György Dragomán: The White King
A novel? Certainly, according to the subtitle. In reality it is a loose chain of short stories, a line of events shown through the eyes of a naughty teenager, a tableau of childhood pranks. The educational novel of the hero starts out with his father being taken away, for an indefinite time and for unclear reasons, to a forced labour camp at the Danube canal. The boy and the mother are left alone. Twice a year, on his grandfather’s birthday and nameday the boy visits this old man who seems loyal to the regime and insists on being called ’comrade secretary.’ On one of these occasions, as a special treat, the grandfather allows the boy to shoot the cat doing his business in the garden.
The book consists of eighteen stories in each of which the hero relates an adventure: the time when at school he suddenly smelt ’big girl’ about one of his classmates, the time when he and his mother visit ’an ambassador,’ hoping that the latter might help them get the father released or at least find out how he is faring; the occasion when a man with a face distorted by the plague, a face which reminds the boy of yellow, boiling wax, gives him a photograph of himself from a time when he was still recognisable. I pick a random list of subjects: it is enough to give an idea that the stories discussed are fearful, harrowing and shattering. György Dragomán’s excellence as a writer is indicated by a number of disparate virtues: he is brilliant at exposition, inventive at weaving the plot, canny at serving characteristic titbits to the imagination, hungry for the unrepeatable, and most of the time the stories even offer an unexpected twist at the end.
You only need to read half a page and you know where you are, what the interest of the story-teller is. His talent is at its best when depicting the merciless cruelty of children, the brutality of adults, deprivation, fears arising from different roots and terror at large which is characteristic in all totalitarian systems. His achievement, however, is also unforgottable in describing bribery, and the mixed feelings of an adolescent boy regarding his father. He is great at envisaging chains of stories as they metamorphose into visions.
At the same time, what Dragomán has to say pours forth in large chunks, massive paragraphs, in a breathless, galloping account which carries the reader on and on, whirling you along until all of a sudden it comes to an end. And yet, you never for a minute lose the thread, in fact, at all junctions of the story you feel you are at the core of the plot and soon something dreadful is about to come, some embarrassing or irreparable turn is about to take place. The sentences all come out in the past tense, which makes you feel as if the adolescent was reminiscing. At the same time we are clearly witnessing a precise description, a deep literary analysis of serious childhood trauma.
Dragomán’s prose is the triumph of a technique of dynamism which is punctuated by commas but no full stops and which neglects the technicalities of paragraph structuring. It is only occasionally that the author formulates anything by way of a moral, and that only unawares, by the way. The few conclusions that do occur are valid and memorable despite this lightness of touch.
In the scene where two gangs of teenagers are fighting for ownership of a football, we unexpectedly come up against the following section, ’and then I also said that this was a cheat, because we had said the ball would be here and it wasn’t fair, but Romulus Frunza said to this that it was time I learnt that war was never fair, because it was about winning and not about honour.’
Yes, this is an aside we are unlikely to forget.
Dragomán’s novel is not an educational novel in the classic sense of the word, as the stress is not on the changes that the adolescent experiences, but on presenting the states he goes through. The stories do not act to move the plot forward, their job is not to capture the working of time. They captivate and present a silky quality of the narrative by presenting ineresting, shocking events from the life of the child. Each of the stories is equal in rank with the other and each has the same anatomy of technique and impact.
Budapest: Magvető, 2005
Tags: György Dragomán