Fires in the Dark by Louise Doughty

Gypsy history has inspired a heart-warming (and heart-breaking) tale of generosity and genocide, says Jane Jakeman
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The Independent Culture

Mozart, Baroque twiddles, experimental theatre: modern Prague, that apparently most civilised of cities, rates high on the liberal-intellectual scale of values. Until some of its citizens start talking about the Roma, which sometimes seems almost a conversational obsession, like prodding a rotten tooth. "Gypsies – they're lazy, dirty, put high walls round them, it's no good giving them decent homes ...". All views I have heard in the most beautiful city in Europe; not from the deprived or ignorant, but from students, graduates, the sophisticated builders of the new republic.

Mozart, Baroque twiddles, experimental theatre: modern Prague, that apparently most civilised of cities, rates high on the liberal-intellectual scale of values. Until some of its citizens start talking about the Roma, which sometimes seems almost a conversational obsession, like prodding a rotten tooth. "Gypsies – they're lazy, dirty, put high walls round them, it's no good giving them decent homes ...". All views I have heard in the most beautiful city in Europe; not from the deprived or ignorant, but from students, graduates, the sophisticated builders of the new republic.

And the Czechs are among the more enlightened of nations. We are no better, in many cases. Not that there are many Roma left to worry about. Probably, between a quarter and half a million European gypsies perished under the Nazis, mostly in Auschwitz. There may have been many more.

The hellish details of the Gypsy Holocaust have slowly emerged, but the process of transmuting them into fiction is taking longer. The difficulty of imaginative absorption into the enclosed world of the Roma is a further huge challenge, which Louise Doughty's new novel surmounts with immense warmth and skill. It creates the powerful narrative of a survivor who manages to escape from a camp and live to tell the tale.

Doughty was writer-in-residence at Brno in the Czech Republic, whence come the solid factual underpinnings of the book – the first of two novels which will cover the great tapestry of Romany history and traditions. You can sense the writer's rage at the results of her researches, but the book never descends into that fatal category: the fictive polemic.

The characters are absorbing individuals, and the reconstruction of Roma life has a loving and compelling vitality. Fires in the Dark does not gloss over patriarchal brutalities and absurd-seeming customs (many of them obsessional about the uncleanliness of women), but is rich in details of Romany loves and boasts. "My daughters' knees are crippled by our wealth," proclaims a proud father, welcoming his relations. "Tip the soup into the horse trough. Kill the goat!" Doughty found many of the traditions recorded in the 19th century by George Borrow, particularly those concerning the uncleanness of us gadje (settled folks).

Yenko, the secret name of a boy called Emil born in prewar rural Bohemia, is the son of Anna and Josef, leader of a tribe of Coppersmith Roma. His fight for survival is the main concern of the book. Soon, the Nazi net begins to close on the Romas' existence. Movement is curtailed, rights are taken away, their livelihood is gone, and they are designated as detritus fit only for the gas chambers.

Taken to an internment camp, Yenko escapes, thanks to the desperate strategies of his mother, and manages to reach occupied Prague, where he leads the life of a fugitive. He makes contact with an old acquaintance whose decency helps Yenko hide. The rest of the family is sent on to Auschwitz, but Yenko survives in Prague and almost accidentally joins the Resistance.

This journey into hell is scarcely bearable, yet made compelling reading by the humanity which it reveals. Fires in the Dark ranks with Moris Farhi's beautiful novel Children of the Rainbow in its empathetic vision of Romany life. History can give us the facts; a novel such as this has the emotive power to restore dignity to those who were so appallingly robbed of it. I hope this book gets very widely translated. It delivers inner truth in a knock-out blow, as only art can.

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