Friday, 1 July 2011

Secret Diamonds


One of the most heartening things for a writer is to see a forgotten author being rediscovered. It's comforting because it means that even if this generation fails to appreciate you, even if critics hate it, buyers snub it and you're 900,000th in the Amazon rankings, your book might just outlive them all and catch the eye of a true conoisseur wandering into a second-hand bookshop by the Seine in, say, 2111. (Unless you only publish e-books, in which case, shudder, your book might be deleted before future generations get the chance to rediscover it. A strong argument for hardbacks.)

Imagine my delight then when I came across the work of Esther Kreitman. It was a double rediscovery. Kreitman, the sister of the Nobel Laureate Issac Bashevis Singer, wrote novels in Yiddish, depicting life in the Hassidic community in the late 19th and early 20th century. She was born in Poland but entered an arranged marriage with a diamond cutter in Antwerp, and this is why I found her in the first place.
I was in Antwerp a few weeks ago to find out more about diamond merchants and diamond cutters as part of my research for my next novel. The main story is set among British conscientious objectors during World War Two, but one of the characters is from an Anglo-Belgian family of diamond cutters. It's an absolutely fascinating community and as soon I went to Antwerp, I was completely absorbed by the history of the city and its inhabitants.
Erwin Aelbrecht, a gemologist at the Diamond Museum and an Antwerp native, generously gave me a condensed masterclass in gemology and took me to the workshop of his friend, Pieter Bombeke. I came away with black diamond dust on my fingertips and hundreds of stories about medieval court cases, secretive guilds and perfect forgeries in my head.

And then I found Esther Kreitman. I wish I could say that an old diamond cutter slipped a battered copy of her book, "Brilyantn", into my hand, that I devoured it in a dusty corner of his workshop and was fluent in Yiddish by the time I finished it.
The truth is that I googled "diamonds", "Antwerp" and some other related terms and read about her on Wikipedia.
Even better, the Internet told me that a kind soul called Heather Valencia recently translated "Brilyantn", the story of a group of diamond merchants and cutters who escape from Antwerp to London during the First World War. It was published in English as "Diamonds" last year - almost 70 years after it first came out. Isn't that a wonderful coincidence? Yiddish is close to German and I can understand some of it, but without the translation I would never have been able to read the whole novel. Thank you, Heather.

So, about Esther Kreitman, nicknamed Hindele. Her arranged marriage with the diamond cutter didn't work out and it sounds like she had a pretty awful life. Here's an account of her reunion with her mother in 1926, when she was about 35 and hadn't seen her parents for more than a decade:
(Her mother) "pauses out of reach... In a husky warble she declares, 'Why Hindele, you're not all that ugly! I always thought you uglier than Lena... the village idiot."

Much of Kreitman's work revolves around the intellectual frustration and thwarted ambition of women in conservative religious families. This sounds rather bleak, but what really made me fall in love with "Diamonds" is her sense of humour. There's Leybesh, the rebellious atheist who makes his point by munching his way through an enormous feast on Yom Kippur, when the rest of the community is fasting. There's Berman, the wealthy diamond merchant with anger management problems, whose one aim in life is to sell lots of diamonds and see his sons marry rich girls. And what do his sons do? One spends his days drinking and dancing; the other becomes a Communist. And there's Reb Beynish, Antwerp's only matchmaker, who swings boasts about his deals and rubs in the fact that Berman's competitors are grabbing all the good girls with big dowries:

Usually he snapped up young men from the Hassidic shtiblekh... Reb Beynish caught them in the street, in the synagogue, in the shtibl or at home. Among all the worshippers he was always the first to greet a newly arrived young man, ask him in great detail who he was, where he came from, what he did for a living and so on... "You say you're not ready to get married? Always the same old tune! Heh! Heh! Heh! But never mind, you'll soon be ready!"

Beynish goes on to paint a vivid picture of the dangers that await a young man trying to make it in Antwerp: he will fail miserably, he will lose all his savings, he will be exploited in sweatshops, he'll never get his hands on a parcel of diamonds to trade... unless... he marries a girl from a good family:

"Follow my advice and you'll do well in the world. You'll have a home, a wife, a family, and you'll never be lonely."

Well, by the end of the chapter I was ready to call Reb Beynish myself and ask him to find me a Hassidic wife.

I didn't see any matchmakers in long black coats with sheepskin collars hurrying from door to door in Antwerp, but a lot of other things have remained the same. The spinning disc that grinds the diamond is still called a scaife, even among English-speaking cutters, and the handle that holds the diamond is known as a tang, just as in Kreitman's book. Antwerp is still one of the world's diamond capitals, and particularly difficult or precious stones are sent here from around the world because the city has the most skilled cutters. The workshops are tucked away at the end of dark corridors in unassuming grey buildings behind the train station, and some of the surnames on shop signs and doors show exactly what the families have been doing for generations - "Rubin & Sons" and so on.

As for what has changed since Esther Kreitman scribbled away at her novels here: unsurprisingly, cutters now use a computer programme to calculate the best way to cut a stone. When I went to visit Pieter Bombeke, the diamond cutter, he told me that in the old days about a dozen craftsmen would have been crammed into his workshop. Children were expected to help out with dirty, dusty tasks like making diamond dust for the scaife. Now the industry finds it hard to recruit new talent and the children of diamond cutters become management consultants or perhaps novelists. Indian diamond traders outnumber the Hassidim, which is in some way fitting since the first diamonds in Europe came from India.
And apparently ninety-five percent of diamonds are now polished according to a formula for the perfect brilliant that was devised by a mathematician called Marcel Tolkowsky in 1919. It's the typical bling-bling, super-sparkly cut we now associate with diamonds and it maximises the stone's brilliance, but I feel it's a bit of a shame that older cuts like the flat, sweet rose or the baguette have gone out of fashion. The baguette in particular may not be as sparkly but it's very beautiful and classy in its simplicity:


Given the ongoing craze for all things vintage, I wouldn't be surprised if some of the older cuts came back into fashion. Pieter Bombeke is also working on some very special new cuts that combine brilliance with unusual patterns - spirals, for example, or the Star of David. It's a far cry from the diamond cutters in Kreitman's book, who grind away in their sweatshops while hoping for salvation in the shape of a brilliant match made by Reb Beynish:

"In the middle of the street, pale young men with wispy beards and older men with long thick ones were riding on tricycles. Their sallow faces told sad tales. Their beards brushed the baskets full of fish, bread and meat, which these former diamond traders and other poor people were delivering to rich houses... It always amused Berman to see these hopeless cases with their dog carts. But he didn't, God forbid, laugh at them! For who can tell what tomorrow will bring."