02. 07. 2006. 14:33

A legend about you

Éva Bánki: Golden Embroidery

The novel is not so much about writing a biography as about the dilemmas that emerge in the process: about the impossibility of “historical authenticity.”

After her successful first novel, Esováros (Raintown), Éva Bánki (1966) has now given us another historical novel. While the previous work took place in the first half of the 20th century, her new book transports us to the last decades of the 11th century. As it evokes the past, it offers rich food for thought regarding the workings of memory and the problems of historiography, while also pondering on the transience of identity.
The hero of Aranyhímzés (Golden Embroidery) is Sebe, favourite and most talented disciple of Gellért (Gerardus), the legendary Benedictine bishop of King Stephen I (997-1038), founder of the Hungarian state. After succeeding his master in the bishopric, Sebe is instructed to go to Venice, where Saint Gellért was born, and find out as much as he can about the childhood of the bishop who was martyred by being locked in a barrel and rolled down a Buda hillside (today named after him). Yet the most essential part of the mission is that Sebe should return to Hungary in possession of a preferably complete biography which could be made use of in the beatification procedure and might also serve to support certain political ambitions. The novel is the story of Sebe’s investigations, or rather of his efforts to find his way in the darkness, amid a host of suspicions and inner dilemmas. Lies, intrigue and a real murder furnish the novel with the excitement of a detective story. There are various forces out to expropriate the figure and legacy of Gellért, and when they recall the events of a few decades back, each has a different angle, according to their individual self-interest.

As he proceeds with his writing, Sebe is conscious in building structure, arbitrary in his choice and selective in his classification. He emphasizes data which happen to fall in line with pre-determined expectations and he hushes up contradictions. He is a highly rational person who is constantly analysing, is up to his neck in combinations and tactics, deep in the flow of events, doing his best to be ubiquitous, to talk to everybody and influence whomever he can. Most of all, he is determined to outwit those who are out to manipulate him. He emerges as a wise, reflecting, yet ironic and occasionally downright humorous character who develops into the central figure of the text in every sense. Nothing happens and, it seems, nothing could happen outside of him.
Sebe is actually identical with the highly respected bishop Anastas, but in the book he is always referred to by his pagan name. This has its own particular significance. The author is highlighting the fact that as this old priest, who looks on Gellért as his rescuer and his role model, fulfils his official mission, he is actually seeking to answer questions regarding his own identity. While investigating Gellért’s history he is always running into his own past – probing into his own “Hungarianness”, his language, his faith. Ultimately this leads him to a fundamental conflict between the ancient, pagan customs of his family and his new religion, Christianity – a conflict which has by this time led to civil war in Hungary. Gellért had been a Venetian turned Hungarian, Sebe was a pagan turned Christian. Both abandoned their earlier values for something new which brought them losses as well as gains. So Sebe recognises his own personal destiny in the story of Gellért, but at the same time he unwittingly shapes the story in such a way that the life of Gellért should reflect his own personal history.
The traditional authors of the historical Gellért legends were omniscient speakers confidently manoeuvring among the minutest details of history. In this book, however, the legend-writer is cautious and insecure even at points where he has every reason to be firm. Set at the apex of this sixteen-chapter narrative, Chapter Eight bears the significant title “The difficulties of legend writing”. It relates the crucial point where Sebe the ambitious, the pedantic suddenly realises that the story he is working on will inevitably turn out to be the product of his own free choices and his occasionally rather fallible imagination. He comes up against vague statements by conflicting witnesses, and the scanty evidence at his disposal does not enable him to make a choice. Thus the novel is not so much about writing a biography as about the dilemmas that emerge in the process: about the impossibility of “historical authenticity”. Just as the text states, with a somewhat redundant didacticism, “Perhaps there is no truth, or the majority of people find all truth intolerable.”
Éva Bánki knows a tremendous amount about the world she depicts in her novel and about the everyday life of the Middle Ages. She has an enchanting ability to inhabit her novel, the labyrinthine streets of 11th century Venice, its moods heavy with clerical dominance. All of this works to particular advantage in a text which is stylistically unified and carefully engineered in its every detail. Éva Bánki releases her information with an excellent sense of proportion, but perhaps her forte is in creating a mysterious, foggy atmosphere riddled with uncertainty. Venice, of course, offers a superb backdrop for a story which has its elements of crime, investigation and secrecy. Bánki, however, does make excellent use of this potential. Games played by people who are out to trap or at least manipulate each other thrive in this milieu. Monasteries, lagoons and secret codices are concealed by thick-walled buildings just as the truth hides itself among the multitude words spoken by hosts of witnesses. It must be there somewhere – if only we could find it. Sebe, who is given to reflections on his alien status, finds the city particularly labyrinthine. No wonder he relinquishes his search by the end of the book and dashes off the Gellért story with the ease of a weathered literary author, merely to satisfy his client.

A sense of significant mystery and irresolvable uncertainty hangs over this novelistic world where no one is actually at ease. Discomfort springs from a lack of confidence as well as from uncertainty, from a number of different shades of ‘true’ and ‘false.’ Éva Bánki’s new work is a readable, exciting book which holds you spellbound throughout – a novel of strong character, high literary standard and a promise for the future.

Bánki Éva: Aranyhímzés
Budapest: Magveto, 2005

László Bedecs

Translated by: Orsolya Frank

Tags: Éva Bánki