Blooms of Darkness
By Aharon Appelfeld | Schocken | 288 pages | $25.95
In Aharon Appelfeld’s searing new novel Blooms of Darkness, the reader is placed directly inside adolescent Hugo’s terrifying universe, a world where everything that once was no longer is. Hugo struggles to navigate an ongoing madness filled with violence and cruelty and imminent death. Friends are disappearing every day on transports, smiling eerily as they are carted away, and Hugo and his mother are desperately scrambling to figure out what to do.
Hugo’s father is already gone; he was arrested months ago and his mother no longer welcomes Hugo’s questions about when he might return. It feels to the young boy as if his mother is already preparing him for a life alone and he is unnerved by the dark shadows that surround her face. She has been unable to arrange for him to be taken in by a peasant in the countryside, so in a last-ditch effort to save him from the Nazi assault, she takes him to stay in a brothel with a prostitute who feels indebted to her for past kindnesses, and then flees herself looking for some sort of invisible miracle.
Mariana keeps Hugo locked in a small cellar beneath her room during the evenings while she entertains Nazi soldiers. She is kind to the boy, but often erratic and moody and drunk, and sometimes neglects him. When she does appear at the cellar door, she is occasionally smiling and carrying with her a glass of chilled milk and a sandwich for him. During the day she allows him to climb out of the cellar and stay with her with the door to her room securely locked. She encourages him to read or play chess or study the books he has brought with him, but he can’t. He is hopelessly lost in the immediacy of their claustrophobic world, and is frightened and intrigued by the noises he hears each night, sounds he does not yet understand.
Time passes in an almost surreal fashion, measured by Hugo by small acts of kindness bestowed upon him by Mariana when she is having a better day. Most of the time, she is distressed and rants to him about the humiliations she is forced to endure. When he acts needy and asks questions about his mother, she chastises him and warns him to be strong. He is a quick study at pleasing and appeasing and is soon able to anticipate Mariana’s needs almost before she does. While she rages at God for the life she has been given, it is his skinny shoulders she leans upon for support.
He has become her caretaker and friend, her confidant and adviser, her adopted son and eventually her lover. As his relationship with Mariana intensifies, his mother’s face continues to fade from his memory.
Appelfeld’s narrative is sparse and purposely clumsy and inarticulate in a manner that brilliantly mirrors the mind-set of someone experiencing catastrophic trauma. There is no foresight or hindsight here, but only the terrible and fear-filled present. The only releases are sensual, a piece of over-ripened fruit, a cold glass of water or milk and occasionally a warm bath with Mariana. Appelfeld’s prose allows you to watch Hugo, a boy who has just lost his mother, attempt to process the enormity of that loss while trying to survive intact; clearly an impossible feat.
In a way, this is what Appelfeld has been writing about for decades. Many of his novels, including Laish
, revolve around a young, orphaned Jewish boy trying to find his way in a still dangerous world. Appelfeld returns again and again to the moment of this rupture, hoping to find his way back to the time before it, when the contours of his mother’s face were still visible to him. Appelfeld’s own mother was brutally murdered by the Nazis when he was almost nine and so much of his work feels like an expression of his irrepressible desire to find her again, or at least be able to correctly remember her.
In 1982, he spoke tenderly about her, saying, “I remember her, but I would not say that this would be real because losing your mother in childhood, you are trying all the years to reconstruct her, so it probably would be a different mother than she really was. My feeling is that I remember her, but how much I really remember, this I cannot know. I was too young to be conscious.”
Appelfeld was born in Czernowitz, Romania, in 1932, the cherished only son of Jewish parents who considered themselves freethinkers and rebelled against the Orthodoxy of their parents. His grandfather was a Vishnitz Hassid who used to read Torah on Shabbat and holidays. German was spoken in the family home and his parents disdained Yiddish. After his mother’s murder, his father and he were sent to a concentration camp where he escaped into the woods and survived by his wits for several years until his rescue by the Russian army.
He arrived in Israel almost mute and very distressed, and slowly began to learn Hebrew, the language in which he would write all of his many novels. He refused to speak or write German ever again. Twenty years after the war, he found his father accidentally in an orange grove in Israel. Unbeknownst to him, his father had also escaped and lived in Russia for many years before making his way to Israel.
Appelfeld is wary of the non-Jewish world and concerned by the barely concealed animosity Jews arouse in so many gentiles. In Blooms of Darkness
, Mariana often expresses both a reverence and hostility for the Jews. She tells Hugo how much she admires the Jews and how much she loved his parents, and how gentle and kind and generous her Jewish customers used to be before the war, but a second later, she seems oddly cold and dismissive of his Judaism; treating it as if it were some sort of temporary virus that has infected him.
The reader senses a sad resignation and confusion in Appelfeld about
the collective Jewish fate that still tugs at his heart. Ten years ago
when he was 68, he finally summoned the courage to return to the
village of his birth in order to stand above his mother’s unmarked mass
grave and say Kaddish. It was on this visit that he realized that below
where he stood all kinds of Jews were buried – “Hassidim, assimilated
Jews, Yiddishists, Zionists – every Jewish splinter group over the past
200 years. Here were marked all the wars that the Jews had waged among
themselves: religion versus secularity, Yiddish versus Hebrew and
Zionism versus the Bund, which advocated assimilation and the
brotherhood of all socialist movements.”
He concluded that viewed from the distance of past decades, all those
quarrels between Jews seemed not only strange but rather ridiculous. In
Appelfeld’s mind, the true enemy is still alive and elsewhere and