From the Publisher
“I love Aharon Appelfeld’s Blooms of Darkness. How can this great novelist still find fresh ways of telling the terrible story of those years? There’s nothing reflexive or familiar in here, each sentence is exquisitely judged; we read with the same astonishment and trepidation as if it was all happening now, and for the first time. It’s so sad, and yet it’s also all told through the child’s appetite for life, and with unquenched curiosity and hopefulness. We inhabit those things, taking refuge as Hugo does in the bliss of the moment—because, after all, what else is there?”
—Tessa Hadley, “The Year in Reading,” The New Yorker
“Like Anne Frank’s diary—a work to which it will draw justified comparison—Blooms of Darkness, beautifully translated by Jeffrey M. Green, records a brutal process of education. . . . It is in his rendering of the border territory that Hugo and Mariana inhabit that Appelfeld reveals his compassion, his wisdom, and his restraint. . . . Majestic and humane.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Succeeds brilliantly as a gripping tale of Holocaust survival, but on this occasion, Appelfeld’s literary imagination achieves a great deal more, creating a lyrically rendered story of adolescent sexual awakening, confusion, and love that gestures toward the painful inevitability of loss in any life. Above all, as is often the case with Appelfeld’s most powerful works, Blooms of Darkness is an eloquent meditation on the resources of the mind, the consolations of memory, and the imagination under duress.”
“An unadorned and heartbreaking tale of a young boy coming of age during World War II . . . Poignant and tender without being sentimental, the novel achieves its powerful emotive effects through simplicity and understatement—a beautiful read.”
—Kirkus Reviews, starred
“A simple story that encapsulates the joy and sadness of a coming-of-age novel with the trauma of a world in the midst of destruction. The lean, spare prose does not shy away from harsh realities. . . . A powerful novel.”
“Aharon Appelfeld is fiction’s foremost chronicler of the Holocaust. The stories he tells, as here in Blooms of Darkness, are small, intimate, and quietly narrated and yet are transfused into searing works of art by Appelfeld’s profound understanding of loss, pain, cruelty, and grief.”
As the Nazis move in to liquidate the ghetto where his family lives, 11-year-old Hugo and his mother flee. She leaves him with her childhood friend Marianna, now a prostitute, who has promised to hide the boy. During his days at the brothel, Hugo must stay mostly in a closet, where he listens to the conversations among the prostitutes or the sometimes harsh words of Marianna's customers as they rebuke her for not complying with their demands. When Marianna's self-pity is not fueled with alcohol, she treats Hugo affectionately, vowing to protect him at all costs. Slowly, Hugo forgets his family and friends and falls in love with Marianna; she cunningly abandons herself to him, introducing him to the pleasures of sex. When the Red Army begins its approach, the two flee the brothel, and through a heartbreaking series of events, Hugo finds himself bereft of love and truly alone in a world where the only hope for understanding and redemption is in a community cobbled from the remnants of his old life. VERDICT This latest from Israeli novelist Appelfeld joins classics such as Elie Wiesel's Nightin depicting the struggles of a young man to come to terms with the loneliness and despair of a world falling apart.—Henry L. Carrigan Jr., Evanston, IL
…majestic and humane…[Appelfeld] narrates Blooms of Darkness in a taut, terse present-tense voice that refuses the consolations of retrospect. His decision to use the present tense is particularly shrewd since it eliminatesfor the reader, as for Hugoany possibility of a future…Like Anne Frank's diarya work to which it will draw justified comparisonBlooms of Darkness, beautifully translated from the Hebrew by Jeffrey M. Green, records a brutal process of education.
The New York Times
In this powerful novel from award-winning Israeli writer Appelfeld, two discarded souls form an unlikely bond in the chaos of occupied Ukraine during WWII. When the Jews are being rounded up, 11-year-old Hugo’s mother hides him with her childhood friend, Mariana, a prostitute in a brothel. Locked in a closet every night, Hugo hears Mariana at work and disappears into dreams and visions about his family and friends. Mariana takes loving if sporadic care of Hugo and slowly she becomes Hugo’s whole world. Hugo returns Mariana’s kindness by lifting her spirits as her moods swing from frivolity and disregard for the destruction around her to deep depression about the indignities she endures. Mariana is an exhilarating tragicomic heroine, a woman who is both alcoholic, manic-depressive, and believer in a God she long ago abandoned. The lean, spare prose does not shy away from harsh realities. A simple story that encapsulates the joy and sadness of a coming-of-age novel with the trauma of a world in the midst of destruction. (Mar.)
An unadorned and heartbreaking tale of a young boy coming of age during World War II. Appelfeld (Laish, 2009, etc.) introduces us to Hugo Mansfeld, who is just about to turn 11 and who, without being aware of it, is more on the cusp of adulthood than of adolescence. Life in the ghetto has recently become unbearably tense and stressful. Hugo's father, a pharmacist, has been taken to a labor camp, and his mother is desperately looking for somewhere safe to place her son, perhaps in a local village near the Carpathian Mountains. After several plans fall through because some possible rescuers have been transported to camps by the German authorities, Hugo's mother places her son with Mariana, an old childhood friend who's "fallen low." Hugo quickly learns he is not allowed to go outside and must spend his nights in the closet of Mariana's sumptuous bedroom. A quiet child who at first likes to spend his time playing chess and reading, Hugo is also sensitive, reflective and almost comically polite. It turns out that Mariana is a prostitute, and the place where she lives, The Residence, is a brothel, but for a while Mariana succeeds in keeping Hugo's whereabouts a secret. Eventually, in her loneliness and alcoholic wooziness, she innocently takes Hugo to her bed for solace and companionship. He loves being comforted in Mariana's warm embrace, but as life in this Ukrainian village comes under increasing threat from retreating Germans and advancing Russians, they become lovers. After Hugo has been with Mariana for over a year, the Residence closes down altogether, and they travel the sparse countryside, trying to pass themselves off as mother and son. In time, however, Mariana is caught, and theRussians don't take kindly to women who have consorted with Germans. Throughout their harrowing ordeal Mariana tries to hold on to some semblance of faith in a God she feels she has abandoned-or vice versa. Poignant and tender without being sentimental, the novel achieves its powerful emotive effects through simplicity and understatement-a beautiful read.
Read an Excerpt
The ghetto is thinning out. Now they are snatching old people and children in houses and in the streets. Hugo spends most of the day in the dark cellar, reading and playing chess by lantern light. The thick darkness plunges him into early sleep. In his sleep he escapes from the gendarmes by climbing a tree, but in the end he falls into a deep pit. When he wakes up, he is glad that the fall didn’t hurt him.
Every few hours his mother comes to see him. She brings him a slice of bread spread with fat, and sometimes an apple or a pear. Hugo knows she is denying herself food to give him more. He implores her to eat a portion of the food, but she refuses.
Again, another transport. Hugo stands at the narrow window and watches. There are shoves, screams, and bitter fights. In the pressing crowd, Frieda’s colorful figure stands out. She is wearing a flowery dress, her hair is disheveled, and from a distance it seems that the shoving is making her laugh. She waves her straw hat as though she hadn’t been caught but was going of her own free will on vacation to a resort.
“Mama, I saw Frieda in the transport.”
“With my very eyes I saw her.”
In the evening Hugo’s mother finds out that Frieda has been seized and deported without any of her belongings. The great hope that her Ukrainian boyfriend would give them refuge has been destroyed.
Hugo’s mother speaks more and more about Mariana. Mariana lives outside of the town, and they will apparently make their way to her through the sewer pipes. The pipes are wide, and after midnight little sewage runs in them. Hugo’s mother tries to speak in her ordinary tone of voice, and from time to time she gives it a tinge of adventure. Hugo knows she is doing that to calm him down.
“Where is Otto?”
“I assume that he’s also hiding in a cellar.” His mother speaks curtly.
Since his mother told him they would make their way to Mariana through the sewer pipes, Hugo has been trying to recall her face from his memory. His efforts evoke only her height and long arms, which hugged his mother at the meetings when he was present. Those meetings were mostly fleeting. His mother would give her two packages, and Mariana would hug her warmly.
“Does Mariana live in the country?” Hugo gropes in this new darkness.
“In a village.”
“Will I be able to play outside?”
“I don’t think so. Mariana will explain everything to you. We’ve been friends ever since we were girls. She’s a good woman, but fate hasn’t been kind to her. You will have to be very disciplined and do exactly what she tells you to.”
What is the meaning of “fate hasn’t been kind to her”? Hugo wonders. It is hard for him to imagine that tall, pretty woman dejected or humiliated.
His mother repeats, “Everyone has his own fate.”
That sentence, like the one before, is inscrutable.
Meanwhile, Hugo’s mother takes a knapsack and a suitcase down into the cellar. She places books in the knapsack, and the chess set and the dominoes. She packs clothes and shoes in the suitcase. It is stuffed and heavy.
“Don’t worry. Mariana will take care of everything. I spoke with her. She liked you,” his mother says with a trembling voice.
“And where will you go, Mama?”
“I’ll look for a hiding place in the nearby village.”
His mother has stopped reading the Bible to him, but after Hugo puts out the lantern, he hears her calling to him. Her voice is soft, melodious, and penetrating.
“You must behave like a grown-up,” his mother says, not sounding like herself. Hugo wants to reply, I’ll do everything that Mariana tells me to do, but he stops himself.
At night sounds come from outside and shock the cellar. They are mainly the sobbing of women whose children were snatched away from them. The women were daring and ran after the gendarmes, pleading with them to return their children. The pleas drove the gendarmes mad, and they beat the women furiously.
After the kidnappings, silence reigns. Only here and there a suppressed sob is heard.
Hugo lies awake. Everything that happens in the house and in the street affects him. An expression that he heard by chance returns to him at night with intensified clarity. It is hard for him to read and hard for him to play chess. Images and sounds fill him.
“Where is Otto?” he keeps asking his mother.
“In a cellar.”
Hugo is sure that Otto, too, has been snatched, thrown into a truck, and is now on his way to the Ukraine.
His mother sits with her legs crossed and describes the place where Mariana lives. “She has a big room and within it is a big closet. In the daytime, you’ll be in the big room, and at night you’ll sleep in the closet.”
“At Mariana’s, are they also liable to seize me?” Hugo asks cautiously.
“Mariana will watch over you like a hawk.”
“Why will I have to sleep in the closet?”
“For safety’s sake.”
“Will she read out of the Bible for me?”
“If you ask her.”
“Does she know how to play chess?”
“I imagine not.”
The short questions and answers sound to Hugo like final preparations for a secret journey. Sitting in the cellar oppresses him, and he is eagerly looking forward to the day when he’ll put the knapsack on his back and go down into the sewer with his mother.
“Is there a school there?” he suddenly asks.
“My dear, you aren’t going to go to school. You have to be in hiding,” his mother says in a different tone of voice.
That sounds like a punishment to him, and he asks, “Will I be in hiding all the time?”
“Until the end of the war.”
He is relieved. The war, he has heard, will not be long.
Hugo’s questions, asked as he gropes blindly, pain his mother. Usually she answers with a complete sentence or gives half an answer, but she doesn’t deceive him. She has a rule: never deceive. But there were times, to admit the truth, when she blurred things, distracted him, and concealed facts from him. For that reason, her conscience bothers her. To overcome her twinges of conscience, she says, “You must be aware, listen to everything that’s said, and understand that we’re living in strange times. Nothing is the way it was.”
Hugo feels that his mother is distressed, and he says, “I’m listening, Mama. I listen all the time.”
“Thanks, dear,” his mother answers. She has been feeling recently that she has lost control over her words. They slip out of her mouth and don’t touch on the main point. For example, she wants to tell Hugo about Mariana and her profession, so that he will know and be careful, but all the words she tries to mobilize don’t help her.
“Excuse me,” she says suddenly.
“What for, Mama?”
“Nothing. My mistake,” she says, and she covers her mouth with a handkerchief.
Again Hugo is ill at ease. It seems to him that his mother wants to tell him a big secret, but that for some reason she
is hesitating. That hesitation makes him talk too much and repeat things he’s already told her.
“Does Mariana have children?” Hugo tries a different approach.
“She isn’t married.”
“What does she do?”
To conclude the interrogation, she says, “There’s no reason to ask so many questions. I repeat, Mariana is a good woman. She’ll watch over you like a hawk. I trust her.”
This time Hugo is insulted, and he says, “I won’t ask.”
“You’re allowed to ask, but you have to realize that there isn’t an answer to every question. There are things that it’s impossible to explain, and there are things that a boy of your age can’t understand.” To console him a bit, she adds, “Believe me, everything will be clear to you. In a short while you’ll understand a lot of things. You’re a smart boy, and even without answers, you’ll understand.” His mother opens her eyes wide, and they both smile.