Kertes (The Afterlife of Stars) delivers a bittersweet tale of a Jewish Hungarian survivor of WWII. Zoltan Beck immigrated to Toronto with his young family during the revolution of 1956. Now, in 2012, Zoltan’s wife has recently died and Zoltan, who has colon cancer, is being looked after by his son, Ben, a teacher, and Ben’s wife, Lucy. Ben is patient with his father, who is exasperating in his will to maintain his independence. Zoltan’s travails in the present are interspersed with flashbacks to his experiences during the war, when he and his older brother, Bela, were transported to a forced labor camp where Bela’s talent as a pianist earned them special treatment. But at war’s end, Zoltan and Bela were separated. Bela’s fate is finally revealed as Ben and a dying Zoltan travel to Budapest for a final reckoning with their family history. Kertes dramatizes the indignities faced by a person with compromised health, from having one’s driver’s license revoked to running into unexpected difficulties during a colonoscopy. Zoltan’s hilarious and heartbreaking story is a satisfying blend of matters domestic and historical. Agent: Julie Stevenson, Massie & McQuilikin Literary Agents. (Mar.)
From the Publisher
Shortlisted for the 2021 Leacock Medal for Humour
Longlisted for the 2020 Toronto Book Awards
Praise for Last Impressions:
"The great achievement of this novel is that the comedy of the present day story is deepened and darkened by the vein of history flowing beneath it, a history of lost loves and lost lives. Last Impressions will make you laugh out loud and cry out loud. What more could be asked of a book?"
—Miriam Toews, award-winning author of Women Talking, A Complicated Kindness, and All My Puny Sorrows
"Joe Kertes knows of what he writes, and it shines through pristine prose on every page of this moving and thoughtful novel. By turns hilarious and heartbreaking, the story’s vivid and memorable characters wrestle with history, secrets, and shadows that simultaneously strain and sustain a family. Brilliant and masterful."
—Terry Fallis, two-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour
"The patriarch Zoltan looms off the page, larger than life and yet heart-breakingly human. Last Impressions is a testament to the ordinary miracle of family and friendship, of loves lost and loves gained, of secrets concealed and hopes restored, set against the sweep of history, at once epic and intimate."
—Giller Prize-winning author Will Ferguson
"I finished Joe Kertes’s dark comedy, Last Impressions, and booked a trip to Hungary, so vivid and engrossing is Mr. Kertes’s creation of the Beck Family and their visit back to their father’s past. Cantankerous, unwavering, iron-willed, preposterously hilarious, Zoltan Beck is a protagonist for the ages. Stop streaming and start binging on this unputdownable book."
—Andrea Martin, award-winning actor
"A funny and moving book about a family mystery and the mysteries of family."
—David Bezmozgis, award-winning author of Immigrant City and The Betrayers
"Zoltan’s hilarious and heartbreaking story is a satisfying blend of matters domestic and historical."
"Kertes is successfully navigating treachero's waters here with a novel that, for all its moments of darkness, emerges as passionately life-affirming and at times unrepentantly hilarious."
Kertes (The Afterlife of Stars, 2017, etc.) returns to familiar terrain in his fifth novel, about a Hungarian Jewish Holocaust survivor nearing the end of his life who, with the encouragement of his son, reluctantly revisits his mysterious, tragic past.
Zoltan Beck does not like to linger on the past. "He's a forgetter," one of his granddaughters notes. "He likes to forget." Having left Hungary in the 1950s and made his way to Toronto, Zoltan would rather enjoy the pleasures of life than dwell on his painful history, which he has mostly kept from his three sons. Even he does not know the circumstances of his beloved older brother's death amid the chaos of their escape from a labor camp. But as he approaches the end of his life, his son Ben begins to search—and encourages him to search—for answers to unasked questions. This quest ultimately leads the pair back to Budapest, where they must uncover the truth at last. The premise of the novel is not particularly original, but in the right author's hands, stories like these—no matter how frequently told—can be arresting and innovative. Sadly, that is not the case here. Although the novel has occasional moments of genuine tenderness, many of its emotional crescendos feel forced. When Zoltan discovers long-lost family in Budapest, for instance, his embrace of these strangers seems utterly at odds with every other aspect of his character. Furthermore, the female characters are flat and underdeveloped, the dialogue often strikes a false chord, and the shape of the plot is predictable. Kertes does manage to incorporate bursts of humor into otherwise heavy subject matter, and he uses music and literary references cleverly. But these incidental assets ultimately do little to improve a story that is hackneyed and sentimental.
Jewish generational memory and trauma can be a literary gold mine, but what Kertes has unearthed is only gold-plated.