March 9, 2012 by markstani
It will come as no surprise to scholars of contemporary Hebrew literature Aharon Appelfeld’s latest novel and his first to be translated into English, Blooms of Darkness (pub. Alma Books) which has been longlisted for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, concerns the Holocaust.
Appelfeld, 78, has written more than forty works of fiction, broadly on a similar theme. He makes no apologies for this. Appelfeld himself escaped from a Nazi concentration camp in 1941, and hid out in a forest with, as he puts it, ‘underworld’ figures. In that time, he was briefly taken in by a prostitute, an experience which inspired this particular novel.
Hugo, its hero, is eleven years old and lives in an unnamed city in Ukraine. When the Nazis invade, Hugo and his mother, who are secular Jews, evade capture by taking to the city’s sewers, and emerge at the local brothel, where Hugo’s mother leaves him in the care of a childhood friend, Mariana.
Hugo spends the majority of the novel couped up in Mariana’s closet, experiencing vivid dreams of his lost family and friends, and listening to Mariana entertain her Nazi soldier clients. Through such slivers of information he comes to appreciate his likely fate.
Hugo and Mariana form a firm bond: he, articulate and observant, and Mariana, bawdy and brutalised. As the search for Jews becomes ever more thorough, and Mariana’s clients increasingly violent, they turn to each other for comfort.
Appelfeld would probably be the first to admit his story is nothing especially new. Its uniqueness does not come from its tried-and-tested metaphors for love, loss and liberation, but from Appelfeld’s richly understated use of language: so heartfelt it could almost have been written in a whisper.
The days pass, and Autumn makes it mark on everything Hugo’s eyes take in. Clouds descend from the sky and spread out over the meadows. Wrapped in the last darkness of the night, children saunter to school. Here and there is a wagon laden with beams, a peasant carrying a long scythe on his shoulder.
As the War comes to a close and the dynamics of Hugo’s relationship with Mariana are turned on their head, Appelfeld describes their fate with a sense of sad inevitability.
Along the way, there are raucous, warming moments, and the boisterous Mariana is a glorious invention. But I have an issue here, and it is with the nature of the relationship between the pair: which develops from Mariana giving Hugo scented baths to them sleeping together, in every sense of the phrase. Descriptions of their sex, it should be stressed, are so subtle as to be almost non-existent, and yet the bare fact remains that here is a (presumably) lower middle-age woman seducing a boy who, for a large part of the novel, is only eleven years old. My issue is not one of prudishness, and I must make clear that this is not a significant, stand-alone plot strand in the novel itself (their unsuitability as lovers is never questioned; most reviews make no mention of it), but I don’t think it can be avoided. Call it a metaphor for stolen innocence all you like, but I fail to see why it is necessary,. and I think it raises questions about the book – such as the true character of Mariana, to whom we are otherwise almost one hundred per cent sympathetic – that it shouldn’t have to answer. Imagine the furore, for example, if Hugo had in fact been an eleven-year-old girl, and her protector a kindly guard. Am I missing some point here? Please let me know.
All that said, it does not significantly detract from a fine novel. It has other flaws – some of Hugo’s dreams seem rather too specific – but the quality of Appelfeld’s authorship cannot be denied. He has crafted a nice, and somehow soul-enriching novel.
This is my latest review from this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist. Scroll for more, plus links to fellow ‘Shadow’ Jury members.
You can read an interview with Aharon Appelfeld in Haaretz here