& occasionally about other things, too...

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Afterlife of Stars - Joseph Kertes

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 a confession of a grandaunt who suffered horrific torture; accidentally discovering the family’s dark secrets; 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 experiences especially when young. They remain etched on the mind forever.

Joseph Kertes’ novel The Afterlife of Stars is an amalgam of emotions and episodes that would generally take a lifetime to accumulate for an average person. 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 are embossed on his mind forever. 

The family that has yet to come to terms with the horrors of the Holocaust 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 of betrayal.

That’s not easy, especially for the young Robert, who knows why his grandaunt’s hands have turned into claws. The young boy, burdened by the enormity of the family's sorrows and secrets, prefers silence, and becomes an observer and a narrator of the family’s journey to freedom. 

But 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. It is told in the voice of a child who is living a life through hell, who willingly loses himself to the imaginative world of adolescence, who is eager to explore the most bizarre ideas of his brother, who is innocent enough to audaciously face the most foolhardy risks, and who sombrely touches 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; the author is 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 part of the novel. 

To my surprise, Kertes said that was all fiction.

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