Aharon Appelfeld, Blooms of Darkness
Translated from the Hebrew by Jeffrey M Green
This story of an eleven-year old Jewish boy who finds shelter with a Christian prostitute who is obliged to entertain German soldiers is captivating and moving. The boy, Hugo, is entrusted by his mother to Mariana, her old school friend `working' as a sex-slave in The Residence, an occupation she detests but which gives her the means of survival in German-speaking Ukraine. As with the Diaries of Anne Frank, the reader is ever-conscious of the horrors lying in wait for all those found guilty of harbouring Jews, who are routinely rounded up and transported. The tension of a knock on the door, the rumours, and the hopes and fears of the residents keep Hugo and the reader on tenterhooks throughout. We see only as much as Hugo sees of the outside world, as he is hidden in a closet, while nightly Mariana entertains her clients. As the days turn into weeks and years, Hugo gradually comes to realise the nature of his adoptive mother's work. Each comes to depend on the other for solace and support and eventually they become lovers, much to the scorn of the other residents. The threat of exposure to the enemy is ever-present.
As the tide of battle outside moves in favour of the Russians, the threat increases. All the women are now jumpy, many falling back on their Christian belief for succor. Collaborating whores are likely to be severely dealt with when the Russians arrive, and this indeed happens to all those who are later interrogated by the new occupiers of the city, one never mentioned by name, but clearly not far from the Carpathian mountains that Hugo and his family used to visit before the war. The mountains in fact become a symbol of hope for both Hugo and Mariana, one sadly without any substance. Both learn to endure the hardships of hunger and displacement, the loss of family and the contempt of neighbours.
Mariana is a beautifully realized character. Strong-willed, compassionate and self-absorbed she admires Jews for their intelligence, sensitivity and stoicism. Nevertheless she is puzzled that so many of them are virtual unbelievers and never attend synagogue. Hugo's family, too, it seems are far from orthodox, one bohemian uncle being a declared atheist. Mariana herself is muted in her Christianity and, like Hugo's Uncle Sigmond she is addicted to the bottle. She imagines that she should have married Sigmond, but when they had spoken of it, he had made `a dismissive gesture with his right hand as if to say, I've already tried that. There's no point to it.'
This is a sad but totally absorbing novel, in which dreams of the past mix with and alternately cloud and brighten the miseries of the present. Gradually Mariana reveals her past to Hugo in fragments such as this: At first I thought that he didn't want to marry me because I'm a simple woman. Later I understood that he was a lost person. I was willing to marry him as he was, to cook his meals and wash his clothes, but then the hard days came, the persecution and the ghetto, and he told me something I'll never forget: `I can't be saved any longer. Save yourself. The Jews have been condemned to death. You're still young.' Well, not so young now but still to Hugo beautiful as ever, his first love, her last love.