his engaging new memoir Two Lives. The particular door that Seth chooses to peer behind is that of Shanti, his beloved great-uncle, and Henny, Shanti's German wife.

And riches are indeed there to be discovered. The story that Seth offers up is really the fusion of at least three separate narratives - sort of the literary equivalent of nested Russian dolls. Even as you enjoy one, you discover another within.

First, there's an unlikely story of a love which endured more than five decades. Fitted inside that is a compelling sketch of life in Nazi Germany and the way the crimes of that regime would reverberate for years to come. Wrapped around both of these is the writer's loving - yet probing - examination of Shanti and Henny as human beings.

"These two people whom I loved and who loved me," writes Seth. "I want them complexly remembered ... I want to mark them true."

To that end, "Two Lives" pays multiple visits to Shanti and Henny's comfy London home at 18 Queens Road. Readers are given the chance to sit at their spotless kitchen table, attend their lively bridge parties, and eavesdrop on their German-language quarrels.

Seth begins his story with his British boarding-school days, when he often stayed with the oddly paired twosome. ("So incongruous," said Seth's mother. "He short and compact, she tall and thin in her high heels, towering over him.")

But they soon came to inspire love in their young nephew, particularly when Henny crammed him with enough German to pass a crucial exam, unwittingly also offering him the key to their lives - lives which he discovered to be full of courage, character, and event.

Shanti left India for Berlin in 1931, speaking no German and facing all the prejudices of Nazi Germany. ("Don't take the black man," Henny begged her mother, when he first asked to board with them).

But Shanti's charm and intellect carried the day, earning him success at his studies and numerous German friends, including Henny and family. In fact, Henny's sister Lola fell in love with him - although it was Henny (then engaged to a German) who stole his heart.

It was not until years later, in London, that they wed. Shanti was by then a wounded war hero and successful London dentist.

At this point Henny's story takes center stage, thanks to a trove of letters Seth found after her death. And herein lies one of the most fascinating sections of the book.

Henny's family was Jewish. In the happy days when Shanti shared their Berlin home they enjoyed a comfortable middle-class existence. But as Hitler's power rose their lives were gradually crushed.

Henny and her brother finally fled, she to England and he to South America. But Lola remained in Berlin with their mother.

It wasn't until after the war - through writing to her friends - that Henny learned that both had perished tragically in concentration camps.

But that wasn't the only ugly truth she discovered. Her German fiancé had left her for a Christian. Her feckless brother had spent money that might have saved her mother and sister. Some German friends had been true but others turned their backs on Lola and her mother.

"You can imagine how sad, how unendingly sorrowful I am," Henny wrote to a friend. "I will never get over it."

The letters are fascinating chronicles of the suffering in Germany during and after the war, and also of the way that events tested - and often destroyed - friendship and character.

It was in this era that Henny decided to marry Shanti, although Seth never totally unravels the mystery of his aunt's feelings for his uncle.

"I like Shanti, I value him, and he is particularly close to me because he is the only one here who knew my loved ones," she wrote to a friend. "That is a great deal ... a very, very great deal."

So, after 18 years of friendship, they wed, and spent 38 more years together. Shanti's feelings were never in doubt. "We were so integrated," he mourned when she died in 1989. He lived 10 years without her, in loneliness that was "patent and deep and seemingly incurable," writes Seth.

And it is here that yet another story-within-a-story begins, as Seth tells of his uncle's final years and events that ultimately tested his own great love for Shanti. (It was a disappointment that didn't fully make sense to me, but I'll leave others to judge that for themselves.)

"Two Lives" is very much like a long series of rambling family visits, and some readers may long for tighter editing.

But in truth Seth's repetition and excursions away from his central point are almost always skilled. They build up layers which help us to know his characters ever more intimately.

We share their small moments and their grand ones, and we also come face to face with the fact that there is much of importance that we will never understand about them.

But it doesn't matter. Incomprehension and even disillusionment don't change the love that some are able to inspire, and Shanti and Henny were such people. By the time you close this book you will find that you miss them, too.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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