Aharon Appelfeld is the author of more than forty books and has received numerous awards, but I had never heard of him until this novel, Blooms of Darkness, was nominated for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. It’s a sombre work, because it deals with the Holocaust, but it’s beautiful all the same, because although Ukraine has never yet conducted any investigation into its known Nazi collaborators, Appelfeld’s story holds no bitterness or blame. He has chosen instead to focus his story on an unlikely member of the 2,363 Ukrainian Righteous among the Nations, a prostitute who saves the life of a young boy.
The story begins in the wake of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. The Nazis are closing in on the ghetto, somewhere in Ukraine, where ultimately almost a million Jews would be murdered by the Einsatzgruppen (SS paramilitary death squads). Hugo’s mother knows they are coming, and like other Jewish parents is desperately trying to find a refuge for her boy. His father has already ‘been sent to a labour camp’ and each day they see more people being rounded up in the square and trucked away. The squads are conducting house-to-house searches and there are ‘severe penalties’ for anyone caught hiding Jews.
Yet, remarkably, many of Hugo’s friends have already disappeared somewhere into the mountains, to be cared for by peasant families until it’s all over. All the characters in this novel, especially Hugo’s mother, have this deep-rooted understanding that one day it will be ‘all over’. The madness cannot possibly be a permanent state of affairs. ‘You must not despair’, Mama counsels the boy, as she prepares him for their separation…
But in the meantime there is fate, and even Hugo, who is only eleven, has absorbed a fatalistic attitude about his own chances. There are ‘evil rumours’ that the peasants are exploiting the situation, taking the money of desperate parents and then handing over the children to the police anyway.  When he cautiously raises the question of ‘finding a peasant’ with his friend Anna, she’s not optimistic and thinks they’ll be sent away with the adults. ‘It doesn’t matter’ says Hugo, bowing his head like a grown-up (p6). Responding to the situation around him, despite his mother’s best efforts to be calm and hopeful, he is a very grave child.
Anna disappears into the mountains, while another friend, Otto, simply disappears, and probably not into some cellar as Mama suggests. Just in time, a place is found for Hugo with Mariana, an old school friend of Mama’s…
Hugo’s life becomes one of even greater constraint. During the day he is confined to Mariana’s bedroom, but at night, he is locked into a dark and freezing cupboard where he must be quiet – because in the bedroom, Mariana has a succession of male visitors. Hugo is too young to understand much of what happens, but soon learns that some of the men make threats or are violent, and that Mariana gets into trouble (with the Madam) for resisting some of their base demands. He also soon learns about Mariana’s drinking problem. To cope with the degradation of her life, she drinks herself into a stupor, and often Hugo has to wait until very late in the morning for release and his cup of milk and a sandwich.
The third person narration is told from Hugo’s point-of-view, and he speaks in the voice of a child who has grown old before his time. He learns to cope with long periods of lonely captivity with dreams and memories. Otto, Anna, his parents and his lively Uncle Sigmund live on in his imagination, though the reader knows full well what has happened to them. The sense of the boy’s utter powerlessness against implacable forces and of the risk that Mariana is taking is ever-present. It is sobering reading.
Many Jewish writers attempting to explain the inexplicable have commented that survival was always only ever a matter of luck, and this slim novel shows once again how true that was. Mariana as protector of Hugo is manifestly unequal to the task. She is a drunk, she is hot-tempered and impulsive, and when she has to leave Hugo to sort out her mother’s funeral and to dry out, she increases the risk to the boy by enlisting the help of other women in the brothel. Victoria, the cook, is a constant malevolent presence. She fears reprisals if the boy is discovered, and she has no feeling for him as a human being and a child at that.
The months and years go by and the Russian advance is on its way. Even as they retreat the Germans keep up their search for hidden Jews, while fears of Russian retaliation against collaborators grow in the brothel. Mariana and Hugo flee into the forest, but in one of the most poignant scenes in the book, Hugo takes no delight in his liberation into the sunshine because they are just as vulnerable, only the persecutor has changed. What is different is that Hugo becomes Mariana’s protector as her drinking spirals out of control.
Some reviewers have commented that the physical relationship that eventually develops between Mariana and Hugo is unhealthy, as indeed it would be under any normal circumstances. Like the rest of the book, this issue is tackled with great restraint, and I think it has been included to show that in extremis, people take comfort where they can. These two have no one but each other, violent death is their most probable fate, and Hugo has entered adolescence as would any other boy of his age. ‘Who are we to judge?’ asks Appelfeld when a woman of so many flaws saves the life of a child?
Blooms of Darkness deserves its place in the shortlist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
To read reviews by other members of the Shadow IFFP Jury, click here.
 Actually, Ukraine has the 4th highest number of Righteous Among Nations, mainly members of a Christian sect.
Author: Aharon Appelfeld
Title: Blooms of Darkness, A Novel
Translated from the Hebrew by Jeffrey M. Green
Publisher: Schocken Books, 2010
Source: Yarra Libraries via inter-library loan.
Fishpond: Blooms of Darkness