Kertes, Joseph. “The Afterlife of Stars”, Little Brown, 2017.
Robert and Atilla Beck are brothers and in October, 1956 in Budapest, they watch as the Hungarian revolution in their country begins. Shots are heard and the soldiers come to the boys’ home forcing them, their parents and grandmother and two cousins know they must escape. Their destination is Paris and the home of Hermina, a great aunt who had once been a famous opera singer but now a recluse who attempts to maintain the dignity that was once hers.
As the boys make their way, they come into contact with fellow travelers, see a nation come apart and face loss and rivalry. Yet, Atilla and Robert never lose the ability to be happy and their love for each other. Robert who is the younger of the two worships his older brother who becomes angrier and angrier as the days past and this could put them in danger. They become exiles in Paris and look for adventure and soon the closest thing to home that they have is in the unfamiliar streets and the sewers beneath. When they discover a long-held family secret involving a double agent and a daring Holocaust rescue, a decision by Attila has consequences that will last a lifetime, and the bond that has proved unbreakable just might separate the brothers forever. “The Afterlife of Stars” is about a displaced family’s possibilities for salvation as well as a look at brotherhood, identity and love.
Robert narrates the story of three generations of the Beck family. The story spans only a month and that is a month that includes escaping Hungary, going to Paris and ultimately to Canada as the family transitions to statelessness and becoming hunted refugees. They went from a sense of predictability to facing tremendous loss. Before this Robert has been an innocent child who evolves into a philosopher who learns to deal with the human condition. He shares with us his experiences as the world of a nine year old is disappearing around him and this bewilders him. He asks difficult questions of his family and through the answers his world of normalcy evaporates. We get secrets exposed and learn what the family suffered as Jews and Robert had not been part of that since he was born after the rise of Germany and the Holocaust. Yet even without experiencing this directly, he was not sparred the trauma that his family suffered. He learns that he is not who he thought he was and through random revelations and his own searches, he feels that he has the right to demand to know who he is from those who have kept this from him. Ultimately, he is the one who must carry the family legacy. Having lived through the Holocaust, the Becks are haunted by it.
Robert leaves us to arrive at our own conclusions and impressions as he and his brother deal with questions about the history and current circumstances of their family. This is both the story of what happened to the world and what happened to the Beck family.
When you sit down to read this, make sure you have cleared the rest of the day because it is almost impossible to stop reading. Author Joseph Kertes’ story is one of love for the family and the trauma of a time now gone. Agony and humor, pain and release come together in beautiful prose and a wonderful story. The brothers Beck show us the horrors of the world in the way that only the young can (remember that Robert is just nine and Atilla is just thirteen). I doubt that I will ever forget the boys.