On October 24, 1956, the day I turned 9.8, my grandmother came to take me out of school in Budapest’s 6th District. We were in the middle of reviewing decimal points because of a mistake a classmate named Mary had made. Other parents and grandparents were arriving too with the same aim, although no one had come yet to get Zoli, the boy who sat beside me.
How to depict human suffering, especially that of children? This question is at the heart of Joseph Kertes’s haunting novel,The Afterlife of Stars, which tells the story of a family fleeing the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary to crush the anti-Communist revolution from the point of view of young Robert Beck, 9.8 years old but “born old,” as his Parisian aunt tells him when she meets him for the first time. Kertes, like Robert, escaped with his family across Europe and eventually settled in Canada, though he was only five at the time. Kertes, whose previous novel, Gratitude, won both the National (U.S.) and Canadian Jewish Book Awards, might have written a memoir, but writing a novel allowed him to tell this story in a lyric, dreamlike prose. This may have been the best way for this author to convey in a literary, adult voice such an early trauma.