12. 05. 2005. 12:27

A successful border-crossing

Zsuzsa Rakovszky: The Year of the Falling Star

Zsuzsa Rakovszky’s new novel is 'a novel of boundaries' in which "mother and child, man and woman seek the boundaries between them," straining against the bounds of the dictatorship of the 1950’s.

This is a second novel by Zsuzsa Rakovszky who has been highly and deservedly esteemed for decades as a poet. While the first novel, The Snake's Shadow gives a perspective of the historical distant past, The Year of the Falling Star takes place in the 1950s, mainly in a town called Sopron near Hungary’s Western border. Both novels are to some extent confessional. The first is a retrospective summary of a woman’s life which was equally rich in events internal and external; the second is the chronicle of the gradual awakening of a half-orphaned young girl. At the same time, the histories of these two souls, rich in lyrical beauty, offer excellent vistas of the age they are set in.

Thus in the second novel the historical period is seen through the eyes of the young girl, Piroska, articulated through her emotional life as it comes into conflict with the more ’real’ world of the grown-ups. This duality recurs in the way in which Piroska sees the two men associated with her mother: the man she finds attractive as a little girl is not the same as the one her mother, a grown woman, is inclined towards. As the plot moves on, Piroska’s perspective continues to widen and is occasionally replaced by other voices and angles: by excerpts from diaries, letters, scraps of conversation overheard, by characteristic adult monologues. (This latter type of text may remind us of Zsuzsa Rakovszky’s cycle of poems Voices where we hear monologues by female character types such as Fat Woman on a Hot Day, The Sad Wife, etc.) Consequently this book, apostrophised in the blurb as a ’lyrical novel’, becomes increasingly novel-like, while retaining its lyrical virtues.

At the very outset we encounter a bundle of documents consisting of letters written between September 1950 and March 1952, addressed partly to the father, Árpád Kürthy, still alive (around September 1950), and partly (around March 1952) to the widowed Mrs Árpád Kürthy, née Flora Stark. It is only after this phase is over, and the father’s death, the central event of the novel, is recorded, that we can move on to the lyrical inventory of the surroundings where the now half-orphaned Piroska is growing up, such as the furnishings of a bourgeois flat in the 1950’s. ‘So overflowing with themselves that they leave no room for accidents or change,’ so honey-thick, so lyrical that they almost burst their epical banks. We really feel as if we were reading excerpts from a poem.

The chief dilemma of our book, one might say its mobile aesthetical value is: how does the moment, ‘overflowing with itself’ find its place in this story? Will the epical flow of the events leave room for the lyrical charge of the sentences? Can the author position these momentary, yet timeless feelings, say, those of pain and helplessness, in the novelistic time? In Zsuzsa Rakovszky’s book every one of Piroska’s feelings finds its right place, its own aesthetical value.

The way Piroska looks at the world is usually defined by the fact that people are looking at her, that glances pierce her glance or even her back, like a doctor’s needle in the ear: ’She could feel in her back the looks of all the people sitting in the room, as though they had all melted into one single, gigantic eye.’ During the course of the descriptions, the sense of forced passivity, of being at the mercy of things outside, is gradually transformed into a kind of self-interpreting activity, a type of inner freedom. What’s more: from time to time we encounter elements of Piroska’s unfolding femininity.

This might in fact be the supreme merit of Zsuzsa Rakovszky’s book: she depicts the sense of being at mercy of outside factors, a general sensation independent of the age, historical setting or sex of the subject, in such a way that it still remains within the scope of a character of a clearly defined age and sex, and thus remains authentic. She finds an adult language for a child’s experiences without turning the child herself into an adult. What’s more: in the meantime the novel is full of inventions of narrative technique that allow the points of view of the child character and the adult narrator to move in unison.

Although the author is mostly located in the child’s consciousness, she also formulates the diary entries of one of the male characters – a man who suffers from the same agony as Piroska herself: that of being dominated by, subjugated to others. The man, Bartha, lacks the courage or the strength of mind to choose Flora, ruled as he is by the psychological terror applied by his lover, a woman of a militant cast, working for the Secret Police. And as the sensation of being at the mercy of others provides an all-pervasive undertone for stories taking place in a period of harsh dictatorship, Zsuzsa Rakovszky mobilises the degree of linguistic intensity which usually characterises her work in order to depict the fornication of the feminine man and the masculine woman (the theatre critic and the Secret Police woman), from the man’s viewpoint.

‘After all, this whole thing is no more than a game… or at least: it might as well be a game (…) rather than a grand and gory mystery, a sacrifice I must perform stood upon an invisible pedestal to the great Mother Goddess, watching in anguish her every facial move, the rhythm of her breathing, trying to decipher whether my sacrifice is to her liking.’

In the narrow sense the plotline actually draws to an end with Flora and Bartha’s failed attempt to emigrate in 1956. Indirectly, however, we still find out about their future, thus about the death of the mother 20 years later. This is revealed through a brief comment in brackets, written in English. (‘She’s dead. She died of cancer five years ago… Cancer of the womb’.)

According to the blurb, Zsuzsa Rakovszky’s new novel is ‘a novel of boundaries’ in which ‘mother and child, man and woman seek the boundaries between them,’ and do this amid extremely harsh collective circumstances, straining against the bounds of the dictatorship of the 1950’s. In terms of its subject matter The Year of the Falling Star is about failing to cross the border, both in the private and the collective sense. In terms of quality, however, it is about the success of crossing the boundary between the lyrical and the epical. The end result is a novel-like book with lyrical virtues.

Rakovszky Zsuzsa: A hullócsillag éve
Budapest: Magvető, 2005

Sándor Bazsányi

Translated by: Orsolya Frank

Tags: Zsuzsa Rakovszky