ARNOST LUSTIG, the noted Czech novelist and prize-winning film-maker who now lives in the United States, has devoted his entire creative career to his vision of the Nazi holocaust and the Jewish tragedy. His acclaimed novel, A Prayer for Katerina Horovitzova , was published in 1973; now another novel and a story collection have been published simultaneously.
Darkness Casts No Shadow tells of two adolescents who escape from a German death train while it is being strafed by an American plane. The two boys, Manny and Danny, make their way into a forest and hope to walk to their hometown, Prague. In a clearing, the starving boys see a woman giving food to her farmer husband. The turning point in the story comes when the youths decide that to save themselves one of them must kill the woman in her house. There, and later in the woods, the drama - no sense spelling it out - is concluded.
Since films are as important to Lustig as fiction, it is not fortuitous that cinematic touches predominate in his prose. Take, for instance, the opening pages of the novel. I can imagine the footage of the scene where the exhausted boys clamber slowly up the hill and dodge the guard's rifle shots. No dialogue would be needed; perhaps an occasional, breathless, "Hurry!" The camera would focus on the boys' agony as they - and we - try to reach the top and tumble down out of gunshot range.
This scene is paradigmatic of Lustig's approach to holocaust reality. Honed descriptions, taut dialogue. One might justifiably expect an endless outcry; yet, like the holocaust itself, the fiction about it has created its own laws. As if an antithesis to the suffering, Lustig's writing is sperbly understated. One is almost tempted to say that his objective narrative sans emotion is reminiscent of Hemingway; surely Lustig has learned from him the art of paring down. But Lustig is more consciously a national writer. If Hemingway described lost souls, Lustig limns a lost people.
The author's accent on the friendship between Manny and Danny (the choice of names is unfortunate; the reader occasionally confuses the two) is an artful substitute for doses of emotion. In an era when the Nazis tried to pervert "love thy fellow man" to "every man against his neighbor," Lustig shows that love is alive. Survivors' accounts of deeds of kindness in a collapsing world are legion - and even if it is a small victory (something the Jews are used to), it is nevertheless a large accomplishment in the cavernous time/space borders of evil. But Lustig is not nostalgia-ridden; his books are not filled with saints. For example, although the boys are chose friends, when one gives the other a piece of turnip, the price is a pair of shoes. And when one shoe works up a nail, the suspicion is that the shoes were given up so readily because of the nail.
Nevertheless, all these are childish thoughts - and we must remember it is children who are being led to extermination, and it is children who are making their way - alone - across the terrible terrain of Germany. Despite these normal suspicions, each lad feels that he is his brother's keeper. Not only are they survivors, Lustig seems to assert, but they are an island of surviving decency. Shoes and turnips are one thing; life is another.
As a counterpoint to their forward movement in the woods - lacking food, the youths are nourished by hope, future, Prague - come scenes of various concentration camps and factories, memories of a father slain, their life in the kingdom of night. In the forest - their "real" world, their first freedom - the lads promise to extirpate the past. Nevertheless, it leaps back at them. Lustig, unlike his fellow Praguer Kafka, is not a symbolist; yet he repeats clusters of images that reinforce the unforgettable past. In the italicized holocaust passages, the rain of ashes returns again and again; in the forest, as the boys stumble along, they are constantly aware of the ominous cawing of the ravens overhead. One of the boys remembers stoking coal in the crematorium and leaning against the wall for warmth. He knows what makes the bricks warm. Still, the farther they go from the flames, the hotter the fires become.
In Darkness Casts No Shadow , the two protagonists have been stained: Auschwitz is behind them, a tattoo that cannot be erased. In the seven stories of Night and Hope , everyone children and adults - is still in the kingdom of twilight. They are aware of cruelty and death in Terezin (or Theresienstadt), that "model" Czech camp that the Germans used for propaganda purposes. (In his brilliant film, "Transport from Paradise," Lustig actually uses German footage that shows a band welcoming new residents to Terezin; an old woman is courteously helped from the train . . . happy smiling faces . . . awaiting paradise.) The Jews know about the transports, but they do not clearly know what will befall them. That is why life is Terezin is nearly normal. Children play hookey from work assignments; they have secret hideouts; Danny - still in his state of pre-Auschwitz innocence - appears in adventures with his friends; a youngster can muse about "the finest day of his life." A young couple falls in love, briefly, before a transport separates them.
The opening late, "The Return," serves as a bridge between the outside world and the sealed camp. The hero, Hynek Tausig (what a sad name!), is a 40-year-old bachelor who had been hidden by an elderly gentile couple after avoiding a transport to Terezin. A frightened, decent man, he is trapped by time and history; unable to bear his cramped hiding place, he walks out into the streets of Prague, hoping to join a transport and reunite with his people.
This beautiful evocation of a haunted man in doomed, grey Prague is a stylistic anomaly: as an introspective interior monologue it is an exception to Lustig's usual crisp diction. Yet "The Return" is as cinematic as the other stories, because the inanimate objects, on which Lustig zooms in with his lens, become as palpable as speech and action. As Tausig emerges into the street for the first time, without his Jewish star, afraid he will be recognized, his painfully slow progress through the street is measured by the blue and white paving stones.
"Some people had hope, others had nothing. Nothing at all. One step - blue paving-stones, another step - white. His eyes surveyed the familiar patterns of the paving. As a child he used to pick his way carefully so as to step only on the blue stones. That, he had believed, brought luck. He must not even now tread on the white ones. One step, blue, another, blue. He must make bigger strides. If he did not step on the white perhaps everything would turn out well . . .
"Someone was walking straight at him. He swerved aside, his eyes diffidently gliding over the stranger's face. The face was unknown to him. Its image, however, remained in front of his eyes even though they were now peering at the ground as if searching for something there. He could see that face all the time . . . A blue stone, a white."
"Rose Street" - almost novelistic in intensity - shows both sides of the fence: the German commandant and his family and staff, and an old woman in the ghetto who runs a junk shop. Here Lustig succeeds in the difficult task of individualizing the Germans. He depicts their pettiness, their infighting; he even succeeds in creating a conscience-stricken German guard who, remorseful at hitting the elderly shopkeeper, later returns and gives her a can of sardines. Night and Hope contains a miniature world of variegated Jewry - including despised members of the Judenrat . In this disjointed world, people at times have nonconversations; their thoughts reverberate in wordless dialogue, frightened, waiting, hopeful. This is the hope in the night; hence the title of the collection.
Arnost Lustig's books are powerful and moving because he celebrates mentshlichkeit at a time when the Germans delighted in sandpapering a person's humanity before taking his life. One man gives a sick women a drink of water. Another gives an old lady a boiled potato; a gentile tram driver, knowing that Hynek Tausig is a homeless Jew, gives him a jam sandwich - all, under the circumstances, are gifts of gargantuan proportions. In modern French literature we have the gratuitous act; in Lustig, the meaningful act. "I met so many very beautiful people during those years and most of them died," Lustig has said. "The only way to bring them back to life is to write about them. THis is my responsibility . . ." Indeed, he has resurrected them. Under the sentence of death, his people freeze time, preserve decency. They luminesce like light crystals in the dark.