Questions & Answers: A Conversation With Aharon Appelfeld

The Israel Prize-winning novelist speaks with Haaretz on the occasion of the English-language publication of 'Blooms of Darkness.'

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When he speaks, it is in a voice hardly louder than a whisper, and his words are measured and calm. The way Aharon Appelfeld writes, too, is neither showy nor provocative. Yet the 78-year old author describes situations that are almost inconceivable, and behavior that can be unconscionable -- situations in many cases derived from experiences that he underwent as a child in Nazi-occupied Europe. In more than three dozen books, Appelfeld, who was born in the Romanian town of Czernowitz (today in Ukraine ) in 1932, has used his memories of life from ages 8 to 13 to create a literature that explores the range of the human soul, in which his characters are subject to extreme conditions and respond in ways that are often horrifying, but can also be surprisingly graceful and courageous.

"Blooms of Darkness" is Appelfeld's latest novel to be published in English (translated by Jeffrey M. Green, Schocken Books, 288 pages, $24 ). Published in Hebrew in 2006, the book tells the story of Hugo, an 11-year-old boy whose mother deposits him in the hands of her gentile childhood friend Mariana, after the Germans begin deporting the Jews in their area to concentration camps. Mariana lives in a brothel, where she spends nights working as a prostitute, and Hugo, whose life is now circumscribed to the three walls and door of her closet, witnesses what Mariana goes through with his ears. In his 1997 memoir, "Story of a Life," Appelfeld described how he worked as an assistant to an abusive prostitute named Maria after escaping, at age 10, from a concentration camp in Ukraine. That was just one of the ways that he survived during his time on the run, which ended when he joined the Russian army as a kitchen boy. In the case of Hugo, however, Mariana watches over him until the threat to the Jews passes, and both she and her colleagues at the brothel are presented as largely pious and brave.

After the war, Appelfeld spent several months in a DP camp in Italy, before immigrating to Palestine in 1946. It was only in the 1950s that he discovered that his father had survived the war too, and was living in Israel; Appelfeld's mother was killed shortly after the Germans occupied their town. Having completed only first grade as a child, he didn't receive a formal education until after coming to Israel, but eventually complemented his career as a writer by teaching literature at Ben-Gurion University in Be'er Sheva.

Appelfeld spoke with Haaretz at his home in Mevasseret Zion, outside Jerusalem.

Q You had a very similar experience to Hugo. Is this something you had wanted to write about for a long time? A All of my books are autobiographical in one way or another. But I don't write chronological autobiography, in the way that it happened --

Q No, not even in your memoir -- A -- Not even in my memoir. I write fiction. But I believe that all fiction that lacks a strong foundation in autobiography will be science fiction. What I tell about is myself.

Q Just as you can't write fiction without being autobiographical, am I right in thinking that you couldn't write a standard autobiography of yourself, even if you wanted to? A Correct -- and the reason is simple. My big experiences took place during the years 1939 to 1945, from age 7 to about age 13. What does a man remember from age 7 or 8? My education didn't go beyond first grade. I didn't learn history. Of course I remember things from age 7, 8 or 9, but they're basically sensory memories, not intellectual ones. Because how much history did I know? Nothing.

Q How do you work? Do you map out your books before you write them? Or do the books write themselves, as it were? A To say that they "write themselves" would be an exaggeration. But they are also not planned. I need to listen to myself for a lot of time. A great deal of my memory is in my body, in my senses, not my mind. What I mean is that much of what I experienced in these years is in my body -- in my legs, my arms, my hair, in my ears -- and that's an important source. Say I feel dampness in the rain, that takes me to those same days. On cold days, I'm back in those days, back in the war.

Q You also write often about your dreams, in both your memoir and your fiction. My sense is that for you as a writer, the line between dreams and reality is ambiguous. A Yes, definitely. Because, when we say dreams, we are talking about the sub-conscious. The dream is largely a part of the subconscious that is visible to us.

Q At the same time, I don't think you attribute a supernatural meaning to dreams. When Hugo dreams that he is talking with his mother, she's not coming back from the dead to talk with him. It's all taking place within his mind, correct? A There's nothing mystical going on here. I don't deal with the mystical. That doesn't mean that even what we call a "rational" man can't have all kinds of experiences in his life, including irrational ones.

Q When the book ends, Hugo's post-war life is just beginning. So I'm wondering: Do you have high hopes for Hugo? Do you see his future being similar to yours? A Look, he took in a lot, a lot of darkness, a lot of things that he didn't understand at all. He's sensitive, to his own soul and to that of Mariana. He spent time in the brothel and he heard things he didn't hear at home, about religious beliefs. There's a lot of prayer there, and requests for forgiveness, even though it's supposed to be a "house of sin."

Q You are not certainly not judgmental of your characters. In many senses, there is something holy about these women. A No, I'm not judgmental. I don't judge people. But I think it has to be said: These women, who are seen as an "underworld," they're the ones who saved Hugo.

Q During most of the story, for about a year and a half, Hugo is living in a closet, and can only partially take in what is going on. Did you mean the closet in a metaphorical sense? A No, the closet is not a metaphor, it's life. He's hungry, he's thirsty for love. A lot surrounds him, and he doesn't understand it. But he has sharp senses. And what he doesn't understand, he has to guess about.

Q Have you ever felt that you have exhausted this subject or period -- the period of the Holocaust -- or that you might want to write about another period of your life? A I write about ideas. It's not memoir, it's not history, it's not psychology, it's about the human being in the world, all of the good and the bad that a person encounters in life. This is what I have written 40 books about. I have written books that take place in Israel, and I have written about other periods, not just about the period of the war. Also about other times in Jewish history. I don't write history, or memoirs of the Holocaust. Of course, in the Holocaust, many horrible things happened. So many "interesting" things. Take the case of a boy living with a prostitute. This doesn't happen every day. And if I myself hadn't lived with a prostitute, I couldn't have written the book. Things like this couldn't have happened in regular times.

Q If it were within your power to exchange your life for one in which you did not go through the Holocaust, would you? A With all the tragedy, I would not exchange my life for another one. It's part of me. I felt this as a child, already back then.

Q You haven't written about your father. But he survived the war, no? A I found my father after many years. He arrived here after the war. We had come to the [concentration] camp together, but we were separated. He was sent to do labor, and I escaped. After this, the Russian army liberated the camp, and he was drafted into the Red Army. Then, after the war, he was sent to Russia. He came to Israel only in the 1950s. He helped me to reconstruct much of my memories.

Q How did you escape from the camp? A I escaped in 1941. It was before the "industrialization" of death. The Germans brought people to all kinds of camps. There were fences, of course, but they weren't as well-sealed or -protected. So I escaped into the forest. There people from the underworld adopted me.

Q What sort of underworld? Do you mean smugglers? A Not just smugglers. Robbers, murderers. In regular civilian life, there is some kind of order. In that world, there was no order. The Russian army came. I saw that it was good. I was 12 (it was 1944 ). I joined the army as a kitchen boy, and I spent nearly a year with the Russian Army. That too was an important school for me.

Q You must be asked to speak out on political topics, no? Why do you seem to avoid that? A I try not to be involved in political life. It's a one-sided way of looking at things. You take a particular stand and you stick to that position. When you encounter an opposing position, you tell yourself not to pay attention. You teach yourself to be a one-sided person. This is very strong in Israel. You identify yourself as "secular," and you don't see there's an interesting life going on among religious people. You demonize the religious person. I don't say that religious people are perfect. But there's no need to demonize them.

Q But you seem to identify as a secular Jew, no? A I see myself as a Jew. I'm secular but also religious. My grandparents were religious -- and I'm just like them. I had uncles who were communists -- and I'm just like them. I have written about Jews who were in mixed marriages -- and I'm just like them.

Q It sounds like you don't go into a panic about every political development, that you take the long view. Does this make it easier to be optimistic, or at least less pessimistic? A Yes, I'm more optimistic. I've seen a lot. I know what a catastrophe is, and what isn't. If Iran declares that Israel has to be destroyed, that "rings a bell" for me. That's been said before. I'm not saying that it's the same thing. But it's being said every week. And if we forget that we heard it, he says it again.

Q So that might constitute a potential catastrophe. A I should say so. If I'm asked to write about the need for the Americans to impose sanctions on Iran, I will say yes to that. That's something essential.

Haaretz Books, April 2010,