Darkness Casts No Shadow

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Novel by Arnošt Lustig, 1976

Darkness Casts No Shadow by Arnošt Lustig is his most autobiographical work. The film adaptation appeared in 1964 under the direction of Jan Němec and is a milestone of Czech New Wave cinema. It is the story of two boys, Manny and Danny, who escape a train that has been bombed on its way to a German death camp. As seen in the novel Diamonds of the Night, the action is interspersed with memories of the past, ranging from family activities to the horrors of concentration camp life. The characters' thoughts are clearly defined for the reader, but still it is not known what course of action any character will take. Will the boys kill in order to survive? Is killing right when one could be killed? Is it worth the risk not to kill? Moral dilemma permeates the work, and the boys learn that what a person says is not always the action he or she will take. One example of this is the boys' friend, Frank Bondy, who talks boldly of escape. But when the train is bombed, he stays behind with his mortally wounded Polish girlfriend, thus leaving Manny and Danny to deal with escape into the forest on their own. He states: "Just remember, boys, every person in the world always lives at least two lives. In one, he plays with an open hand of cards so that everybody can see, and in the other, he's the only one who knows what he's got. I hope you know what I mean." In another example, a rabbi, who has taken Danny under his wing like a son, preaches of God's trickery upon and testing of people. He then proceeds to steal Danny's bread ration: "'That's how it goes here,' a Hungarian rabbi had said once. 'You don't have to accept the idea that everyone lives and dies alone,' he said. It was like a huge sinking ship, where no one cries out any longer, but each hears the same old refrain, 'Every man for himself.' That was before his bread ration was stolen. But even that is not fatal."

Lustig's work portrays people not as individuals but rather as madmen who are all members of a larger group of madmen. They cease to be what they were and become instead creatures who can only depend upon themselves for survival. The rabbi is a prime example of this fact for Danny.

After the train wrecks, the forest into which the boys have run will either swallow them up or lead them to freedom, though what sort of freedom it is remains to be seen at the end of the novel. The specter of death is well represented by crows, birds that will eat anything. The boys are surprised that they are still picky about what they eat, a reference to the fact that they are alive and, therefore, still consider themselves to be human. They have not yet joined that circle of madmen. Danny is crippled by a nail in his shoe and the wound begins to fester, hindering the boys' escape. One cannot help but to surmise, however, that Danny has purposely left the nail exposed in order to hasten his own death, leaving him to become food for the crows.

The work is indeed dark and suspenseful. The imagery of the forest, the blackness of the crows, and the apprehension at nightfall serve to feed the reader's mind with the horror of the boys' fate. The novel ends with the boys' death, and there ceases the similarity with Lustig's own life.

—Cynthia A. Klíma