Sunday, December 18, 2016
Not beach reading: An account of life in rural Hungary under Soviet domination
Szilard Borbely's The Dispossessed continues to paint a harrowing portrait of life in a rural village in Hungary during the era of Soviet domination, and if that sounds like a rather cheerless read you're right, this is not beach reading and not likely ever to be made into a movie - it's dark and dismal, and if you can't take it don't go there. The book is about abject poverty (families subsisting for days or weeks on end on sandwiches of lard on bread, for example), alcoholism, meanness, cruelty (especially toward animals), all seen from the POV of a young boy, a strangely abstract narrator who at times seems and sounds naive, not quite understanding what's going on around him, in part because he has no point of comparison (unlike his elders, who always compare the current poverty with the old days when there were standards and values, or so they think); at other times though he seems to be an oddly omniscient narrator, which is to say that Borbely is more interested in documenting the living conditions of what seems to have been his childhood than in creating a consistent, literary narrative voice or stream of consciousness. One problem with the novel is that, now more than 1/3 of the way in, there's really no semblance of a plot - nothing happens, no developments, to crises or turning points, the characters just persist and endure. A theme that may be emerging, however, is the fear that the government will step in and close one of the collectives and everyone will have to move - which brings up, to the elders, memories of the days when there was a Jewish community in the region, and how the Jews suddenly "disappeared," obviously during the war and the Nazi occupation - at that time none of the Hungarians seemed to care much or notice, but now they're wondering if they could suffer the same fate, the same extermination. Not sure whether Borbely will develop this theme further, or if it will remain as noise in the background.