Secret History

A new novel follows two brothers’ flight from post-Holocaust Budapest

Set in 1940s Budapest, Joseph Kertes’s 2009 novel Gratitude followed the fates of various members of the Beck family, Hungarian Jews caught in the storm of Nazi invasion. His new novel, The Afterlife of Stars, picks up the story of the Becks eleven years later, during the 1956 Hungarian uprising against the Soviets. In both books, Kertes presents tales of suffering with an uncommonly light touch and a feel for the wonder and absurdity of lives in extremis.

The later story is narrated from the point of view of young Robert Beck, aged 9.8 (he has recently been studying decimals), grandson of the now-deceased family patriarch, also named Robert Beck, The patriarch’s rift with his son Paul, young Robert’s uncle, at the end of Gratitude hovers over the new book like a curse. Afterlife is more compact than Gratitude, but equally dense. In contrast to its predecessor, Afterlife is written retrospectively, from a safe point in the future—a point, the novel implies, somewhere in Canada.

Like his protagonist, Kertes left Hungary as a child for Canada in 1956. He went on to co-found the creative writing and comedy programs at Humber College, and is also known as a humorist and children’s author. Robert Beck, who is incubating his own “Baby Creative Writer” in the novel, plays the role of passive observer. Meanwhile Robert’s elder brother Attila, a precociously witty and fearless 13-year-old who refers to Robert variously as “dear one,” “darling” and “mon petit chou,” leads his little brother further and further away from safety and ignorance and toward the explosive territory of the family’s recent past. The danger the Becks face in this novel, as opposed to the danger in Gratitude, comes not so much in the form of soldiers as of stories, and it is Attila with his voracious appetite for information who ends up as both instigator and victim.

The family flees first to Austria and then to Paris to stay with Hermina, sister of their grandmother Klari. It is the traumatic nature of this journey, together with the brothers’ encounter with their great-aunt, that, like a violent aftershock, forces the story of the family’s recent history to the surface, and confronts the brothers with the reality of their identity as Hungarian Jews whose fates are inextricably linked to those of their ancestors.

As in Gratitude, music—and art in general—is key to survival. Great-aunt Hermina, her fingers forever bent as a result of Nazi torture, is an opera singer, and when Robert asks why she persists in singing “sad songs,” she responds that “the hope is in the beauty of the song.” In Afterlife the hope is in the fresh, awestruck voice of Robert, whose early life, lived under the protective gaze of his grandmother, enables him to endure both beauty and ugliness, and to observe hanged soldiers and delicious pastries with equal fascination. Even as he loses family members he retains this openness, so that gazing down at the “Shite River” in Paris’s sewers he can “pause to admire the wonder of this world” in the form of detritus: “succulent salmon, pretty pink petits fours, tepid turnips, the pus from a pimple.”

His brother Attila, however, who was born four years before Robert, in the midst of the Shoah, is not so lucky. While Robert observes, Attila is compelled to act. He is distraught when he learns of the banishment and subsequent disappearance of his uncle Paul Beck, whom he physically resembles, and whom, readers of Gratitude will recall, heroically assisted the real-life Raoul Wallenberg, in saving the lives of hundreds of Hungarian Jews, including, crucially, members of the Beck family, by issuing them Swedish passports.

Attila is a powerful character. His witty comebacks and philosophical ramblings dominate the novel, yet there is something unreal about him. When Attila leads Robert into a Statue Graveyard, where Hungary’s discarded heroes lie in stacks, carved in stone, just before they leave the country forever, the effect is brilliantly bizarre. As a reader I did not wonder or care how exactly Attila had found out about the place. Its existence was enough. Yet after the family arrives in Paris, the plot devolves into a series of coincidences, and the narrative stalls while the reader is filled in on the events described in Gratitude, discovered via a convenient trunk filled with letters and documents. This gives rise to pages and pages of dialogue, pitched at a feverish level of emotion, which begins to unhinge itself from its speakers and resemble a philosophical treatise. There then follows a scene in which Hermina sings Rameau’s Castor et Pollux and expounds upon the two mythological brothers (one dies, both become stars)—imagery in which the foreshadowing feels heavy-handed. By the time the brothers run through the Parisian sewers (western civilization’s unconscious?), I felt the weight of symbolism begin to crush my belief in the world of the novel, and in particular in Attila, whose comeback from death at the creamy breast of Hermina’s beguiling servant, Babette, seems to have been imported from some other, magic realist universe.

Perhaps all this happened, or could have happened. Perhaps it all just happened too fast—the novel is fewer than 250 pages long. Nevertheless, I wished the plot had left more room for the brothers to develop as characters, although maybe such room is precisely the kind of luxury that is unaffordable when history descends with such weight. I found myself reflecting on the difference between imagery that emerges organically from a narrative and that which is imposed for effect. Most novels contain both, but when a novel’s characters are struggling for their lives in the wake of dehumanizing oppression, the tension between the two becomes especially charged.

For example, at the novel’s end, Robert hears the weather forecast for eastern Canada on the radio, and this gorgeous itemizing of each city, each township, across the air waves evokes the mystery and excitement of Robert’s unknown future in this country, which ironically shares its name with the storehouse where the personal belongings of murdered inmates were stacked in Auschwitz. For Robert, the incantation over the radio echoes like a purifying spell to undo harm. Personally, I wanted to know more of this embryonic writer, this Baby, and of the grief as well as the joy he might feel once he has made his passage, just as I wanted to know more of the ordinary, human Attila, and not just the star he almost had to wear, or the fighter fate forced him to be. This moment lies in contrast to the last page, where the overworked image of stars is revived, to trite effect.

That final twinkle suggested a novelist working so hard to make these lives mean something—preferably something positive—that he risks not giving them the space to mean what they meant. And that is unfortunate, for The Afterlife of Stars is a compelling, powerful and entrancingly strange novel that documents the resiliency of survivors to remarkable effect.