06. 02. 2014. 10:51

From Benin to Norway, in search of an identity

Árpád Kun: Happy North

If you create a completely authentic character, we will believe everything you say. And this is precisely what Árpád Kun, a Hungarian writer based in Norway, has done in his new novel. "Happy North" is the story of Aimé Billion, a descendant of voodoo sorcerers who emigrates to the Norwegian Fjordland.

Applying the famous problem of Moore and Wittgenstein about certainty and the existence of the external world to narrative possibilities, we could come up with something like this: “If you create a completely authentic character, we will believe everything you say.” And this is precisely what Árpád Kun has done, which is quite an astonishing phenomenon in contemporary Hungarian literature. The protagonist of Boldog Észak (Happy North), Aimé Billion, conforms almost perfectly to classical standards: he is someone who is absolutely three-dimensional. We understand the reasons of his laughters and sorrows, we are aware of every single movement of his spirit and his physical being, and perceive all his actions in the novels as authentic. Aimé becomes our friend by the time we finish the book, and this is a unique merit of this novel.

This is, of course, an enormous feat, very hard to achieve. Kun’s method is truly unique; in this case, authenticity must be taken in a literal sense. The first sentence of the Epilogue (which is an organic part of the ‘fictitious’ story) reveals that: “Aimé Billion is an existing person. I met him in 2008 when I was working at the old age home in Rooster Hill. We were colleagues… I cleaned the apartments of the clients, he tended to them.” So Aimé Billion is admittedly not a fictitious character, yet by being the hero of a novel he becomes fictitious in the act of writing. This, of course, causes some problems. And not only to the author who has moral qualms (“Do I have the right to use a living person, my friend at that, and his most personal affairs as the raw material of a literary work?”), but to the reader as well, who is unwittingly involved in a guessing game: so then, what is true and what is false? However, as early as in the first pages the novel sweeps away any moral or aesthetic qualms one might have. For although Kun’s book is a realistic novel, it is one that hovers a feet above the ground, so to say. Every event is real, yet it tends to turn surreal any moment. For example, in the first scene the dead father appears, then walks away and gradually sinks into the pavement, and he’s gone – as there was nothing more natural in the world. This spontaneous visionary quality is what gives the novel its arresting charm and magic: the events are a continuous series of everyday miracles, narrated as if they were a matter of course. This has a deep spiritual foundation – the ancestors of the black giant, Aimé, who moved to Norway from Benin, were voodoo sorcerers, so it is only natural that visions are like home turf for him, and he is capable of transforming and conveying them to the reader in a way that we feel as if it was our own experience.

But who is Aimé Billion? Initially, he seems to have no idea, and neither do we. We learn it and live it through with him in the closing chapter. However, one must arrive there somehow, and this is precisely the stake and merit of the novel.

“They died one after the other, my grandfather, my father, my mother. All the three people I had anything to do with. Only after their death could I start my life anew and leave Benin. At the time I had been working at the French hospital in Cotonou for twenty years as a nursing assistant, and for a time I had also been helping the missionaries of the Norwegian Lutheran Church after work and in the weekend.” Aimé sets off on the path of self-exploration with the weighty tradition of his ancestors in his bag. “My grandfather said that our ego is our greatest illusion. We think that our soul, our emotions, our memory and our desires belong to us, but in fact they are all spirits who happen to have met in us, constituting a unity there for some time. So actually, we have no ego, it is only the momentary league of those spirits.” The spirits who have met in Aimé are of African, French and Vietnamese descent, but the novel is certainly more than a genetic Bildungsroman. Aimé’s soul becomes a battlefield of European and non-European spirits, since the game is about finding one’s identity, and answering the question of classical novels: who am I, or rather, who or what is the ego? Aimé is not himself but his philosophy that I would summarize as follows: the ego is nothing but my life, and there is no other proof that I exist. But for that, I have to be happy.

And what is happiness? One cannot spell it out, of course, only describe it. And this is precisely what Árpád Kun does, through Aimé Billion (the subtitle of the book is Aimé Billion’s Tales) in creating the last scene, the most perfect epilogue of contemporary Hungarian prose, bordering on kitsch but mitigating it with irony. It is 17 May, the day of the Norwegian constitution, a state holiday. The pitch-black giant, Aimé, who has become a true Norwegian by now, is preparing for the march in the company of his lover, the Norwegian Gréte, who has a rare illness that makes her almost a dwarf. Some German tourists turn up and “looked at me with mouth agape, in a way none of the alienated inhabitants of Rooster’s Hill would have ever permitted themselves. They were perhaps surprised that apparently, there exist such Norwegians as well. Walks around in folk costume, with a top hat and a bowtie, enthusiastically singing songs that they do not understand, perhaps the Norwegian national anthem, with his pitch black skin glowing in the happy northern sunshine.” Bang, goes the trap of happiness.

At the end of the Epilogue Árpád Kun, father of four, home carer in the Norwegian Fjordland, promises to tell us in his next novel how he and his family ended up in Norway. And it is certainly not an empty phrase that we are really looking forward to the continuation.

Kun Árpád: Boldog észak
Budapest: Magvető, 2014

More information and excerpt from the novel on publisher's page

Zoltán András Bán

Tags: Árpád Kun