07. 25. 2013. 01:59

Andrea Tompa: Top to Tail

Fulfilled love, lessened by yearning for a home country swept away by history. Andrea Tompa's new book is a novel of historical traumas, assimilation, as well a novel about the city of Cluj before and after the First World War.

Andrea Tompa, a notable theatre critic and academic, has recently proved to be a talented writer as well. Her first novel, The Hangman’s House, has already been translated into English by Bernard Adams. (See HLO’s review on The Hangman’s House.)

Top to Tail is the novel of two destinies that cross each other from time to time, yet it takes two decades for them to find each other and become one. The two main characters take turns narrating the story. As they tell us their life stories and the historical events they live through, the reader can see the same life events from two very different perspectives. At first sight the almost five-hundred-page novel seems to be one long flow of events and thoughts, but in fact it is very consciously structured. It is divided into forty chapters, from which twenty chapters are narrated by the female character, and the other twenty by the male one. Sometimes we need to read a few paragraphs before we find out who is actually speaking in the given chapter. Although we learn in detail what is happening in their mind and soul during the twenty years concerned, the novel is full of concealment. We never learn the names of the two doctors – being a doctor by vocation is a central fact for both characters – and their lives are also full of suppression, certain facts (e.g. an abortion) are hidden for many years. A possible interpretation of the whole text is that the time of the narration coincides with the time of the last chapter, when the two doctors finally decide not to separate again, when the two lives become one, when “me” turns into “us”, and it is time to close the two lonely lives by narrating them once and for all.

Top to Tail is also a novel about Cluj and about the historical trauma of the Treaty of Trianon (part of the Versailles Peace Treaty which penalized Hungary for her participation in the First World War by taking away two-thirds of her territory, including Transylvania).

The novel follows the two characters from 1910 to 1930. First we meet them as university students in Cluj, a city that was emerging at the time as the most significant university centre in Hungary right after Budapest. The woman and the man represent two very different social realities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She is the daughter of a Jewish entrepreneur, dedicated to medicine and to modernity, and rejected by her father for insisting on studying at the university despite being a woman. As for the man, he comes from the declining Hungarian nobility. He mostly just hangs around, and obeys his despotic father for fear that he will withdraw financial support. Although in the beginning the woman is more dedicated, eventually the man turns out to be the more talented of the two. Both of them live through the horrors of the First World War and the consequences of the collapse of Austro-Hungary. In the beginning they think that Transylvania has been only temporarily ceded to Romania, but as years go by, both of them begin to realize that their status as members of a minority in Romania is permanent. The woman adjusts to the new social reality pragmatically and learns Romanian faster than many of her Hungarian colleagues. Through her character the novel touches upon a sensitive topic of Hungarian social history, namely Jewish assimilation.

In the 19th century, the majority of the Jews in all of former Greater Hungary, including Transylvania, were assimilated to Hungarian culture. But by the end of the First World War anti-Semitism had strengthened, and Jews were regarded by many as outsiders within the Hungarian nation. In the first half of the novel, the female main character is a proper Hungarian patriot. Yet after becoming a Romanian citizen due to the Treaty of Trianon she immediately decides to work hard on integrating into the new social environment instead of continuing to harbour national resentment as a Hungarian. The story of other Jewish characters in the novel demonstrates though that many Transylvanian Hungarian Jews had the same difficulties in integrating into Romania and the same disinclination to accept the country as their new home as the majority of non-Jewish Hungarians.

In the last few chapters of the novel both doctors travel to Budapest for a professional training in the late 1920s. This is where they eventually find each other as companions. Yet the joy of finding each other is lessened by the realization that those who continue to be citizens of post-Trianon Hungary now regard them as outsiders in the mother country. Although in the end the love story seems to be fulfilled, the conclusion is far from happy. The woman joins her companion for a life in isolation in the countryside in Romania, far from the beloved city, Cluj.

Andrea Tompa seems to have preferred linguistic authenticity over the readers’ comfort. Top to Tail is not an easy reading, since it is written in the Transylvanian Hungarian language of the twenties and thirties, and is laden with detailed descriptions of medical problems. On the other hand, the novel evokes the milieu so efficiently that the reader finds herself absorbed by various medical, touristic, logistical, and local affairs, not to mention historical and political ones. As we are getting more and more involved in this world, it almost feels as a shock to be torn away from it when we arrive at the last page.


Tompa Andrea: Fejtől s lábtól

Pesti Kalligram, 2013

Ágnes Kelemen

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