“Strange things happen during a war,” he said. “But you made some of it beautiful.” – Harold Robbins, Goodbye, Janette
Things happen during a war, strange things, bad things, unexpected thing, things out of character, unwanted things. Someone once said that only four things happen during a war: the unscrupulous make money, atrocities are committed, truth becomes a casualty and frequently lots of people die. That’s certainly a cynical view of war but as Edwin Starr sang: “War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.” Yet when you read stories of those who have survived conflicts, invariably their stories say something positive about the human spirit. The problem with wars is that they force people into situations that under normal circumstances they would never have been in and under such circumstances normal rules of behaviour don’t apply which makes judging people’s actions after the fact difficult because who is to say what we would have done if we were in their shoes?
It is amazing when you start trawling through the articles online how many times the phrase, “Things happen during a war,” appears and often just on its own as if those five words say it all.
In his novel, Blooms of Darkness, the Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld, the author of some forty books, writes about some things that may or may not have happened during World War II; there are certainly a number of autobiographical elements woven into the story, but it is not a memoir:
Appelfeld is one of Israel's foremost living Hebrew-language authors, despite the fact that he did not learn the language until he was a teenager. His mother tongue is German, but he also speaks Yiddish, Ukrainian, Russian, English and Italian. With his subject matter revolving around the Holocaust and the sufferings of the Jews in Europe, he could not bring himself to write in German. He chose Hebrew as his literary vehicle for its succinctness and biblical imagery. – Wikipedia
He is a writer after my own heart:
[H]e deplores the way contemporary authors 'cover us with words'. He hides each finished manuscript in a drawer for two or three years, before returning to prune it further. The results are tightly packed sentences like this: 'In the ghetto, children and madmen were friends', sentences loaded with magical, terrible potential.
'I don't write easily,' he explains. 'Writing is always taking out a piece of yourself; it's a mixture of pain and pleasure.'
Aharon Appelfeld was born in the village of Zhadova near Czernowitz, Romania, now Ukraine, and deported to a concentration camp at the age of eight when the Romanian army invaded his hometown; his mother died during the Nazi occupation:
Separated from his father in the camp, the young Appelfeld decides he's going to die anyway, so he might as well escape. Having just completed first grade, Appelfeld manages to fend for himself over the next three years by attaching himself to various marginal characters living on the peripheries of peasant villages. Horse thief and prostitute's errand boy are just two of the jobs he finds in his quest to survive. A stint as kitchen boy with the Russian Army takes him to Yugoslavia and then Italy, where he meets members of the Jewish Brigade who encourage him to leave Europe behind and head for Palestine.
Appelfeld resists being referred to as a 'Holocaust writer', insisting that he writes only about human beings, about individuals, and that he cannot write about the deaths of millions:
I was labelled a "holocaust writer." There is nothing more annoying. A writer, if he's a writer, writes from within himself and mainly about himself, and if there is any meaning to what he says, it's because he's faithful to himself--to his voice and rhythm.
He has said, though, that he recalls little of his own experiences during the Holocaust:
I say “I don’t remember,” and that’s the whole truth. The strongest imprints those years have left on me are intense physical ones. The hunger for bread. To this very day I can wake up in the middle of the night ravenously hungry. Dreams of hunger and thirst haunt me almost on a weekly basis. I eat as only people who have known hunger eat, with a strangely ravenous appetite.
Everything that happened is imprinted within my body and not within my memory. The cells of my body… remember more than my mind.
I say “I don’t remember,” and yet I still recall thousands of details. Sometimes just the aroma of a certain dish or the dampness of shoes or a sudden noise is enough to take me back into the middle of the war, and then it seems to me that it never really ended, but that it has continued without my knowledge. And now that I am fully aware of it, I realize that there’s been no letup since it began.
I can’t speak about his other writings but Blooms of Darkness is most definitely a chamber piece, almost all its action taking place in a single room and within the imagination of a young boy. Although set in a history that is well-known to us all there is actually a timelessness about the core story; this could have been set in Rwanda in the nineties or Cambodia in the seventies. Philip Roth, who is a fan, has described Appelfeld's fiction as being 'midway between parable and history' and I can see where he’s coming from, although this particular novel does veer towards the realistic.
Appelfeld was a curious and considerate boy, blond-haired, blue-eyed, and not especially Jewish-looking and so is Hugo, the eleven-year-old boy who is at the centre of this new novel. Hugo has not escaped from a concentration camp. When we first encounter him he is living in the Czernowitz ghetto with his mother, Julia (this is never stated explicitly in the book but Appelfeld has confirmed this in interview), although things are about to change:
A few days ago Hugo was about to be sent to the mountains … but the peasant who was supposed to take him never came. Meanwhile, his birthday approached, and his mother decided to have a party so Hugo would remember the house and his parents. Who knows what awaits us? Who knows when we will see one another again. That was the thought that passed through his mother’s mind.
Her husband has already been sent to a labour camp. Two other children come to his party, Otto, who gives him “a fountain pen decorated with mother-of-pearl”, and Anna, who arrives with “a chocolate bar and a package of halvah”. There is even an accordion player “who goes to great lengths to cheer them up, but the sounds he produces only make the sadness heavier.” The next day a peasant comes and takes Anna away with them. Otto goes into hiding in a cellar:
At night his mother admits that she hasn’t succeeded in finding a peasant who is willing to hide [Hugo]. If there is no alternative, she will take him to Mariana.
Mariana is a Ukrainian woman who went to primary school with Hugo’s mother. While still a young girl, she left school and had fallen low. What does “fallen low” mean? Hugo asks himself.
It is some time before he works it out for himself. He knows the woman but all he can really remember is her height. His mother has been kind to her and this is clearly her way of repaying the debt she feels she owes. As they are scurrying through the sewers towards her village Hugo has more questions:
“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.
The handover takes only moments. His mother promises she will visit him if she can but even though Hugo is something of an innocent, he realises that this may well be the last time he ever sees his mother:
Hugo manages to see her go away. She walks stooped over, making a way for herself through the bushes. When she is swallowed up in the thick darkness, Mariana closes the door.
That is the break, but Hugo doesn’t feel it. Perhaps because of the night chill that his body had soaked up, or because of his fatigue.
He is very confused and says, “Mama left.”
“She’ll come back,” says Mariana, not meaning it.
She leads him inside and explains about his sleeping arrangements:
“You’re surely tired,” Mariana says, letting him into the closet, a long, narrow space without windows. At first sight it looks like the roomy pantry in Hugo’s house. But the strong smell of sheepskins immediately reminds him of the shoemaker’s cellar, where his mother brought shoes to be repaired every few months.
“This will be your bedroom. Can I bring you something to drink?”
From here on Hugo’s world consists of this closet and, when she feels it’s safe to let him out, Mariana’s room. Although the closet gets cold in the wintertime he’s not without covers and so is relatively comfortable. Mariana fusses over him in a manner he is unaccustomed to, showering endearments on him. She asks little from him in return: simply to stay quiet when she has company and if during the day he happens to be out in the bedroom never to answer a knock at the door. As is his nature, Hugo complies. Their relationship is a congenial one. Hugo’s politeness delights her – many of her clients (mainly German soldiers) treat her badly – as does the way he responds to her hugs and kisses, but she, in turn, does not delight the madam and often Hugo hears them squabbling through the door: Mariana has something of a drink problem, a fondness for the brandy (which she feels she needs to be able to do what is asked of her), and as a result she doesn’t take care of the room as she is expected to, changing the linen regularly, nor, despite her assertions that the drink relaxes her, is she always as accommodating with her clients as she is expected to be:
“I miss the Jewish men. … They were good and gentle. Contact with them was mild and correct.
“And they always bring you a box of sweets or silk stockings and they always kiss you as if you were their faithful girlfriend. They never hurt you.”
Hugo, as the only available representative of Jewish masculinity, finds he has to stand in for them. At first Mariana is content with hugs and kisses but then, simply seeking comfort after one particularly bad encounter – out of the bedroom so we don’t get the details – she invites him one day into her bed:
“Come and sleep with me. I don’t want to sleep alone.”
“Should I put on my pyjamas?”
“No need. Just take off your shoes and trousers.”
Mariana’s bed is soft, the covers and pleasant to the touch, and perfumed. Hugo immediately finds himself embraced in her arms. “You’re good. You’re sweet. You don’t want anything from Mariana. You pay attention to her.” Hugo feels the warmth of her body flow to him.
It is the thin end of the wedge. You can blame it on the drink. You can blame it on the war. You can blame it on her emotional instability. You can blame it on her father. You can even, I suppose, in an odd way, blame it on the Jews – they get blamed for everything else. What happens happens. Not all at once but too soon. This may seem like a major spoiler but the blurb on the dust jacket doesn’t leave a great deal to the imagination. I made the mistake of reading it before I settled down to start the book but as their relationship began to get increasingly physical – she bathes him a few pages before the scene above – and when what happened happened, I wasn’t surprised. It happens tastefully and without details but it happens. Esra Magazine describes this novel as a “tale of wartime erotica” but that’s wholly misleading; just because there’s some sex in it doesn’t make it erotica.
This is where we have to go back to my opening paragraph: Things happen during a war. Appelfeld makes no attempt to excuse Mariana and neither will I. Under any normal circumstances her behaviour would be regarded as reprehensible, both immoral and criminal, but these are not normal circumstances. At one point Hugo repeats words he had heard at home – "Circumstances are guilty" – he has no idea when he says that how true that statement will become for him. In this world there are bad people and there are people who do bad things, often for good reasons, or what look like good reasons at the time. It is very hard to see Mariana as an evil woman although for many, simply her profession will be enough to call her that. The author does not moralise. “I don't believe in didactics,” Applefeld has said. “Characters should be human beings. I don't believe in preaching. I'm not a rabbi. I'm not a political leader.”
Of course the war didn’t last forever. Although a work of fiction, it is based on historical facts. The Red Army is on the outskirts of the town. The end is nigh. Salvation is coming but salvation comes at a price. How will the invading forces treat collaborators and will they view prostitutes as collaborators or just unfortunate women who were in the wrong place at the wrong time? When I talk about salvation I’m talking about Mariana and Hugo here, too: Mariana saves Hugo’s life – that is a given – and Hugo saves Mariana from herself because without him as a reason to survive, it’s quite possible that she might have ended her own life.
Fully aware that she is likely to be executed for treason, Mariana adds to the burden of his memories:
I buried some of my soul inside you… [From] time to time say to yourself, once there was Mariana. She was a mortally wounded woman, but she never lost faith in God.
Mariana may not have been a Jew but she knew all too well what it was like to be marginalised at best, vilified and persecuted at worst. Memory is an important theme in this work. What I found especially interesting is how Hugo occupies himself in the months he spends alone in his closet. He arrives with big plans: books to read, chess games to play (not that his hostess has any intentions of learning to play), arithmetic exercises he’s promised his mother he’ll do, but from the very start he finds himself swallowed up in a dreamlike world where his parents and friends visit him in dreams or visions (it’s sometimes hard to tell). Gradually – or I suppose not so gradually, as he’s only with Mariana for some eighteen months – the only thing he can think about is Mariana. At first he’s only interested in understanding her. Ignorant of sex, he thinks of her as some kind of magician:
At night she entertains the audience at the circus, and in the daytime she sleeps. The circus suits her. He immediately imagines her uttering bird calls, throwing balls up very high and, with marvellous balance, carrying three coloured bottles on her head.
but she turns out to be a complex creature: her moods veer from self-destructive through self-pitying and unexpectedly pious (Hugo is the irreligious one) to joyous and capricious. Often she forgets about him, so wrapped up in her own woes she becomes, but as soon as she opens that door everything is forgiven. In many ways she is every bit an innocent as her charge and the fact that they would become interdependent and synergetic is unsurprising.
Why this book is so powerful is because it deals with the consequences of war without the horrors of war. It’s like a Shakespearian play in that respect; the battles all take place offstage. Appelfeld similarly use elision to great effect. Also he reminds us that life goes on even during wartime. Anne Frank became romantically entangled with the shy and awkward Peter van Pels because he was there and Hugo does the same. So, in some ways the same, but also very different. Whereas Anne writes compulsively, Hugo struggles to write and allows lethargy to overwhelm him.
I have read a lot about the experiences of children during wartime recently, AS Byatt’s Ragnarok: The End of the Gods, Mary Horlock’s The Book of Lies, Trilby Kent’s Smoke Portrait, Jerry Spinelli’s Milkweed, Sue Reid Sexton’s Mavis’s Shoe and Reinhardt Jung’s Dreaming in Black and White and I have to say Blooms of Darkness is in a league of its own. It’s not an especially literary novel – the chapters are short, the language uncomplicated and it reads quickly – but its approach is certainly different and the experience of reading it is not easily shaken. In an interview Appelfeld says:
An artist has to be modest and to know his limitations. An artist is writing his books, and he’s trying to do his best to put his inside, his inspiration, his imagination, and probably his morals in his writing. What books are going to do? I don’t know exactly how much they do [but] they keep the process going – but how much, how deep, and so on? There are moments in my life when I’m a great believer in the printed word, and there are moments in my life when I’m disappointed.
 Ben Naparstek, ‘Silence is the Highest Language: An Interview with Aharon Appelfeld’, Tikkum Magazine, September/October 2006