Running through a minefield, seeing many dead men swaying by the lamppost, dodging bullets hiding inside the massive bronze boots of Stalin’s statue that had been toppled over; seeing a man’s head blown off; being privy to the horrific torture of one grandaunt; learning about family’s dark secrets accidentally, and all the time having to deal with an over-the-edge older brother, who is obsessed with divinity, human anatomy, history, and the family’s past.
It’s difficult to forget such encounters especially if one experiences them before one hits the double digit in age.
Joseph Kertes’ novel The Afterlife of Stars is an amalgam of emotions and episodes that generally take a lifetime to accumulate. However, Robert, the youngest member of a Jewish Hungarian family that is fleeing Budapest as the Soviets tanks overrun Hungary, experiences all the horrors of war and displacement in a matter of a few days, and they remain etched in his mind forever.
Yet to come to terms with the horrors of the Holocaust, the family has now decided to leave Europe and try their fortunes in the new world – in Canada, but before they start afresh, they have to come to terms with their past and with their guilt.
That’s not easy, especially for the young Robert, who knows why his grandaunt’s hands have turned into claws. The young heart is burdened by the sorrows of such enormous family secrets that he prefers silence, and turns into an observer and narrator of the family’s journey to freedom. At every stage, he realizes the futility of physical freedom especially because all of them have been perennially jailed by their memories of guilt.
The Afterlife of Stars is an ambitious novel that is told in the voice of a child who while living a life through hell is willing to lose himself in the imaginative world of adolescence and explore the most bizarre ideas with his brother, audaciously face the most foolhardy risks and survive to tell the tale, and sombrely touch the hearts of his elders by his meek acceptance.
I attended a book club meeting (my first) at the Spadina Museum yesterday organized by Diaspora Dialogues where Joseph Kertes discussed his novel with Helen Walsh. Not surprisingly, the book is autobiographical; he was one of the thousands who fled Hungary in 1956, he was five-years-old then. Kertes is a natural raconteur, and narrated gut wrenching stories of the Holocaust. Though the audience was thin, everyone had read the book, and the conversation was engaging.
Reading the book, I had assumed that the family had stopped in Paris before coming to Canada. This is because the description of Paris, especially the city’s sewers, is an incredibly evocative parts of the novel.
To my surprise, Kertes said that was all fiction.