08. 26. 2008. 07:52

"Crushed silence, aged parents in the house"

Imre Oravecz: The Ditch of Ondrok

Oravecz records the history of the disintegration of rural culture as though he was retelling the myth of Atlantis. The Ditch of Ondrok is a three-generation story taking place in a Hungarian village, spanning from a grandfather who had fought in the liberation war of 1848 to a grandson who had emigrated to America just before the turn of the century.

Oravecz's 2006 book of poetry, The Fishing Man, which bears the subtitle Szajla – Fragments from a Village History, represents a crucial turning point in the art of Imre Oravecz. "Oravecz has written his Magnum Opus. Every writer has one book which is waiting for him or her to write. This is not necessarily their best or greatest or most important, but the one they feel is their 'ownmost'. The Fishing Man is the book that was allotted to Oravecz," is how Péter Esterházy commented on the book.
He must be right after all this grand verse novel or deconstructed epic had to be written by Oravecz and by him alone. In this stream of prose poetry the author records the history of the disintegration of rural culture with the same kind of emphases or the same barren pathos as though he was retelling the myth of Atlantis. In this book Oravecz finds the way back to his origins, even raising faint echoes of the story of the prodigal son. He returns to a tradition embedded in history, which is passed from generation to generation while forever corrected and supplemented by the life stories of the involved individuals – to what we generally call culture. "However, life in the community is not what he sees as the aim of life – he would never claim that personal life ought to find its fulfilment in this superb service or surrogate religion. What he does say is that individual life can only stand a chance as long as it remains embedded," adds Esterházy. It is precisely through this commentary that we may come to understand why Oravecz is perhaps the only possible authentic contemporary chronicler of this line of events – not because he narrates the history from the angle of myth, but because the history itself creates the myth. The Fishing Man seems to have offered a final and solid shape to that Hungarian reality which has been eradicated and lost its context even though for a long time and for many people it meant the very essence of identity with this nation. We are talking of that ancient pagan land mass which Gyula Illyés recorded so unforgettably in The People of the Puszta (1936, tr. 1967).

Oravecz seems to have been completely captivated by his subject matter, true to the subtitle of The Fishing Man or, more precisely, to have made an utter commitment to his material. As if in a Pilinszky paraphrase, he admits,
"Home – I wanted finally to get home – / to arrive as he in the Bible arrived. / My ghastly shadow in the courtyard. / Crushed silence, aged parents in the house. / And already they are coming, they are calling me, / my poor ones, and already crying, and embracing me, stumbling – / the ancient order opens to readmit me. / I lean out on the windy stars.” ("Apocrypha", tr. János Csokits and Ted Hughes)
He has found some ancient, archaic bond. Whether it can be brought back to life in its archaic form depends on a number of questions. Will the prose language neutralise those nostalgic-sentimental tones which inevitably occur by virtue of the subject matter? Will the author be able to find a tone which over-writes the subject matter and the genre of the grand epic family novel? How will the topic, already a part of artistic dialogue, sound when transposed to the prosaic registers?
The Ditch of Ondrok is a three-generation story taking place in a Hungarian village, Szajla, which exists even today – spanning from a grandfather who had fought in the liberation war of 1848 to a grandson who had emigrated to America just before the turn of the century. We might even say that, much simplified and re-modelled, it offers a blasphemy of Gyula Szegfu’s Three Generations, a famous book in which the historian, much respected even by the establishment of the interwar period, put the blame for World War I and the resulting loss of territory on the liberalism of the "third or post-compromise generation" and their respect for the power of money. In this work Szegfu formulates a radical criticism of capitalism. It is in a similar fashion that the "third generation" in Oravecz becomes unfaithful to the land and leaves the country in hope of better fortune.
This is the process the novel presents – the early stage in the disintegration of tradition. Oravecz works with fundamentally traditional devices: his heroes run an epic and linear course. At the same time The Ditch of Ondrok does not lack those flashes of facts and figures, almost documentary in value, which remind the reader of the ‘sociographic’ tradition of Hungarian literature and shed expanding concentric circles of light upon the novel’s couleur locale. Only after coming to understand the background and the context do we see clearly the contours of the characters, the world of the peasantry in which ancient laws dictate, essentially through the law of inheritance. On occasion, Oravecz’s writing rises the superb heights of plausibility in the way he depicts the fields of tension between the generations, the inner storms of emotion which tradition prevents the individual from championing but which make themselves heard through explosions mounting to so many tornadoes.
The broad sequences offered by the grand topic scenes of love, dying and dream are stretched to their ultimate with poetic inspiration, without ever erring in terms of proportion. These are the unforgettable ‘sub-clauses’ of the book. And, naturally, he also performs a feat in the history of remembrance, building a bridge with a daring gesture which connects a seemingly fading past with a present of a phoney lustre.
In The Ditch of Ondrok a solid and, in a literary sense, conservative gesture is performed in a grand format – one of trying to rethink, reappropriate and overwrite the grand epic tradition of modernism. In this gesture of course, true to the early Lukács’s theory on the novel, there hides a considerable set of underlying ideological, value-driven assumptions. When speaking of a history of loss it makes an implicit value statement. This type of poetic courage, while pre-supposing the enlivening potential of the grand form, also entails a number of difficulties. Monolithic in language and the handling of time, it often fails to cope with the weight of its own material; the story, moving in a single direction, becomes too predictable; figures lose in contrast and definition. The earlier mentioned ‘sociographic’ or documentary strata cause the dynamic of the novel to jerk and bring an air of uncertainty to the spirit of narration.
Besides and despite of all this we can claim that Oravecz’s book provokes and poses questions both in the historical and the poetic sense. The author’s original intention was to write a trilogy, The Ditch of Ondrok being the first in line. We look forward to the sequels.
Oravecz Imre: Ondrok gödre
Budapest: Jelenkor, 2007

Lajos Jánossy

Tags: Imre Oravecz