The After­life of Stars

  • Review
By – December 22, 2016

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.

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