Themes and Meanings
The main theme of the novel is that of a boy’s childhood under most difficult circumstances. Indeed, up to a point, Garden, Ashes is a Bildungsroman; although the book covers only a short period in the boy’s life, the quantity of tragic experiences packed in those few years had a powerful impact on his psyche. Andi’s knowledge comes from his experiences, not from any conscious effort on the part of his elders, and the lessons learned thus have a much greater value to him.
The value of such an education can be questioned because of what may be considered to be the second important theme of the novel, the inhumanity of man to man. Andi is faced with a tragic reality too early in life, with potentially devastating consequences. While it is true that neither he nor his family, aside from his father and several other older relatives, is subjected directly to the cruelty of the pogroms, horror, no matter how muted, lurks in the background throughout the novel as a constant reminder of the times. Yet Andi is not destroyed by it; on the contrary, he salvages from the tragedy a glorious, perhaps overly idealized, image of his father that will nourish him for the rest of his life.
The horrors of World War II are best illustrated in Garden, Ashes by the persecution of the Jews; this is the one facet that ties the book directly to historical reality. Yet Danilo Ki writes very little about it directly. Instead, he allows the impact of the age’s cruelty to sink slowly into the minds and hearts of those affected—and into those of the readers. The author firmly believes in understatement, knowing that the full force of horror will break through.