Aharon Appelfeld: winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2012
Aharon Appelfeld won this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for the book Blooms of Darkness along with his translator, Jeffrey M Green (an interview with him will appear next week). We spoke to him the day after his win.
Congratulations on your win!
Thank you very much.
How does it feel?
It's exciting, even at my age, to receive prizes. Every one of us has a child inside him and it's nice to receive presents and prizes.
Had you read any of the books on the shortlist?
Yes. I began to read them. They are good books.
How does it feel to win a prize that was so global?
I'm very excited about this because every writer should be in some way a universalist. My books are translated into 34 languages.
And important that a book about the holocaust can still have the effect it does…
Yes. It's important. People should know wars are and how cruel people can be to other people. It's something about civilisation.
How is your relationship with your translator?
We have worked together on many books. We've always had a good relationship. He is a good friend. My English is not perfect. He grew up in America and went through Princeton and Harvard and has a good education.
Were there any things that he found difficult to translate from Hebrew?
Hebrew has a very short sentence. It's an ancient language. It is 4-5,000 years old. It is an old civilisation. European languages have been used for many generations, perhaps overused, and they became banal. Words became sentences. In Hebrew, the language was not used for more than 2,000 years as a spoken language. It was only used in prayer and study. These old languages still have a power.
Where do you identify with being from the most?
First of all, I'm Jewish. And then I am a European. My parents were born in Europe. My grandparents were born in Europe.
A lot of the books we read in the UK start their life in English, so the wonderful thing about the prize is how it draws attention to different worlds and cultures.
More people should realise about how small we are in terms of the universe and other people.
In your acceptance speech, you said that not only were you grateful, but so was the little boy in you. Could you explain more?
What I was saying was that the boy in me who survived the Holocaust and the woman who helped him to survive, they are the real winners of the prize. Pieces of the book are based on my own life. I've written 40 books - novels, short stories, essays - I write mostly about my experiences, as a child or as an adult. I'm not writing a chronicle. I'm not writing memoirs. I am writing fiction. Fiction means you combine things. You have to show some ideas. Chronicles don't have ideas. I wrote about a childhood where I lost my parents and I was 8-years-old. Before the war, we were an upper middle-class family with vacations and school - I finished school in my first grade. That is my education.
One of the great things about this prize is how it highlights smaller independent presses like Alma.
Small publishing houses should be encouraged.
What are you going to do next?
This year, I am 80-years-old so I shall write a better book. A writer should write everyday. In the morning you have a cup of coffee and then write. This is your day. Read, and write. Read good literature and write good literature.
Transcript of Aharon Appelfeld's acceptance speech, reproduced with his kind permission:
I am pleased to share this important prize with my friend Jeffrey Green, who has translated my work for years.
It is an honor for me to be here and receive the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
The boy Hugo, the hero of The Blooms of Darkness, is also here with me tonight. His name is different from mine, but most of the trials of that eleven-year-old boy are similar to mine at his age. I tried not to beautify either him or the woman who protected him, but to present them as human beings with all their weaknesses.
The Second World War was cruel, and for the Jews it was especially horrible. However, within that horror a few points of light also glimmered. Without that light, we would have drowned in absolute despair.
Everyone who survived that war survived only by grace of love, like the young Hugo and his benefactor Mariana. This impossible couple at a time when people lost their humanity - their togetherness is possibly a small example of what a person can do even in absolute darkness.
The Second World War was an act of Satan, with all his evil. The boy Hugo crossed these rivers of hatred not by virtue of his intelligence or skill, but because of a simple woman whose fate had brought her to the lowest point of life, but goodness and humanity were not extinguished within her. The cloak of her love preserved him all during the days of dreadful cold.
Young Hugo, who was shut up for many months, saw a great deal and mainly heard a great deal. He was frightened, he saw people in their baseness, and he saw himself as a helpless creature. But between fear and fear, he tried to encourage his benefactor, who was both wonderful and miserable.
In time Hugo conveyed to me everything that happened in his young life, and this includes his innocence and his faith in humanity. Thanks to him, I exist not only as a man but also as an artist.
It is hard for me to imagine art without a degree of innocence, and without faith in humanity. Sophistication and cynicism are sometimes important in order to break down routine thoughts and to tear away dullness of the heart. But we must know that these traits are poisonous medicines, which, if they are overused, are destructive.
The Bible, which is the source and foundation of Jewish language, culture, and faith, is not an innocent narrative. Its stories and poetry know man and his instincts, the evil of his heart, and his murderous passions, but at the same time, it also knows that people are not entirely evil. A person can be a responsible and considerate creature, and at moments of grace, be merciful and loving.
Young Hugo, who remained in his hiding place for many days, and who was often close to despair, was saved by an unfortunate woman named Mariana, a capricious woman, who herself sometimes stood at the edge of the abyss, but she gave him what she was capable of giving. Thanks to this imperfect angel, he emerged from hell as someone who could love, someone without hatred.
Young Hugo, believe me, deserves this prize more than I do, and if I may be permitted, I will give him the gift that you gave me, and your blessing.