Book Review | Blooms of Darkness

Delving into the work of renowned ‘Holocaust writer’ Aharon Appelfeld, Rose Lapira is pleasantly surprised to discover a novel that is more about the intimate lives of people than the forces of history.

Aharon Appelfeld, known as a ‘Holocaust writer’, crafts a more intimate tale this time around in Blooms of Darkness.
Aharon Appelfeld, known as a ‘Holocaust writer’, crafts a more intimate tale this time around in Blooms of Darkness.

To make readers aware of contemporary fiction from around the world, the UK newspaper Independent, in 1990, inaugurated an annual prize - the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize - for the best translated book in English. Novelist and translator are each awarded £5,000.

In 2012, the prize went to the celebrated Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld, for the novel Blooms of Darkness, translated from the Hebrew by Jeffrey M. Green.

The author was born in Czernowitz, Rumania, now in Ukraine, in 1932. At the age of eight, his mother was murdered and he was deported with his father to a concentration camp. He escaped and had a difficult life trying to survive, till in '46 he went to Israel, where much later he was reunited with his father. In Israel, he learnt the language with difficulty and started to write in Hebrew. To date, he has published about 40 books.  Blooms of Darkness is his latest book to be translated in English.

It tells the story of an 11-year-old Jewish boy, Hugo, who to escape deportation during WWII is left by his mother in a brothel with an acquaintance. Here he spends his time hidden in the closet of the prostitute Mariana, at first not comprehending what is taking place in the other room. All the action recounted in this book happens in this place, except at the very end. Spending hours cooped up in a confined space, Hugo invents an imaginary world, peopled by all those he had known, especially his beloved mother.

Though Appelfeld is often referred to as a Holocaust writer, this book is not about the Holocaust. The war hardly features, except as a backdrop in the distance. It is about the consequences of the war without describing the horrors of the war. The author is not writing about history, but about people.

Mariana, a gentile, is a complex character. Young, beautiful, tender hearted but emotionally unstable, she had and was still having a difficult life coping with brutal characters. She loves the boy, but has fits of despair and depression, often finding solace in alcohol, at times even forgetting to provide him with food.

Hugo is an innocent, well-behaved boy who remembers his mother's admonitions about keeping quiet and obeying Mariana. He has learned not to ask but 'to listen to the silence between the words'. As times become more difficult for Mariana, she turns to Hugo for comfort. He finds a surrogate mother in Mariana, but is also attracted by her beauty.

Slowly, the relationship turns into something else, and Appelfeld - with much reticence -implies a situation where a great bond is created between the two: 'Not a word passed between them as if words had become extinct.'

There are no depictions of the sexual encounters but when implied, the tone used is most restrained.

The theme at the heart of the novel is not the war, but how people deal with the war. Are people guilty for their actions?  Hugo remembers what his family used to say: 'Circumstances are guilty.' The author is not judgmental towards Mariana. Her actions are reprehensible, even criminal, but the bond created between the two saves their lives. Each relies on the other for survival. Mariana saves Hugo's life, but by his love he also saves her from destruction and suicide.

Aharon Appelfeld has turned the memories of an incredible childhood into fiction.  He believes that all his work is autobiographical, one way or another. In his memoir, Story of a Life, he describes how as a 10-year-old, he escaped from the concentration camp in Ukraine and went into the forest, where he was 'adopted' by the underworld: smugglers, thieves, murderers and prostitutes. For a time, he worked as an assistant to a prostitute, and at 12 years he joined the Russian army as a kitchen boy. This school of life left him with a profound understanding of human nature and reluctance to judge people.

Written in simple prose, Blooms of Darkness is a powerful book that lingers in the mind, and it is difficult not to be moved by it.