On the publication of Sándor Tar in English translation
I have been a passionate reader of Sándor Tar’s short stories ever since they started coming out regularly in the mid-1990’s – an avid and admiring reader who has found Tar’s writings, like all great literature, amazing and mysterious at the same time. I always admire literature which is great without being grand, and if I talk about mystery, this is because I have not yet found the "key" to these texts. This is just as it should be. There is certainly a unique world and a unique tone to Tar’s work, but how he does it is a question I am at a loss to answer.
My last impression comes from reading Lassú teher (Slow Burden), the book of his short stories, on and off over a period of several months. The book partly contains short stories, originally published in the literary weekly Élet és irodalom, and partly some of his longer novellas. This book is similar to his others in the stubborn determination with which he surveys, explores, and depicts the recurring scenes which hold such fascination for him, enough to create the terrain of his entire prose. This dreary end-of-village, end-of-street milieu is populated by the drop-outs and the down-and-outs, the hopeless cases, by characters who had the rug pulled out from under them. All of a sudden, there they stand, helpless and quietly hopeless in a “new life.” These are men and women who are outcasts and victims of betrayal, miserable people deprived of family and work, drifting through weedy gardens and cropping up in the dingy cubby-holes of concrete housing estates, cold industrial halls, and half-built houses. Tar’s impoverished and helpless heroes bear their destinies with the dignity of the poor until a glimmer of hope appears, only to fade again; then, they can admit, one shade more disillusioned than before, that for them there is no escape.
In view of the above inventory of Tar’s world, anyone unfamiliar with his prose might think, “Oh, please, give me a break from ‘the sociology of the working classes,’” or at any rate, “This does not make literature. And even if it does, it is bound to reek of reminiscences. After all, there have been much better authors in these parts writing about poverty.” Yes, you might run into that trap at first sight, but caution is required. Tar first attracted attention with his sociologically inspired work. This is based on an extensive autobiographical foundation. He depicts his world with such a dramatic asceticism, and he is capable of creating such dreary tension, that it makes him unique in contemporary Hungarian prose. The secret lies somewhere in these quarters. The mystery is in how he manages to transubstantiate this naturalistic raw material into high quality literature. The precise and merciless description of the setting offers the makings of good sociography, but not much more. Tar, however, possesses those unique traits of literary sensitivity, empathy, and solidarity, which enable him to hold up to us the elemental drama of these situations through reduction. Tar’s prose is about nothing else but poverty. Yet, for him this is far more than a plain quality of social existence; it is an ontological predicament. His texts are socially embedded, but they are not restricted in relevance. At the same time, Tar, if anyone, can fairly be called the authentic chronicler of the underbelly of capitalist development over the last sixteen years in Hungary, as well as the torments of those who lost out on it. The type of monotony and relentlessness that characterizes his texts makes us sense the universally oppressive weight of helplessness. However, the basic dark tonality of his works is always lightened by a brighter streak of gentle irony or an occasionally touch of genuine humor. He has the power to create such a spacious stuffiness within the very limited frame of a short story (this being, we know, the secret of that genre) which is the distinguishing trait of only the best of short story writers (of which Hungarian literature happens to boast quite a few).
Tar himself has often said that he finds the short story the most exciting challenge for the kind space it offers for play. His books clearly substantiate this claim; the short story is home field for him. It allows him to show off his merits to best advantage – his skill of reduction, tightness, tension dealt out according to a dramatic sense of proportion, as well as his humor and irony. After all, who could mistake the sympathetic humor in the scene in “Mamma Rosa” where Robi, who is a new employee in the factory, finds that the doors to the men’s and women’s restrooms have all been locked, and he has no way of relieving himself. Finally, the hero, jealously proud of his masculinity, sees one of the doors to the women’s restroom opening. Mamma Rosa pulls him to her and allows him to relieve himself in all possible senses of the word. In “A Room with Two Windows,” we see tenant and subtenant entangled in a heart-breaking, yet funny situation, a tie of mutual dependence where they realise that they are nineteen to a dozen, a pair of yobs with punctured lives. The encounter raises their elemental need for male solidarity. After they talk, the young man decides to share his bed with the landlord:
“‘Come and lie down here, there’s enough room for both of us. Have you washed your feet?’ They laughed at that for a while. ‘But don’t you start crying,’ the boy said later, ‘or I’ll kick you out of bed.’”
These are the concluding sentences. Tar’s books are full of sentences. I do not mean just ordinary sentences you go around quoting easily, but sentences that have been positioned. He is a grand master of this, too – positioning a sentence which is otherwise totally banal, using it for a conclusion. I am not one given to quoting endings, but there is one I cannot resist invoking here. The story about the lame beggar and his son, “Slow Burden,” is a shockingly disciplined play of editing, deferring, and reduction which renders it unique in the whole of Hungarian short story literature. In the last scene, the boy kicks his father off the train, and the father “let go of the iron railing, ran out of strength. There was no point any more.”
It is hard to find a suitable ending for a review like this. Let us just quote one more sentence by Sándor Tar from “The Coldest Night.” “‘Go on,’ Sallai retorted, ‘he’s got his beer in front of him. You don’t die like that.’”
P. S.: Writing was Sándor Tar’s life. His death did not flow from that life. He was one of those people whose name came to light as a one-time informer as secret service documents became disclosed. To this day, the Hungarian Parliament has been scandalously unable to regulate in a satisfactory fashion the access to and publication of these documents, as well as the rights of the one-time informers and those who were informed upon. Tar himself was recognized by György Berkovits from reports on himself. Berkovits was editor of the periodical Mozgó Világ, which had been banned by communist cultural leadership. Tar’s name was made public, and a lengthy polemic ensued in the Hungarian press, mainly on the pages of the weekly Élet és irodalom, with the majority speaking out against and a minority in defense of Tar. The author himself exchanged letters, also in Élet és irodalom, with János Kenedi, a prominent figure of the one-time democratic opposition who had introduced Tar into Hungary’s first and second public domain. Kenedi, upon whom Tar had also informed, pardoned him. Tar gave some sort of an explanation for how he had become implicated, but sensed no relief. Having come a long way up the social ladder, he was now at a loss to comprehend the situation. How did he fall out of favor so suddenly? He felt stigmatized, and he learned through experience that forces which wished to isolate him were many and lay in different quarters. Struggling all his life to make a living and fighting a major alcohol problem, he was finally deserted by words. There is no occasion here for any remark of judgment or acquittal. We can, however, declare that those who chose Sándor Tar for stating a moral example were not necessarily acting in the spirit of justice when they sought "justice" against him. They were all in a position to know, and did in fact know for certain, that the Hungarian intelligentsia was watched not by a handful of informers; the numbers were in the thousands.
Sándor Tar was not granted the favor of writing his own destiny. His talent fell silent in the ultimate moments, which is a shame. After all, what could be more suitable subject matter for a Tar story? A country lad goes as guest worker to East Germany, where he gets drafted as an informer. He goes on to write sociographic pieces which attract the attention of the opposition. His tasks as informer are now upgraded; he is commissioned to write prose. He does so, and after the communist system collapses, his star begins to rise ever higher. It is about the reach the zenith when the sky suddenly goes dark. The author, now the holder of a number of literary prizes, stands in the queue outside a cheap canteen in a supermarket in Debrecen, asking whether he could have a little more sauce on the pasta.