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Blooms of Darkness: A Novel [Paperback]

Aharon Appelfeld , Jeffrey M. Green
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this powerful novel from award-winning Israeli writer Appelfeld, two discarded souls form an unlikely bond in the chaos of occupied Ukraine during WWII. When the Jews are being rounded up, 11-year-old Hugo's mother hides him with her childhood friend, Mariana, a prostitute in a brothel. Locked in a closet every night, Hugo hears Mariana at work and disappears into dreams and visions about his family and friends. Mariana takes loving if sporadic care of Hugo and slowly she becomes Hugo's whole world. Hugo returns Mariana's kindness by lifting her spirits as her moods swing from frivolity and disregard for the destruction around her to deep depression about the indignities she endures. Mariana is an exhilarating tragicomic heroine, a woman who is both alcoholic, manic-depressive, and believer in a God she long ago abandoned. The lean, spare prose does not shy away from harsh realities. A simple story that encapsulates the joy and sadness of a coming-of-age novel with the trauma of a world in the midst of destruction. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

The latest from acclaimed Israeli novelist Appelfeld is a haunting tale of love, loss, and the resilience of the human spirit. When the Nazis begin to infiltrate the ghetto where 11-year-old Hugo lives, his mother has no choice but to leave him with her childhood friend Mariana, a prostitute in the local brothel. During the day Hugo is confined to Mariana’s room, and at night he must stay silent, locked in her closet. As he listens to Mariana and the Nazi soldiers who visit, he clings to the fading memories of his family. Though Mariana is an alcoholic, prone to mood swings and abrupt disappearances, she is fiercely protective of Hugo and attentive to his needs. And as Hugo begins to come of age, he becomes more and more attached to Mariana, with an increasing desire to act as her caregiver and protector. When the prostitutes suddenly depart the brothel after the arrival of the Russian army, the two have no choice but to flee themselves, leading to a conclusion both grim and elegantly hopeful. --Leah Strauss --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

“Majestic and humane . . . like Anne Frank’s diary—a work to which it will draw justified comparison.”
—David Leavitt, The New York Times Book Review
 
 “Appelfeld is fiction’s foremost chronicler of the Holocaust. The stories he tells, as here in Blooms of Darkness, are small, intimate, and quietly narrated and yet are transfused into searing works of art by Appelfeld’s profound understanding of loss, pain, cruelty, and grief.”
—Philip Roth

“I love Aharon Appelfeld’s Blooms of Darkness.  How can this great novelist still find fresh ways of telling the terrible story of those years? There’s nothing reflexive or familiar in here, each sentence is exquisitely judged; we read with the same astonishment and trepidation as if it was all happening now, and for the first time.  It’s so sad, and yet it’s also all told through the child’s appetite for life, and with unquenched curiosity and hopefulness.  We inhabit those things, taking refuge as Hugo does in the bliss of the moment—because, after all, what else is there?”
—Tessa Hadley, “The Year in Reading,” The New Yorker

“Succeeds brilliantly as a gripping tale of Holocaust survival, but on this occasion, Appelfeld’s literary imagination achieves a great deal more, creating a lyrically rendered story of adolescent sexual awakening, confusion, and love that gestures toward the painful inevitability of loss in any life. Above all, as is often the case with Appelfeld’s most powerful works, Blooms of Darkness is an eloquent meditation on the resources of the mind, the consolations of memory, and the imagination under duress.”
The Forward 

“An unadorned and heartbreaking tale of a young boy coming of age during World War II . . . Poignant and tender without being sentimental, the novel achieves its powerful emotive effects through simplicity and understatement—a beautiful read.”
Kirkus Reviews, starred

“A simple story that encapsulates the joy and sadness of a coming-of-age novel with the trauma of a world in the midst of destruction. The lean, spare prose does not shy away from harsh realities . . . A powerful novel.”   
Publishers Weekly

About the Author

Aharon Appelfeld is the author of more than forty works of fiction and nonfiction, including Badenheim 1939, Tzili, The Iron Tracks (winner of the National Jewish Book Award), and The Story of a Life (winner of the Prix Médicis Étranger). Other honors he has received include the Giovanni Bocaccio Literary Prize, the Nelly Sachs Prize, the Israel Prize, the Bialik Prize, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and the MLA Commonwealth Award. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has received honorary degrees from the Jewish Theological Seminary, Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, and Yeshiva University. Born in Czernowitz, Bukovina (now part of Ukraine), in 1932, he lives in Israel.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

1
 
Tomorrow Hugo will be eleven, and Anna and Otto will come for his birthday. Most of Hugo’s friends have already been sent to distant villages, and the few remaining will be sent soon. The tension in the ghetto is great, but no one cries. The children secretly guess what is in store for them. The parents control their feelings so as not to sow fear, but the doors and windows know no restraint. They slam by themselves or are shoved with nervous movements. Winds whip through every alley.
 
A few days ago Hugo was about to be sent to the mountains, too, 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.
 
To please Hugo, his mother bought three books by Jules Verne and a volume by Karl May from friends already marked for deportation. If he went to the mountains, he would take this new present with him. His mother intended to add the dominoes and the chess set, and the book she read to him every night before he went to sleep.
 
Again Hugo promises that he will read in the mountains and do arithmetic problems, and at night he will write letters to his mother. His mother holds back her tears and tries to talk in her ordinary voice.
 
Along with Anna’s and Otto’s parents, the parents of other children, who had already been sent to the mountains, are invited to the birthday party. One of the parents brings an accordion. Everybody makes an effort to hide the anxieties and the fears and to pretend that life is going on as usual. Otto brought a valuable present with him: a fountain pen decorated with mother- of- pearl. Anna brought a chocolate bar and a package of halvah. The candies make the children happy and for a moment sweeten the parents’ grief. But the accordion fails to raise their spirits. The accordion player goes to great lengths to cheer them up, but the sounds he produces only make the sadness heavier.
 
Still, everybody tries not to talk about the Actions, or about the labor brigades that were sent to unknown destinations, or about the orphanage or the old age home, whose inmates had been deported with no warning, and of course not about Hugo’s father, who had been snatched up a month before. Since then there has been no trace of him.
 
After everyone has left, Hugo asks, “Mama, when will I go to the mountains, too?”
 
“I don’t know. I’m checking all the possibilities.”
 
Hugo doesn’t understand the meaning of “I’m checking all the possibilities.” He imagines his life without his mother as a life of attention and great obedience. His mother repeats, “You mustn’t act spoiled. You have to do everything they ask of you. Mama will do her best to come and visit you, but it doesn’t depend on her. Everybody is sent somewhere else. Anyway, don’t expect me too much. If I can ever come, I will.”
 
“Will Papa come, too?”
 
His mother’s heart tightens for a moment, and she says, “We haven’t heard from Papa since he was taken to the labor camp.”
 
“Where is he?”
 
“God knows.”
 
Hugo has noticed that since the Actions his mother often says, “God knows,” one of her expressions of despair. Since the Actions, life has been a prolonged secret. His mother tries to explain and to soothe him, but what he sees keeps telling him that there is some dreadful secret.
 
“Where do they take the people?”
 
“To labor.”
 
“And when will they come back?”
 
He has noticed. His mother doesn’t answer all his questions the way she used to. There are questions she simply ignores. Hugo has learned meanwhile not to ask, to listen instead to the silence between the words. But the child in him, who just a few months ago went to school and did homework, can’t control itself, and he asks, “When will the people come back home?”
 
###
Most days Hugo sits on the floor and plays dominoes or chess with himself. Sometimes Anna comes. Anna is six months younger than Hugo, but a little taller. She wears glasses, reads a lot, and is an excellent pianist. Hugo wants to impress her but doesn’t know how. His mother has taught him a little French, but even at that Anna is better than he. Complete sentences in French come out of her mouth, and Hugo has the impression that Anna can learn whatever she wants, and quickly. Unable to think of an alternative, he takes a jump rope out of a drawer and starts skipping rope. He is better at hopping than Anna. Anna tries very hard, but her ability at that game is limited.
 
“Did your parents find a peasant for you already?” Hugo asks cautiously.
 
“Not yet. The peasant who promised to come and take me didn’t show up.”
 
“My peasant didn’t show up, either.”
 
“I guess we’ll be sent away with the adults.” “It doesn’t matter,” says Hugo, bowing his head like a grown- up.
 
Every night Hugo’s mother makes sure to read him a chapter from a book. Over the past few weeks, she has been reading him stories from the Bible. Hugo was sure that only religious people read the Bible, but, surprisingly, his mother reads it, and he sees the images very clearly. Abraham seems tall to him, like the owner of the pastry shop on the corner. The owner liked children, and every time a child happened into his shop, a surprise gift awaited him.
 
After his mother read to him about the binding of Isaac, Hugo wondered, “Is that a story or a fable?”
 
“It’s a story,” his mother answered cautiously.
 
Hugo was very glad that Isaac was rescued, but he was sorry for the ram that was sacrificed in his place.
 
“Why doesn’t the story tell any more?” asked Hugo.
 
“Try to imagine,” his mother advised him.
 
That advice turned out to work. Hugo closed his eyes and immediately saw the high, green Carpathian Mountains. Abraham was very tall, and he and his little son Isaac walked slowly, the ram trailing behind them, its head down, as if it knew its fate.

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