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Fires In the Dark reveals the highly secretive and misunderstood world of the coppersmith gypsies.
In 1927, when prosperity still reigns in Central Europe, Yenko is born to two Coppersmith Gypsies. His parents, Josef and Anna, are nomads who raise their son during the relative calm of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Soon, though, dangerous times threaten to unsettle their family, as their heritage makes them vulnerable targets for ethnic cleansing. As Germany invades ...
Fires In the Dark reveals the highly secretive and misunderstood world of the coppersmith gypsies.
In 1927, when prosperity still reigns in Central Europe, Yenko is born to two Coppersmith Gypsies. His parents, Josef and Anna, are nomads who raise their son during the relative calm of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Soon, though, dangerous times threaten to unsettle their family, as their heritage makes them vulnerable targets for ethnic cleansing. As Germany invades Czechoslovakia and the conflicts of World War II begin to unfold, Yenko and his parents become fugitives, forced on a journey that promises only great uncertainty and offers survival as a remote possibility. In the course of their flight, the burden of an ancient tradition rests entirely on Yenko's shoulders.
In capturing the desperation and perseverance of one family during an extraordinary time in history, Louise Doughty pays powerful homage to an insular and little-known culture.
Summer in Bohemia: high summer. The sun is furious, the sky a vast dome of bright and solid blue broken only by a few wisps of high, motionless cloud. It is 1927, July -- the middle of the day.
The heat has deadened everything. No trace of breeze stirs in the grass, the trees are still. The cows can hardly lift their heads, so accustomed are they to indolence. Flies hang lazily over patches of dung already baked unyielding black. Daisies droop. Only the skylarks are in motion, ascending and plummeting with pointless enthusiasm.
At first glance, this small corner of the world seems uninhabited. The buildings at the edge of the field are disused. There is a tiny stone cottage which looks sound enough but the barn next to it is in ruins, sagging beneath the weight of its own dereliction. It is the sort of old barn which you would pass by and not even register.
Perfect for Gypsies.
Six women are inside -- five of them crouching around the sixth who lies supine on the hard earth floor. A birthing sheet has been laid beneath her and two women sit either side of it waving inefficient fans made from twigs and straw. The woman wears only a loose chemise -- the others have undressed her, folded her three-layered skirts and hastily unplaited her braids to allow the gold coins trapped in her stiff, oiled hair to drop loose. The coins have been gathered and, along with her elaborate jewellery and money belt, placed outside the barn. They must not become marimé -- Unclean. Divested of her finery, how vulnerable the woman seems. Two of the women are supporting her at her shoulders, raising her when she flaps a hand upwards to indicate her position is uncomfortable. For the moment, she is pausing between contractions to close her eyes and pant gently. She has not yet reached the wild time, when she will move into a crouching position and lose all awareness of the processes of breathing.
The remaining woman squats between the labouring woman's legs, observing the blossoming of her vagina. She thinks it will be some time yet.
The boy will be called Emil. His mother is Anna Maximoff, a tall woman famed for her good looks, breeding and pride. She is also considered insightful but as she is currently giving birth to her first child she is temporarily deprived of the ability to see further than the next contraction.
Her cousin Tekla -- the woman examining her -- predicts that Anna is not nearly open enough for the pushing to begin and that a lengthy battle lies ahead.
Little Emil has other ideas.
The men of the kumpánia have been sent to find the nearest village or, if they cannot locate it, otherwise occupy themselves. The group was on its way to Kladno when Anna's time came early. They were hoping to reach the sour-cherry orchards on the westerly outskirts, Ctibor Michálek's orchards.
No man will be allowed near Anna for two weeks after the birth, while she is still marimé. She will not be permitted to wash or cook or perform any duties which might contaminate them. Instead, she will be tended by Tekla while she lies in the barn, feeds the child, sleeps and dreams of his future. When they are alone together, she will whisper his real name into his ear.
Tekla allows herself a small smile at her memory of the look on Josef's face as she ushered him away with the other men. Josef is her cousin and Anna's husband, famous for bursting into tears when his wife was stung by a bee at their wedding feast, while the assembled guests flung their arms up and burst out laughing, declaring that a bee-sting was good luck, the next best thing to bird shit.
For a moment, Tekla remains lost in this memory and has time to note that it -- still -- causes her pain. Then Anna lets out a strange, meandering howl, arching her back, as if the curve of noise is raising her body from the floor. Tekla looks up in surprise. She sits up and commands the other women to lift Anna and turn her, the sharpness in her voice obscuring her alarm.
Tekla has dealt with sixteen births and never yet had to cut a baby loose of its mother. The thought makes the back of her neck prickle. She has a knife ready, as she does each time, cleansed in the fire that morning before they left the forest camp and wrapped tightly in clean cloth to keep it uncontaminated. It is hidden in the pocket of her apron. When she bends over, she can feel it resting across the top of her thighs. The cloth might be difficult to unwind in a hurry.
The women supporting Anna look to Tekla for instruction. Boz'ena and Dunicha have borne five children between them. They know enough to sense that something is amiss. Boz'ena is fond of contradicting Tekla but even she looks at her appealingly now.
Tekla does not trust herself to speak again, fearing the tone of her voice might convey alarm to Anna. She gestures with both hands, palms upwards. Boz'ena and Dunicha lift Anna from her crouching position with one arm each over the nearest shoulder. They brace themselves to take her weight -- she will push down towards the ground so that the powers of the Earth will help to pull the baby out. The women with the fans, Ludmila and Eva, instinctively increase the intensity of their flapping, as if the air they generate might wash away Anna's pain. All four have their gazes concentrated, breathing in time. Anna's face, normally clear and calm, is bathed in sweat. Her eyes stare wildly around, from one woman to the next, as if she is accusing each of them in turn of being her torturer ...Fires in the Dark
This novel is Frantisek's story. His roadside birth coincides with the census and before long, his family and their tribe are shipped to an all-gypsy labor camp where he watches his aunt, his father, his brother, and sister all die from starvation, illness, and the atrocities of the Germans. It is also the story of his escape from the camp his life in Prague working as a thief, and the courage it takes for him to return to the camp to try and save his family.
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About the Author
Louise Doughty is the author of three mysteries, but this is her first serious novel. She has been a literary critic for the Times Literary Supplement, The Times, Sunday Times and the Guardian, and a theater critic for the Mail on Sunday and BBC Radio 4. Her first radio play won the prestigious Radio Times Drama Award. She first learned of her own Gypsy heritage when she was eighteen years old. This novel is the result of years of study and her determination to recover their lost history. She found out, quite by accident, that her roots were in fact in the Romany people, and that her relatives were a nomadic tribe of gypsies. The deeper she dug, the more she found out about their fate, and ultimately, their eradication. Her family's story lives on in the heart of this novel.
Posted March 3, 2006
This is a book that is impossible to put down. The historical facts regarding gypsies in Europe during World War II puts the reader with the subjects. It is very much a page-turner. Am looking foward to more from this excellent author regarding further stories of the Romany tribes.
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Posted January 29, 2004
This intense, sometimes brutal novel of the internment of Gypsies in concentration camps during Hitler's ethnic cleansing crusade is riveting.The beginning of the book (admittedly my favorite part) portrays the Roma gypsy's customs, kinship, travel and home life in a very enlightening manner. In a reversal of how gypsies are commonly portrayed, we learn that they are indeed a prideful, skilled and religious people who, in fact, feel that the gadje (anyone not a Roma) are unclean, slovenly and disgusting. From the time of their imprisonment, we follow Josef's family; Anna his wife, Emil his oldest son and two younger children as they fight, then lose the battle to survive. All that is except for Emil who escapes to Prague. My only complaint was that I felt the continuous portrayal of the brutalities of camp was too long.Masterful writing and pitch perfect historical detail will draw many readers. Hopefully they will hang in there through the middle third of the book because the ending is great.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 10, 2008
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