The Afterlife of Stars

By Joseph Kertes

In one of his most quoted lines, James Joyce has Stephen Dedalus say that history is a nightmare from which he is trying to awake. The date was Bloomsday, 16 June 1904, which was before a pair of World Wars, the Holocaust, the rise and fall of communism, and many other horrors left a permanent stain on the twentieth century.

For the Becks, a Jewish family living in Hungary, history is something to try and escape. After narrowly surviving the Holocaust they know what to expect when Soviet tanks rolls into Budapest in 1956. In full flight mode they pack up as much of their stuff as they can carry with them and catch the last train to Austria.

Their plan is to go from Vienna to Paris, and then, perhaps, to Canada. But the Becks – brothers Atilla and Robert, father Simon, mother Lili, and grandmother Klari – soon find that history is not so easy to elude.

In his new book, Joseph Kertes, who escaped with his family from Hungary after the crushing of the revolution in 1956, returns to native ground and a familiar group of characters. The Afterlife of Stars is basically a sequel to his award-winning 2008 novel Gratitude, picking up the story of the Beck family some twelve years later.

The narrator is Robert Beck, who is 9.8 years old (he has a love of decimals). The relationship between Robert and his brother Attila (13.7 years) occupies the center of the story, and Kertes handles it very well. Robert is the perfect narrator: observing everything without ever being an important actor, or for that matter even understanding all that is going on.

His brother Atilla is a more fiery, active figure (as you probably will have guessed from his name). Atilla takes the lead in driving most of the book along, consumed by a passion for uncovering as much as he can of the Beck family’s recent history.

Together, the two brothers make an odd but engaging couple, in Robert’s formulation representing the Sudden and Gradual approach to life. One of them wants to elude history, while the other rushes to meet it.

When Kertes sticks with the brothers and their misadventures – on the bloody streets of Budapest during the revolution, in bed together with an obliging housemaid, sneaking through the sewers beneath the streets of Paris – the novel successfully weaves together the personal and the political, imaginatively humanizing history through a child’s wondering eye and inquisitive point of view.

Where the novel flags is in the awkwardly introduced family backstory that Atilla drags out of his parents, grandmother, and great aunt. The memories are painful, and they are painfully brought forth in stiff and unnatural exposition. Instead of running through history on short legs we feel we’re staggering on stilts.

This is a danger most books dealing with important historical events and personages face. When Kertes is writing about the trials of the Becks, and people like Raoul Wallenberg (a friend of the Beck family, and one of the people Kertes dedicates the book to), the narrative gets heavy with its own earnestness.

The Afterlife of Stars, in other words, has trouble escaping the past. When describing the novel’s time present, and Robert and Atilla’s immediate experience of their chaotically changing world, it’s lively and imaginative without forsaking a real sense of being in the historical moment. When the brothers start to interrogate their family’s past, or rummage through a trunk filled with memories and mementoes, the narrative seizes up.

Despite this erratic quality, The Afterlife of Stars is a vivid and honest account of how people manage to keep their heads above water in violent times and in the wake of giant tragedies. Like the diaspora of light tossed off by distant stars, the past surges all around us, affecting each of us in different ways. Resistance is probably futile, but may also be heroic. Survivors learn to stay just in advance of history’s turbulent flow.

Review first published in the Toronto Star October 25, 2014.

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