For all that has been published about the Holocaust, little has been written about Europe’s Gypsies—the “smoke brothers” of European Jews, as one character says in this novel. First published in England, where it won a Writers Award from the Arts Council of Great Britain, Fires in the Dark (Harper Collins, $24.95) is the first in a series Louise Doughty has planned on the history of the Romany people and her own Roma ancestry. In this exceptional installment, she depicts the unrelenting tragedies that beset a family of Coppersmith Gypsies in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. From the relatively peaceful interwar years through the Prague uprising of 1945, Doughty conveys the family’s prolonged struggle to save each other and themselves.
Doughty weaves the historical context into the narrative in such a way that it doesn’t overly determine the behavior of her characters. The figures inhabiting this novel are convincingly and complexly human, distracted by rivalries, desires, and the constant negotiation required for life among the gadje, the Romany term for anyone who is not-Roma.
Yenko comes of age in the Hodonin labor camp, where many Moravian and Bohemian Gypsies were detained. Torn between assisting his ill parents and his weakening siblings, Yenko longs for those moments when he can speak to the lively Romany girl with whom he once fed the pigs behind the camp, or the resourceful Jewish doctor who attended to his broken jaw. They are the only two people, Yenko concludes, that seemed to believe the rest of the world still existed. Not like his own family, who were dying, sick, taking bread from his mouth—who had forgotten his name. In her compassionate portrayal of Yenko’s interior life. Doughty resurrects that name and many others in this artful and significant novel.
Idra Novey is a poet and translator, an editor for the poetry journal Rattapallax, and a teacher in Columbia’s undergraduate Writing Program.