by Veza Canetti
Ten days after Kristallnacht in November 1938, Veza and Elias Canetti left Vienna. Her novel The Tortoises was written immediately upon their arrival in London, in the short span of three months. Never before translated into English, The Tortoises describes the flight of a couple much like the Canettis. Andreas Kain, a writer, and Eva, his devoted wife, live quietly in a secluded villa outside Vienna. Their lives, however, are gradually destroyed by rising Nazism, as more and more people from the new Third Reich appropriate rooms in their home––most especially their enemy, the high party official Herr Pilz (“Mr. Mushroom”). And like a fungus, Nazism’s daily cruelties intrude on their life and eat it up. For this tale of real mortal terror, spare, cinematic, and devastating, Veza Canetti chose as her leitmotif the tortoise: a peaceful animal, symbolic of long life, wisdom and seclusion. Andreas Kain, at the novel’s start, when they are still safe in their villa, rescues some tortoises who are about to be branded with swastikas and sold as souvenirs to commemorate the Anschluss. With horror the Kains discover that one tortoise already bears, naturally in the patter of its shell, a swastika. It portends no happy ending: stripped of their property and forced out of their homeland, the Kains flee, tortoises pulled from their shells––unprotected.