Saturday, December 17, 2016
A compelling (so far) novel by a little-known (in the U.S.) Hungarian author
Nobody in the U.S. has ever heard of him, but this novel, The Dispossessed, by the Hungarian author Szilard Borbely (minus the accents, sorry) has gotten some attention this year and, so far, though I'm only a few chapters in, it seems to be well-deserved attention (which won't help Borbely, as he died a few years ago at the age of about 50). The novel is set in a remote, rural section of Hungary, and begins in the 1960s or so, in the heart, or maybe depths, of Soviet domination, and is narrated from the POV of a young boy (perhaps closely modeled on Borbely, I'm not sure), with all the attendant limitations of perspective: he doesn't understand much of the social and familial tensions all around him. He lives with his mother and two siblings; his father initially had a job at the "collective," which took up almost all of his day and evening, and the men would all gather at the tavern nightly and drink themselves into sickness and oblivion. Much of the family life involves the mother scraping together meager meals, trying to maintain cleanliness in a dirt-floor house, selling a few eggs for pocket money - and in the evening sending the children to the tavern to drag home the dad. He eventually loses that job - as it's told from the child's viewpoint, we're not sure why - whether too much drinking, or the failure of the collective itself is unclear - and eventually lands a job controlling the water flow into the new rice fields - a big Soviet project (why do we suspect this will be another diasaster?). The title seems to refer to the sense of many families, such as this one, that belief they once were prosperous landowners and the state has taken away from their all the property and status - the narrator's mother feels this way, and is scornful of her husband's family and all of the villagers, whom she considers to be dirty peasants. The leveling of society under Soviet rule, it seems, has exacerbated class tensions, not alleviated or eliminated them. The personality of the child his gradually emerging - as we see that he has nightmares, bed-wetting episodes, and is strangely obsessed w/ primary numbers. So far, this novel seems like a solid and informative examination of a society in troubled times, told with a compelling narrative voice and developed through the lives of the central characters.