Blooms of Darkness

Aharon Appelfeld; Jef­frey M. Green, trans.

  • Review
By – September 8, 2011

With the Ger­mans round­ing up Jews in the ghet­to, Hugo’s moth­er des­per­ate­ly seeks a place for him to hide. In the end there is no one will­ing to help except her old school friend Mar­i­ana, now a pros­ti­tute. Fate hasn’t been kind to her,” Hugo’s moth­er tells her eleven-year-old son, warn­ing him not to ask any questions.

A night jour­ney through the sew­ers brings Hugo and his moth­er to the house where Mar­i­ana lives. Hugo watch­es his moth­er until she dis­ap­pears from his view, then fol­lows Mar­i­ana to the clos­et of her large bed­room. There he spends his days with his imag­i­na­tion and his mem­o­ries. Some­times at night he hears nois­es and quar­rel­ing from Mariana’s room; some­times she for­gets to bring him food; some­times she lav­ish­es him with affection.

Alco­holic, self-pity­ing, and self-loathing, Mar­i­ana always speaks of her­self in the third per­son, as if to sep­a­rate her­self from the per­son she has become. When she is down, Hugo tries to cheer her, rec­og­niz­ing her lim­its but nev­er­the­less attached to her. From this begin­ning blos­soms Hugo and Mariana’s love. At first Mar­i­ana and Hugo are moth­er and child, but their close­ness matures into com­plete inti­ma­cy and a deeply felt com­ing-of- age love. Their time togeth­er cul­mi­nates in a brief idyll after they flee the broth­el ahead of the Russ­ian army.

Flu­id­ly and spar­ing­ly writ­ten, Blooms of Dark­ness is told almost as a dream. The sto­ry takes place some­where in the Ukraine, some time in the mid-1940’s; Hugo and Mar­i­ana nev­er use their sur­names; the read­er learns them only toward the end of the book when they are said by oth­ers. With a war rag­ing around them, two peo­ple, ripped out of their lives by forces they can­not com­pre­hend or con­trol, find in each oth­er — if only for a moment — com­fort, plea­sure, and love. And then their dream ends. This is a beau­ti­ful book.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions