When he’s not making philosophical pronouncements or asking difficult questions, 13-year-old Attila Beck functions as the moral axis around which Joseph Kertes’ slender yet consequential new novel, The Afterlife of Stars, revolves. Kertes, a Hungarian refugee who escaped to Canada after the revolution of 1956, won the National Jewish Book Award for fiction for his previous novel, Gratitude, which also featured the Beck clan. In this book, set 11 years after the end of World War II in Budapest, it’s not the family’s Jewishness that constitutes the existential threat, but their Hungarian identity, as a revolution against Soviet control is brutally crushed in less than two weeks.
Playing Tonto to Attila’s Lone Ranger (and sometimes Estragon to his Vladimir), younger sibling Robert tells the tale of the family’s escape with a clear-eyed innocence that belies his experience as they are driven from Budapest to Paris to some unnamed Canadian destination.
Part of what makes the book so compelling is its sympathetic portrayal of political refugees at a time when they are frequently misunderstood at best, and demonized at worst. And while Hungary’s then-oppressor, the Soviet Union, no longer exists, recent Russian incursions into Ukraine (and Syria) offer a potent reminder of how, even in the course of a single novelist’s lifetime, history can repeat itself.
But the beating heart of this book is the relationship between Robert and Attila, a remarkable pair of brothers whose bond goes beyond affection, beyond shared history, beyond blood. They are two young men who, once met, you’ll never forget.