12. 12. 2018. 16:05

A Varied and Unsettling Reader For Our Times

Award-winning Brazilian/Hungarian essayist, historian, and critic Zsófia Bán's fiction debut presents itself as a tongue-in-cheek student textbook, in Jim Tucker's translation.

Award-winning Brazilian/Hungarian essayist, historian, and critic Bán's fiction debut presents itself as a tongue-in-cheek student textbook.
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Within dryly titled sections—"French," "Chemistry/Physical Education," "English/Home Economics," "The Foundations of Our Worldview"—strange stories unfold, sprinkled liberally with interjections and assignments for the student: "CALCULATE how many angels can fit on the head of a pin if each angel is approximately 45mm and faithless," or "WHAT is the meaning of allegro, ma non troppo? AND HOW DO WE KNOW when allegro is too troppo?" There is a meditation on the Mathematics of Randomness, a "blog opera" based on Fidelio, a love story found in a bottle on a Borneo beach, an account of the death of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's second wife. Flaubert travels in Egypt with his friend Maxime, and years later a literary scholar devotes his career to the great writer's "deletions." Lesbian lovers meet clandestinely at a Night Zoo where a tapir "liked to plop right down on the tracks in front of the little zoo train like some despairing heroic lover." Bán inverts the primer model, giving free rein to a restless and inventive intellect and delighting in unexpected angles on the seemingly familiar. Characters from Choderlos de Laclos' Dangerous Liaisons correspond by email, undergo IVF, and meet up in NYC, where their stories intersect with 9/11. In "Drawing/Art History," the strong-willed model for Manet's Olympia dictates her conditions for posing to the artist: "You will never be free of this painting....All your life, you will be successful but wretched." In "Self Help," a teacher instructs her pupils what to do if they find themselves in a tsunami ("Grab your surfboard and paddle out at an angle until you reach the point where the wave is cresting but hasn't yet started to break") or if threatened by domestic assault. An idyllic childhood summer day in "Singing/Music" ends in sexual violence. The roving pedagogical voice is feminist, earthy, erudite, and subversive. "Don't take anything for granted!" the reader is exhorted. "Ask, and ask again!" The book's most moving section, "Teacher's Edition/Russian," is narrated by Laika, the dog sent into space by the Soviet space program in 1957. "This recording is for you, Soviet children, so you can write its message on a sky full of meteors and stardust: THESE PEOPLE ARE ALL GALACTIC LIARS." Later Laika adds, "Learn that accepting the explanation there is no explanation is one of the most difficult and noble lessons."

Acerbic, playful, full of quick-witted philosophy, and unstintingly original, this is a varied and unsettling reader for our varied and unsettling times.

 

 


 

This starred review was originally published here on Kirkus Reviews.

Night School is available from Open Letters here.

Kirkus Reviews