Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Whore’s Secret
By Aharon Appelfeld
Translated by Jeffrey M. Green. 279 pp.
Schocken Books. New York. $25.95

Published: March 18, 2010, New York Times

Left -Aharon Appelfeld - Illustration by Joe Ciardiello

Some stories need to be told in a whisper. “Blooms of Darkness,” the Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld’s majestic and humane new novel, takes place in an unnamed Ukrainian city during World War II. As the Germans begin liquidating the city’s Jewish population, Julia, a pharmacist whose husband has already been sent to a labor camp, smuggles her 11-year-old son, Hugo, out of the ghetto. Their journey through the sewer pipes leads them to a house on the outskirts of town, where Julia entrusts Hugo to the care of an old friend, Mariana, before taking flight herself. Mariana, as Hugo will discover, is a prostitute, while the house — known simply as “the Residence” — is a brothel catering to the Nazi occupiers. For the next year and a half, Hugo’s world will contract to the bedroom in which Mariana cossets, neglects and ultimately seduces him, and the closet in which he hides when her clients come knocking.

A younger writer might be tempted to burden such a story with the cumbersome framing devices, manifold shifts in point of view and temporal dislocations that pass, in this age, for dazzling style. But Appel­feld is 78 years old, the author of more than 40 books and a Holocaust survivor. Rejecting special effects, he narrates “Blooms of Darkness” in a taut, terse present-tense voice that refuses the consolations of retro­spect. His decision to use the present tense is particularly shrewd since it eliminates — for the reader, as for Hugo — any possibility of a future. Like Hugo, we experience time as if it might stop at any moment. What he says of his grandparents’ house in the Carpathians also applies to life in the Residence: “There a different clock ticks, with different hands.”

Like Anne Frank’s diary — a work to which it will draw justified comparison — “Blooms of Darkness,” beautifully translated from the Hebrew by Jeffrey M. Green, records a brutal process of education. The only child of idealistic parents, Hugo has been raised in an atmosphere of well-mannered, even genteel, atheism. His upbringing leaves him ill-prepared to cope with Mariana’s spectral rhythms. Ignorant of sex, he thinks of her as a 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 marvelous balance, carrying three colored bottles on her head.”
Read the full review at NYT

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