Today’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize review is of the second of the two Israeli books on the longlist. However, this one is not set in modern-day Israel, but rather in eastern Europe, during a very familiar period of world history. A warning before we set off – today’s story is not one for claustrophobes…
Blooms of Darkness by Aharon Appelfeld (translated by Jeffrey M. Green)
What’s it all about?
The setting is a small Ukrainian town during the Second World War, a place where the many Jewish inhabitants are preparing for the worst. As the German occupying troops slowly begin to empty the town of Jews, parents attempt to smuggle their children into the mountains, where, hidden with peasant families, they will be relatively safe.
This is to be Hugo’s fate too; however, unable to find a trustworthy companion for her son, Hugo’s mother decides instead to put the life of her eleven-year-old in the hands of her good friend Mariana – a woman who happens to be a prostitute. Instead of hiding out in the mountains then, our young friend spends the closing days of World War Two hidden in a cupboard at the local brothel. Will he be discovered by the Germans? More importantly, will he escape from the experience with his morals intact…
The majority of Blooms of Darkness is spent with Hugo, either in his cupboard or in Mariana’s room, and this lends the book the claustrophobic atmosphere I mentioned at the start of the post. Hugo initially sees Mariana as a sort of ersatz mother, but the longer he stays, the more the relationship changes, the unreal isolation corrupting their feelings for each other.
This relationship between Hugo and Mariana will probably cause problems for many readers of Blooms of Darkness, and rightly so. It’s thoroughly plausible, and the more we learn about Mariana (her alcoholism, her terrible childhood) and the terrifying environment the two of them are existing in, the more we understand why and how things turn out the way they do. Mariana, although physically a woman, is just as immature as Hugo. However, it’s still disturbing, and were the genders to be reversed, there would probably be a lot of very angry readers.
My main issue with the book is very different though. In short, it’s incredibly dull. I know it’s not the done thing to criticise anything connected to the holocaust, but this really has little to recommend it. It’s a doughy mish-mash of various ideas and stories (the tart with a heart, the cupboard of The Diary of Anne Frank, a doomed attempt to flee, reminiscent of Tess of the D’Urbervilles) which left me wondering what it was really all about.