I opened Joseph Kertes’ novel The Afterlife of Stars at 4:05 on a quiet Saturday afternoon, vaguely curious about the story — and finished it at 9:20 that same evening, not having paid attention to anything in the meantime excerpt the spellbinding story of the Beck family, told by its youngest member, “9.8”-year-old Robert. This unexpected level of absorption seems just about adequate to honor the emotional intensity experienced by three generations of Becks during one month in 1956. Forced to flee Budapest at the beginning of the Hungarian revolution, they make their way to Canada via Paris. (Kertes himself fled as a child in 1956 with his parents from Budapest to Canada, and one wonders how much of the events described in the novel actually happened in real life.)
It would not be wrong to place this novel among the famous Bildungsromane—the coming-of-age stories that depict a protagonist’s physical, social, and moral development over a number of years if not over a lifetime — even though the The Afterlife of Stars takes place in a mere month.
But what a month! It encompasses the geographical trajectory from Budapest to Austria to Paris onto the passage by ship to Canada. It involves the family’s transition from Hungarian citizens to stateless and hunted refugees; from comfortable predictability and safety to utter unpredictability and staggering losses. And it includes the protagonist’s own evolution — from a self-absorbed, innocent child preoccupied with obtaining sweet treats into a young philosopher who has seen and grasped the vastness of his family’s as well as the human condition. All in one month.
In simple and precisely worded observations, Robert shares the experiences of his rapidly disintegrating world from the limited perspective of a nine-year-old. He reports disturbing details without grasping their larger context and meaning at first, sharing his bewilderment and consternation. He asks simple but persistent questions of his family members that end up unravelling their painstakingly guarded false image of normalcy. Together with Robert and his thirteen-year-old brazen and fearless brother Attila “The Hun!”, the reader slowly extracts revelations from the adult family members about the direct traumata everybody in this family has suffered as Jews — except Robert, who was born in 1947.
However, his birth after the Holocaust does not spare Robert from the intergenerational transmission of trauma. Robert isn’t who he always thought he was, and he begins to realize through random discoveries — and then determined searches — that he has the right to demand knowledge about his identity from the keepers of the family secrets. Goaded by his frantically adventurous and risk-seeking older brother, the initially timid Robert ends up shouldering the family legacy and ushering unspeakable experiences into the realm of the nameable and processable.
In the midst of gut-wrenching experiences and realizations, the two boys are hilarious specimens of their respective developmental stages, although both can be considered precocious in their own ways. Deadpan, ironic, unintentionally blasphemous, irreverent, and questioning, they bring delight and fascination to this brilliantly written page-turner, making you laugh before you want to cry (again).
While The Afterlife of Stars stands on its own, it should be noted that the protagonists of Kertes’ 2008 novel, Gratitude—which takes place twelve years earlier during another harrowing time in Hungarian history — are also members of the Beck family.
Oh, and the title? Well, there are many stars whose light reaches Robert (and us through his eyes), long after they have ceased to exist. Their fierce humanity being the source of their glow, they will shine on forever and point the way for us still searching for our own true north, especially in times of renewed “otherization” and the willingness of the powerful to marginalize, scapegoat, and exclude from safety and meaningful participation anybody deemed “different.” Let the afterlife of those stars be our moral compass in our own difficult times.
Reinhild Draeger-Muenke left her native Germany as a young adult and has lived in the United States for almost 40 years. She is a psychologist and family therapist in the Philadelphia area, helping people heal from intergenerationally transmitted trauma.