Nina Balatka is the story of a beautiful young Christian girl in 19th century Prague who is beset with two great troubles. First is her economic situation, having been plunged into poverty after her father’s industry failed him and he became ill unto death. The second, portrayed as the greater trouble in this 150 year-old book is her love for a wealthy Jewish businessman named Anton Trendellsohn.
This is a novel about prejudice in old Europe, and perhaps about the power of love to overcome it – but not entirely. Nina’s betrothal to this Jewish man is made more complicated by the fact that he has come to own the house where she lives with her ailing father, thereby melding the two issues into one.
The conflict of the story centers on the title for the house where Nina lives – and whether or not she has it in her possession, as she emphatically denies but which is asserted privately to Anton by Nina’s bigoted family who are anxious to upset the uncommon marriage – and which side Anton chooses to believe.
I very much enjoyed this book, despite the fact that the topics are hard. 19th century European poverty was helpless and grinding and terrifying; similar perhaps to African poverty today – a poverty which I know well, having spent many years living on the ‘Dark Continent’. A poverty where the possibility of starvation is real – something that westerners have forgotten, to our own peril. Then there is the issue of the racism – stereotypes which even this book that is sympathetic to Anton can’t eschew. A dangerous racism – antisemitism – that has been the blight of Europe forever and which still stubbornly persists today.
Nina Balatka is not a love story as I would have written it. It is not an epic tale of love against all odds, full of passion and understanding; it is instead an earthy story about an uncomfortable love in a difficult time, a story that is natural and primal and trying. But it is a love story nonetheless, and Anthony Trollope tells it well.