06. 14. 2010. 08:02

A lemur in the army

László Garaczi: Face and About-Face

It would be very hard to find anything more absurd and nonsensical than the Hungarian army of the Socialist era. Face and About-Face recounts the unique experience of the one-year compulsory army service that young men who had been admitted to college or university had to complete before starting their studies.

One has the strong impression that a place had always been there reserved for Face and About-Face. And not only because it was clear that the ‘Lemur series’ most clearly associated with Garaczi’s name (As If You Were Alive, The Splendid Bus Ride, published in English in one single volume entitled Lemur, Who Are You?) had to continue, since the two volumes already completed have brought the author professional recognition and the second one also found its way to popularity with the wider audiences. Face and About-Face had to come about because it was clear that sooner or later there would have be a book about this unique experience of the Kádár era, the one-year compulsory army service that young men who had been admitted to college or university had to complete before starting their studies. Wherever a group of intellectuals in their 40’s or 50’s gather together today, there are bound to be anecdotes told and memories revived about the year they spent in the army in this special status, what it felt like to be a sapper, an artillery man or a tank-driver; how one man was demobbed after a nervous breakdown and another shot the guards’ tower to pieces, how the third man went on an exercise in the Bakony hills fighting against the perennial phantom enemy – the Italians (why them is something I never understood).
Although the events described in Garaczi’s book are based on the experience of a particular generation (born in the 1950’s and 60’s), army stories are an indispensable components of male existence. This is certainly true of the segment of the 20th century that is within our scope. Old farming men create far better stories about WWII and their POW experience than about their everyday life. There is nothing strange about this – during the years that have gone by, these experiences have polished themselves into increasingly neat and rounded stories. Besides, army service, no matter how appalling as an experience, was still an adventure in one sense. It gave these men an occasion to see beyond the boundaries of their customary milieu and thus provide the potential substance of stories as opposed to the monotonous grind of everyday life. This is the line that Garaczi’s novel about pre-college army service could fit into, but there are two good reasons why it does not really fit. One is that being a soldier in peace-time is very different from fighting in a war, and the other is that it would be very hard to find anything more absurd and nonsensical than the Hungarian army of the Socialist era. Thus the book represents a breech rather than a continued tradition. The absurdity of the war is far exceeded by the absurdity of, say, privates gluing leaves back onto the trees.
The subject matter is not the only reason why Garaczi’s novel seems to have been pre-destined. The method of reconstructing a bygone world from words which refer to objects and phenomena that no longer exist, a peculiarity of Garaczi’s Lemur books, becomes a central method in Face and About-Face. The hero himself is a confirmed collector of words who is always out for a new catch even in the army. It is through words that he tries to make more sense of a world that is startlingly alien to him or, to put it differently, to make his almost unbearable situation tolerable by alienating all of its props and phenomena by turning them into words. He kills them and pins them down like butterflies in a collection.
"Strange words, with a world of their own – I used to hunt such lonely, proud game. I would place them in captivity like rare animals and collect them in a standard white document folder serial model MNOSZ 4517." In this novel, the passion for words is incorporated into the narrative tissue, whereas readers of Splendid Bus Ride read the novel in different ways depending on which generation they belonged to: the one who could recognise the words and enjoy the complicity of insiders’ experience, or other generations who were somewhat out of their depth as they were unfamiliar with the phenomena that the words refer to. In Face and About-Face, the problem is resolved by the hero himself, as the words baffle him – indeed, often he does not want to understand them, even less to attach any sort of nostalgia to them as relics of a bygone era like, for example, the pioneers’ belt or the savings stamp. This novel clearly reckons with the fact that you can no longer take for granted a community of experience with a whole stratum of initiates, therefore it no longer tries to address the one time ‘brothers in arms’. Collecting words is not related to army life; it is a vestige of civilian existence. The transfiguration of objects into words is easily captured in the scene where the hero burns (or imagines that he burns) his folder with all the words collected in the army. "I touch the wood but it is not the wood I touch as much as the word wood".
I have been referring to ‘the hero’ throughout, but in fact we cannot speak about a unified subject here. The Lemur is not the only alter ego – every name and definition entails a multiplication of the personality. The uniformity of the army and the resulting loss of personality are replaced by the experience of multiplication. "What could he say? He wanted to say something clever, for example that army life was a loss of solitude coupled with an increased experience of the body; or that it was not true that the personality was deleted, instead became multiplied." This sentence could easily be seen as the sententious self-interpretation of the novel except that the first few words and the conditions under which it is spoken render it relative and ironic. Bones, the speaker, is on leave and is trying to summarise the essence of army life, the unspeakable, to a civilian friend. Thus the above sentence could be replaced with the answer that is eventually spoken – ‘Well, it is tolerable’ – or by the entire novel.
According to the publisher Magveto’s blurb, this is a coming-of-age novel – army life is the scene of initiation, a rite of passage and this is only highlighted by the fact that Bones does not go through with the entire ceremony. In the event he is demobbed prematurely, yet the transformation takes place none the less, which is partly shown by the way in which his altered perspective is incorporated in the novel. He is disqualified for health reasons, partly because of his impaired vision, and what initiation he does go through comes to him as a civilian when he loses his virginity. Both forms of initiation change his view of the world – his vision.
The succession of the Lemur books – now a trilogy – is interrupted by periods of time and by other works in Garaczi’s career and, although clearly connected, they also show marked differences. It seems as if with each volume the author took more and more account of the reader. It is not by simplifying the writing style that he makes it easier for his audience but by making the text more open to dialogue and accessible to several different reading strategies. He unfolds a story which may be read as a personal account without tempting the reader to check the reality of the story (compare it with the author’s life), since the hero who collects words and becomes an author treats his own life as matter for collecting. This offers almost a live demonstration of the authorial effort with which Garaczi laid the foundations of Face and About-Face partly musing over his own past but mainly collecting texts and other people’s memories. What he built on this foundation, however, required a degree of subtlety and a complex attitude to language which, in my judgement, raise this Lemur book over the other two in quality.
Zsófia Szilágyi
Garaczi László: Arc és hátraarc
Magveto, 2010

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