09. 30. 2016. 11:09

A vivisection of memory

Pál Závada: A Day at the Market

We know shockingly little about the temporary and troubled period following the Second World War – most often we project onto it what we know of the later decades; and our notion of our knowledge (or ignorance) of the Holocaust is the perfect example. – A review of Pál Závada's latest novel by Teri Szűcs.

In every one of Pál Závada’s novels, his authorial gaze which examines and analyses history is cast upon the subject from a marked distance, and his works create this distance through varied tools of narration. The text displays its mastery through alternating narrators and placing different forms of text alongside one another. I imagine one of the greatest challenges of writing Egy piaci nap (A Day at the Market) must have been working out the dynamics of distance and proximity, the position of the historical novel in relation to its subject. The genre itself twists the observing, contemplative distance necessary for precision into intimate proximity. The novel sucks the reader into its own world and makes space for them there. A Day at the Market positions itself at a distance from historical events, just as the novel’s setting distances itself from the site of the pogrom of 20-21 May 1946: Kunvadas and Kunmadaras. One has become a concept in itself and is the site of an event bearing a symbolic name, a pogrom, which due to most people’s lacking knowledge is mostly an empty and dark word. The other name is invented but stands a hairbreadth from the first to which it refers. This second fictional name offers us an opportunity to interpret and fill with possible meanings the real one, the first.

The Závada genre of historical novel thus besides the experience of individual reception offers us another means of understanding which is of course fragile and easily rejected, and it relates to collective memory or amnesia; the community actually affected by the events revoked and observed in the novel can rethink and reinterpret their own historical narratives. Naturally Závada’s novels consciously reflect upon this opportunity and draw it into fiction’s effective range, which is why I find the most memorable narrative process of his previous novels to be the first person plural narrator of A fényképész utókora (The Posterity of the Photographer), which wasn’t simply an alienating trick of narration but encouraged readers to constantly think on the idea and definition of the collective which we’d irreversibly become a part of. The Posterity of the Photographer is also worth mentioning in relation to A Day at the Market because I find that in it, just like in the new novel, one of the main subjects and questions is ‘the shift’; the phenomenon commonly expressed with the euphemism that someone has ‘shifted’ this way or that.

The Posterity of the Photographer’s most powerful story is the thread in which we can recognise politician, Ferenc Erdei (the distance between Erdei and the fictional László Dohányos is like that between Kunmadaras and Kunvadas). In the Erdei-Dohányos ‘rightward shift’, Závada was interested in how the sociographic movement and the programme of popular writers accommodated anti-Semitic ideas; while in the ‘leftward shift’ he considers how they compromised and consented with the communist party. Both tell of the agreement of those coming from the tradition of popular writers, of their intentional or forced cooperation with the authorities’ magnetic strength, and above all of their complicity. Through this I believe Závada is carrying out a critical exploration and authorial vivisection of his own authorial and existential roots, and in A Day at the Market he continues this research when he chooses as the narrator the wife of one of the main accused smallholders.

The character of smallholder Sándor Hadnagy tallies with – and of course doesn’t tally with – János Nagy, a teacher from Kunmadaras, whose trial was the direct antecedent of the pogrom, and who presented an opportunity to release accumulated hatred. We, the readers, learn about the antecedents, the pogrom and its aftermath from the notes of Mária Csóka, Sándor Hadnagy’s wife, and thus through the eyes and the character of the accused’s wife we come as close as possible to the events’ epicentre. But a distance is kept, as we constantly have to interpret her bias, its consequences and its altering effect. At the same time, Mária Csóka’s character is spun in such a way that her bias is mixed with autonomy; she doesn’t agree with her husband about everything, and to a certain extent she’s able to sympathise with the victims. As a whole she bears the traumas that struck Hungarian women left at home during the Second World War. Her character is only partly complete because the authorial purpose keeps its distance from her too – we don’t receive a psychological profile, a personality unfolding before our eyes, instead we hear the words of a social position that we could call a sober and sympathising, moderate right-wing attitude, but even this ‘moderate’ voice is unable to disapprove of the Hungarian society’s all-destroying hatred of the Jewry. Mária is at once a narrator and an indication. And here we have one of the immensely weighty questions the novel poses us: why isn’t there any clear judgement, why can’t the better-willed fathom the enormity of the sin committed by one part of Hungarian society against the other, the Hungarian Jewry?

Mária Csóka strives to always be present, at first for her husband but then because she can’t turn a blind eye to the atrocities. She’s there when the sympathising, furious crowd accompanies schoolteacher and instructor of the levente youth association Sándor Hadnagy to his trial at the people’s court (as Hadnagy armed the sixteen leventes in his charge and brought them west towards the front, then back, and because he distributed war propaganda). After being reported, the crowd are stopped and sent back. From the mass of people banded together we hear voices fanning anti-Jewish sentiment again (something Hadnagy himself has done in the past, reveals the novel), and later these voices spark the fire of built-up aggression. Mária sees and hears everything. The three Jewish inhabitants of the village who return from the concentration camp die in the lynching, and more are severely injured. Among Mária’s notes is a dialogue with the wife of her husband’s political antagonist. Irén Gellért is the wife of the communist Ferenc Hámos and pities the woman anxious about her husband. They too are driven out by the village after the pogrom, and from the letters sent by Irén from Miskolc we learn about – by which point her husband has become an official – the details of the pogrom in Miskolc (29 July – 1 August 1946). Závada doesn’t add to the events, the innovation of the novel is the storytelling, it becomes something we can observe and experience, a reconstruction of voices and processes, the background based on historical monographs, all layered beneath, of course, imagination.

The novel may help readers to reach countless fundamentally significant conclusions. For instance, we know shockingly little about the temporary and troubled period following the Second World War – most often we project onto it what we know of the later decades; and our notion of our knowledge (or ignorance) of the Holocaust is the perfect example. Many survivors’ accounts, memoirs, and even literary works appeared immediately after the war, but common knowledge still sees Holocaust  literature as something that came only decades later. A Day at the Market impugns in its own implicit way the idea of ignorance. Because survivors were known to be survivors, they weren’t expected to return (nor did people wait about, their possessions were soon taken). The novel points out that during this chaotic interval hatred of Jews lives on undisturbed along with all its customs: anti-Semitism fuelled by economic arguments, theological anti-Semitism, blood libel, and we could go on. Furthermore the knowledge gained from the Holocaust also lives on as deportation from communities proved that the Jewish were vulnerable, non-citizens, and to be wiped out. In connection with this we also have to recognise that the Holocaust fit into the centuries-old process of exclusion and aggression, and what was already going on in 1882 and took shape in Tiszaeszlár, was being continued in 1946. A Day at the Market treats and shows in detail the effect of blood libels in organising and mobilising the masses, a movement which was present and operational in every post-war pogrom.

The other staggering and fundamental conclusion the novel leads us to is that politics is a beneficiary of social aggression. While it can’t be determined either in Kunmadaras or in Kunvadas who the instigators were and what their motives were – or whether they had any at all, and the murderous rage really just needed a prod to erupt and for the crowd to tear living bodies to pieces with their bare hands – but what we can see indeed is that straightaway all sides in politics tried to capitalise on the events. The far right tried to defend its members on trial by fueling anti-Semite anger; on the night of the pogrom the smallholders saw the elimination of the Jews to be their only chance to defuse the community’s anger; at the same time the communists were interested in bribing the smallholders, as well as in continuing the national-anti-capitalist narrative which pursued sharks, speculators and forint-debasers, encouraging anti-Semitism through economic arguments – the story of the Miskolc pogrom shows this clearly, and it’s laid out for us in detail in Závada’s novel. A sentence which survived of the testimony of one man from Kunmadaras virtually beaten to death appears in the novel: after five of his teeth were knocked out, he realised that he wasn’t being beaten as a leftist, but as a Jew. Which meant he was beaten purely because he could be beaten, he wasn’t a person, he was a beatable, detested body, defended by no one, a body which didn’t belong to any protecting, official community, a body on which anger could be let loose. Political sides used this complete outsider state of the Jewry to interpret and shape events to further their own ends.

All that we can reflect on, suppose and imagine regarding the pogroms and anti-Jewish crimes of Kunmadaras, Miskolc and others between the end of 1945 and 1949, Závada sums up in one slim volume. The structure of A Day at the Market is tight and dramatic. We know that it started out as a play and besides the monologues of Mária and Irén it contains several chorus inserts. Especially powerful is the chorus which reoccurs throughout the novel, that of the market-keepers who start the lynching. The only weaknesses of the novel are that in places the dramatic structure remains too evident, and that in order to satisfy the audience’s demand for jokes the dramaturg plants the odd gag in the historical analysis. But we can also learn, be it from excerpts of testimonies appearing in historical works or from other experiences, that aggressors are also ridiculous. Horror and ridicule. During the vivisection of our denied recent history this, too, comes to light.


This article was originally published in Hungarian on Revizoronline.


Teri Szűcs

Translated by: Anna Pályi and Owen Good

Tags: Hungarian Literature, Review, Teri Szűcs, Pál Závada, Hungarian fiction