12. 21. 2005. 10:52

Coming to terms with history

Pál Závada: The Photographer’s Legacy

Závada is intrigued by the question of individual and collective responsibility in the events of the twentieth century, and the narrative form he uses makes his novel a real novelty: letting different groups of narrators speak seems to be the proper form for verbalizing all the possible questions the twentieth century raised in terms of collective responsibility.

Pál Závada’s latest novel is considered to be the third part of a trilogy consisting of Jadviga’s Pillow, Milota and The Photographer’s Legacy. However, Závada’s novels do not add up to a trilogy in the classical sense of the word. They are linked to one another only tangentially: what they have in common is just some of their episode characters, and one of their many settings, a little village near Orosháza, in the south of Hungary, inhabited by ethnic Slovakians. The threefold structure with the – seemingly – coincidental links between events and characters is repeated in the third part of the trilogy: the plot of The Photographer’s Legacy takes place on three levels of time, all of which merge in the last chapter of the book. These three levels of time follow one another in a kind of three-course rotation, criss-crossing one another at many points, and enfolding the stories of three generations from 1942 to the end of the 1980s.

The intricately polyphonic narrative technique with the set of ever changing narrators speaking in the first person plural is Závada’s genuine narrative device. Most of the groups of narrators are mere voyeurs on the peripheries of the lives of major characters, but some of them take active parts in the story, sleeping with the guys, spying on the neighbours, shooting innocent people in the head, and so on. Závada’s narrative technique has a manifold effect on the process of reading. Though the first person plural has an effect of involving the reader in the story, at the same time it creates a certain distance between the reader and the story: not many of us are ready to identify ourselves with arrow-cross men or police informers. The changing sets of narrators take over the place of the omniscient narrator, entering into a dialogue, contradicting one another as different choruses of a Greek tragedy. Závada is intrigued by the question of individual and collective responsibility in the events of the twentieth century, in the Holocaust as well as the hardcore communists’ 50s, and the narrative form he uses makes his novel a real novelty: letting different groups of narrators speak seems to be the proper form for verbalizing all the possible questions the twentieth century raised in terms of collective responsibility.

The character of the protagonist, Ádám Koren is the one through which all the threads of the story are tied together. Ádám Koren is not a classical-type hero – he is a mediocre young man, much like Frédéric Moreau, the hero of his favourite book, Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. Flaubert’s novel plays a key role in Závada’s book. Ádám Koren reads it over and over throughout the story, copying – unwittingly or not – many of the moves, sentiments and sometimes the very words of Frédéric Moreau. Many of the other characters and events have their counterparts in Sentimental Education as well, which makes Závada’s book interpretable as a paraphrase of the latter.  

However, the fact that Ádám Koren copies the life of a fictional hero is just one of the several forms of a constantly recurring motif in the book, that is, people entering endless chains of substitution, slipping into other people’s skins. Jeno Adler goes to prison instead of László Dohányos, his personal hero; men and women swap partners in a ceaseless frenzy; people move into one another’s flats – mainly those of Jews murdered in the Second World War. Koren moves into Éva Nyemcsok’s flat in Budapest so that he can slip into András Enying’s skin, ‘seducing’ both his wife and lover, while Éva moves to Pécs, the city Koren left for Budapest and Enying’s wife, so that she can be close to her lover. When the two of them finally come together for one or two nights, they use each other as substitutes for the beloved ones. Koren constantly refuses to live his own life, or, in other words, to have his own life. All his lovers are hopelessly in love with other men, and he is hopelessly in love with women but never his lovers, meticulously copying the life of a man who only ever existed in copies.

Characters of The Photographer’s Legacy play a subtle but all the more brutal game of swapping lives, because no one can live an authentic life in a world built on lies, and unless we come to terms with our history, we will remain rootless, replaceable in our lives. The central metaphor for Koren’s lack of authenticity is the copy of Flaubert’s book with a photo from 1942 – that had been taken by a sociologist who was doing research in their village, that he came across by chance and never recognized – and the piece of the frame of a pair of glasses, which formerly belonged to the photographer, a Jewish man murdered in the Holocaust. Koren takes them with him everywhere, using the photo as a bookmark but never even having a closer look at it. Yet if he had looked at it carefully, he may have been able to realise that the story was about him, more precisely, about us, about our past and present history, and that the massacres of the twentieth century may have been avoidable if we had realised that it was always ‘us’ and not ‘them’ who were massacred. 
 
Dóra Elekes
Závada Pál: A fényképész utókora
Budapest: Magveto, 2004

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