The Afterlife of Stars

Written by Josef Kertes
Review by Elisabeth Lenckos

Budapest, 1956. The childhood of Robert Beck ends abruptly when the Hungarian Revolution is crushed and his family forced to flee to Paris. Finding refuge in the home of his exquisite, maimed Aunt Hermina, the young man soon realizes that the journey west is not one towards safety, but rather towards self-recognition. Accompanied by his older, wise-beyond-his-years brother Attila, he sets out to discover the reason why their father’s cousin, Paul Beck, a Resistance fighter, disappeared after the liberation. Paul had helped the Swedish humanitarian Raoul Wallenberg save the lives of countless Jews during the Nazi occupation of Hungary. The quest takes them into the underbelly of Paris, where the two boys encounter the darkness that lies at the heart of a culture admired for its enlightened values. In the end, though, Robert comes to understand that individual responsibility cannot be divorced from historical calamity—and that his family, too, hides a terrible secret. This raises the question whether we are, or even can be, our brother’s keepers?

Part coming-of-age story, part philosophical novel, The Afterlife of Stars is a lyrical tour de force. The inimitable voice of nine-year-old Robert Beck, whose precociousness summons thoughts of Mark Twain and J.D. Salinger, haunts the reader long after finishing. This is a moving foray into the inner life of a perceptive young soul in quest of home.