Reading Round the World: H is for Hungary

Tranquility by Attila Bartis

Hungary is sliding into irrelevancy as Communist rule draws to a close, marginalization looms. It’s at this juncture in history that short story writer Andor Weer finds his ‘voice’ with the help and encouragement of Estzer, who expends all her energy to draw him out of his personal darkness. Andor lives alone with his mother, who has not left the house for the past 15 years (he’s in his  mid-thirties). Rebeka, once one of the most famous stage actresses in Hungary, is now a recluse, only a shadow of her former self. But this shell wields enormous power over her son. Together, they make a most unusual couple. Estzer hasn’t a chance to save Andor in the face of the mother’s destructive influence. In this though, Andor is not without his own culpability.

Andor’s sibling, Sister Judit was a brilliant violinist who defected at an early age. This event started the downward spiral of the family fortune. The “party” took out the defection on  Rebeka, leaving her with fewer and fewer choice parts. Rebeka goes so far as to bury her daughter (in absentia), to no avail.

There’s no getting around it: this is a thoroughly depressing novel, without any redemptive feel at all. And yet the novel is called “tranquility”! Then we see that the tranquility referred to is not a feeling, but the calm, cold death-like tranquility of  the moon – the sea of tranquility.

There’s lots of sex, and all of it feels degrading, death like, desperate.

There are some arresting images amidst the gray bleakness. The sea of red sweaters from a relief agency, the stairs to nowhere, the waltz to the blood hound pit.

I was sitting in my hut on my makeshift bed, listening to the crackling if the logs in the potbelly stove; through the small window I observed the day dawning over the woods, and waited for work to begin.  Then the bloodhounds began to stir in their den. Growling, they pawed the ground, worried the bare bones, chewed on the spines whose marrow had long dried out, looking for leftover bits as they did every dawn.  I put on my heavy coat, picked up the hooked cane and walked behind the hut to the corpse pit for their daily portion. That was my job: to feed the hounds twice a day and to not ask who the corpses had been. True, there was nobody to ask. They filled the pit once a week, always at night. By the time I awoke in the morning, all the dead women and children would be in the pit. Strictly speaking, all the corpses were beautiful, only their stillness and sweetish smell gave them away.. I could reach down for any one of them, stick my hook into the neck, cradle the body in my arms, as I would a sleeping lover or a sick child, and then take it across to the hounds’ pit at the far end of the clearing. During the trek of a few hundred steps, I could delight to my heart’s content in the cool motionless of the corpses.

Mann’s The Magic Mountain (and time, as in that classic novel) has a central role to play in Bartis’ novel, in unique ways.

…it was possible to know with reasonable accuracy that the real Tranquility Base was a bit farther away than Mare Tranquillitatis, but it might be reached more easily. And when one works, time inevitably gets stuck in the mud, similarly to the extension period added to a soccer game. Of course, I could put it this way as well: while writing, Greenwich mean time is exchanged for Davos-Dorf time and, interestingly enough, this is completely independent of whether after completing the work we choose to come off the mountain or not.

The novel ends where it began: at the funeral of his mother. Much happens in the interim, but all roads lead to the grave in Bartis’ vision. Even the starry skies above, though filling Andor with wonder are, very little solace in the face of the grave.

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