Holocaust survivor’s powerful take on Jewish experience

Aharon Appelfeld discusses his new novel

�In 1941, when Aharon Appelfeld was eight, the army invaded his village in Romania – now Ukraine. His mother was murdered and he and his father were sent to a concentration camp. Appelfeld escaped alone. For three years, he lived covertly, going from hospitable stranger to hospitable stranger and collecting the stories that he were to be the substance of the 41 books he has written about the Jewish experience of the Second World War.

Sat in front of me in a hotel lobby, Appelfeld is a quiet and friendly man and speaks only slightly above a whisper. He’s here in London to meet with his agent before flying off to New York where a convention about his work is going to happen. He’s almost 80 years old and is still writing. His new book, Blooms Of Darkness is the story of a young boy who lives with a prostitute in Second World War Ukraine. The book has all the trademarks of his writing: short sentences, a matter-of-fact tone and a setting that Appelfeld knows only too well. The story is one of claustrophobia and how spending time with someone can change the person who you are.

Appelfeld experienced at least part of this setting. he lived with a prostitute after his escape, although he insists he is not writing autobiographical work. I ask him if his work is to confront the somewhat terrible past he has experienced. “I’m not writing memoirs, I’m writing fiction. People who deal with the past are historians. I don’t deal with the past, I deal just with the present,” he says “good fiction is a permanent fiction. Fiction has syntax where present past and future come together.”

It’s clear that Appelfeld has amassed a great knowledge from his experiences and his life. As well as writing, he has committed his life to exploring and learning about Judaism. He lives in Jerusalem and spends his time reading Jewish philosophy – something that he feels is a big part of being a Jewish writer. “Not all the Jewish writers are Jewish. There are many writers who are so deeply assimilated that you cannot count them as a Jewish writer. To be a Jewish writer, you have to write in the Jewish language, you have to be affiliated with Jewish sources. I want to be afiliated with Jewish Mythology so I have to read the Bible and Jewish philosophers.”

Appelfeld writes only in Hebrew, a language he learned as an adult. It’s one of the many languages he speaks (he modestly says he speaks many languages, all not very well). Hebrew has a special significance for him though. “Hebrew is a very ancient language. It’s the dawn of the civilisation and it has a lot of aromas. Jews prayed in Hebrew, studied in Hebrew, wrote books in Hebrew. It is also to touch layers that, for instance, in European languages you can’t – because European language is somewhat overused. In Hebrew, you still have the smell of the primordial existence. For a creative person, this is very special.”

Appelfeld’s books are famous around the world and, as he reminds me, are translated into 35 languages. People as far away as Japan are keen readers of the man who author and fan Philip Roth- has described as “a displaced writer of displaced fiction, who has made displacement and disorientation a subject uniquely his own.”

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Does Appelfeld feel that non-Jewish people can appreciate the themes as well as Jewish readers can? “Suffering is relevant to everyone. We are born, we are going to die, we somehow accumulate a lot of suffering in our lives. Suffering is not something that is unique to the Jewish people. Everyone has suffered. Life is not a holiday – it is a pleasant and unpleasant experience.”

Even at his age, he still has an enthusiasm for writing. I ask him why he still writes? “It is my life, I’ve had a strange life, you see,” he answers, with an understatement.

It’s clear why Appelfeld is so successful. He has a unique way of looking at his own experiences which helps him to be a voice for others looking to gain some sort of understanding and emotional connection with events. He writes because he has something to say and for no other reason. “Literature, it doesn’t change the world but, it’s like music, you see, it gives you some light. It gives you a melody. It gives you a piece of one’s life. What is literature?” he gestures, “take a piece of my life, take it it’s yours. It is something you are going to share.”

B Blooms Of Darkness is published by Alma Books priced �12.99.