05. 18. 2018. 16:08

Code of Silence

A Review of Andrea Tompa's Omerta

Andrea Tompa's third novel, 'Omerta - The Book of Silences' has been awarded the 2018 Libri Award for Literature. Here's our review by Dani Dányi.

Andrea Tompa's third novel, 'Omerta - the Book of Silences' has quietly become a smash hit since its 2017 release, and has recently merited the prestigious Libri Award for Literature, the first time the prize was awarded to a female writer.

Firmly founded in her previous piece "Top to Tail", though in no way a direct follow-up, the historical references and particular language endure throughout this new foray into the life of Cluj in the 1950's, in an altogether different costume piece of remarkable depth and authorial discipline. Put into four chapters corresponding to four personal narratives, all meandering through an intrusive and volatile backdrop of state socialism's emerging dictatorial rule. In contrast to the repressive silence that history imposes, these intricately, for the most part intimately interwoven narratives flow quite freely, and while fictional achieve an overall personal authenticity.



The title 'Omerta' itself refers to a code of silence, a neat summary of the self-censorship and surrendered opportunities imposed by a regime of repression. The 'Book of Silences' speaks in four voices, characters who are all native Hungarian speakers of Cluj, and each giving a distinctly different point of view on their own life. Their stories interconnect, in an intricate web of partnerships and disappointments, discussions and silences.

Kali is a natural narrator from page one, an illiterate storytelling genius who spins a vivid and animated yarn to overcome her feeling of isolation. Her story unfolds a gradual shift from her firm roots in peasant traditions toward the newfangled formalities and relations of a changing community, and a changing world. Leaving behind her former life, she becomes an outcast seeking her fortune, like a figure from a folk story. The unraveling ties to a settled but unhappy past make way for a new adventure, and her relationship with Vilmos ultimately isolates her from community life, a nostalgic craving which has ever less reality as the political climate withers away traditional community roots.

The longest narrative section is that of the only male voice in the novel. Vilmos is a self-made man and a recluse, single-mindedly pursuing his work, and whose roses become a legend in his secretive lifetime. He has affairs with two of the women narrators, and is passionate yet emotionally reserved. When he is 'discovered' by the new scientific regime, and as Vilmos takes the opportunity to make his name known in the industry and the world, he lends himself to legitimizing state control over agriculture and science, a troubling development, but his drive and ambition determine his choice, keeping silent to gain his privilege.

Annuska is a vulnerable and hard-working young girl fated to conform to the needs and whims of others. Between her duties and chores, conflicting loyalties to Vilmos and an alcoholic father, she is literally turned out of house and home as one of the new state socialist deal's losers, left entirely to the mercy of those with means. A simple and earnest narrator, she is deprived of time as much as confidence to pursue an education, while her traditional station as a Hóstat city peasant girl is systematically dismantled.

Eleonóra is the closing chapter's narrator, a nun enduring persecution, prison and torture for practising her faith and thereby resisting ever harsher attempts at deterring her toward the communist state's ideological ideals. She and her sisters are abandoned to government harassment, shattered but unbroken, Eleonóra is left alone in a tight place to confront the most profound challenge of the mind and spirit. Though a reluctant narrator, she lives to tell the tale.

Photo: Gábor Valuska

While reading Omerta as a set of interlocking life interviews is legitimate, these narratives share layers of common ground that merit special consideration to cultural contexts. There is that of heritage and language too, of Transylvanian-Hungarian lore and folklore alluded to throughout; but also a very specific referential context of a past historical period which is uncannily pertinent to the life of the Hungarian reader today. A quite subtly delivered commentary as much on the state of affairs today as on the Gheorghiu-Dej 1950's, one is left to consider (silently, or otherwise) this unspoken parallel, once all's been said and done.

Despite this plethora of themes and perspectives, social strata and character development, perhaps the strongest point of this book as well as Andrea Tompa's work generally, is an astounding command of language, speaking in voices at once authentic and in their respective historicities, exotic. The bygone, but highly enjoyable and beautiful language of Transylvanian, Kolozsvár Hungarian is celebrated, even while the ever-pervasive language of state bureaucracy keeps intruding, dynamic in its polyphony, a rich feast for Hungarian readers (and a boggle for translators, no doubt).


Review: Dani Dányi

Andrea Tompa's prize-winning novel, Omerta (Jelenkor, 2017) can be bought online from the publisher here.