04. 30. 2007. 12:41

Duck drippings and ritual murder

Krisztián Grecsó: Homecoming (Isten hozott)

Krisztán Grecsó’s (1976) first novel promises a great deal, and delivers on most of its promise. A densely packed work, it may be read as an educational novel, the story of a mystery, a narrative probing into folk belief, a village novel or a novel about provincial Hungary.

At the same time, partially overlapping the above, it is also about what it means to be an orphan: a life story of a kind which remains, ultimately, a novel about homecoming. Perhaps even the label "religious novel" might seem to apply, but this is problematic.

Grecsó, aged only 31, is an exceptional talent among contemporary young writers. This is his fourth published volume, following in the wake of two books of poetry and a collection of short stories entitled Pletykaanyu (Mamma Mouthful) that caused a big scandal because of the way reality and fiction were intertwined in it.

Homecoming is an educational novel in that it traces the childhood and youth of the protagonist Gergely Gellért from the time of his birth in 1967 up until his 23rd birthday and the point of his physical and symbolic homecoming. The hero’s place of birth is a small village called Sáraság; this is where he and his friends create (in 1981) the group they call the Ede Klein Society. In just under two years, after ‘the Big Row’, the society is dispersed. The hero comes to live in a provincial town and attends secondary school. He goes on somewhat later to the teachers’ training college of another provincial town and remains to work there in the library after graduation. Hardly has he settled into work when he receives a telephone call from a friend back home. This conversation sets off the novel: the hero finds out that the Klein Journal has finally become accessible.

By this time Gergely feels that, after having acquired so much emotional, sensual and physical experience of the world, he has eventually become an adult. The end point of this process is when he sets off for home. His ‘youth’ comes back to him: all that has happened to him and around him in his life thus far. This recollection provides the material for the book’s twelve chapters. In the final balance it is his homecoming that starts to shed a new light on everything: by the last lines of the novel he introduces himself as Gergely Klein. This is the point where we leave him, and it is from here that the reader can begin to see his entire history in a new light. The story cries out to be re-read: on second reading it gives the reader much more and unfolds far more willingly than the first time round. Indeed, the text is constructed for the reader to start all over again. It is not worth asking whether this is a good thing or not: this is not a unique case. What is certain, however, is that (multi-level) circularity is a thoroughly elaborated trait in this book, which is already hinted at by the two mottos. The education process is presented not in a linear fashion (something we may call quite natural today) but according to the rhapsodic, mosaic-like logic of memory and the exploration of a secret. What is more, we are presented with a figure who must relate his life history to date under the odd predicament of being unclear about his own self, his milieu, his origins, identity and background. All he can hope for is to come to understand it by the time he puts the full stop at the end of the last sentence.

This is a novel about a mystery, because it is full of mysterious questions that should be investigated or at least interpreted. (We might call it a quasi detective story where the role of the detective is played by the hero who also suffers as a result of all the events.) As for the secrets, we only find out about them little by little. We gradually learn that our hero is an orphan and his parentage is more than usually rum. The secret of his origin becomes ever more closely associated with the great secrets of the village – with the charge of ritual murder levelled against Ede Klein in 1948; with the mysterious liaison between Ede Klein and Aunty Pannika (it is Pannika who saves Ede. Later, in 1966, the man re-visits her for a single night); as well as with Pannika’s mysterious disappearance, which lasts one year, and her alleged childbirth. It also gets tied in with the secret of the Klein Journal. (The "journal" was typed "unconsciously" by Aunty Pannika when, on one occasion, she was taking dictation from socialist co-operative chief Gábor Töre, but typed something totally different.) This led to scandal at the time; subsequently the affair was forgotten, but in the villagers’ minds the Klein Journal became a book of bewitchment.

In the village it soon became a generally accepted "fact" that after lodging a Jewish "murderer", Pannika herself had become infected with Jewishness; indeed, the very words she typed were dictated to her by Ede Klein. Everyone, including schoolchildren, "knew" about this in the village, except our hero who only comes to find out about it piecemeal from odd hints and words dropped by accident. He becomes increasingly preoccupied with the matter. This is why he proposes that the society be named after Ede Klein, and this is why he becomes a leader of this union. Other mysterious issues arising from the village’s belief system make the Klein secret even more nuanced. In this work of fiction these become parts of the reality of the village.

This is indeed a novel about folk belief on account of the rich and fabulous tissue it weaves out of the amazing dream world of the village as it mingles with Gergely’s developmental history. Mysticism and mystery are tied in, on one hand, with the world of the vanished Jewish community and with religion in a more general sense, the world of the Old and New Testaments. On the other hand, they relate back to the "pagan" superstitions of the peasantry, their notions of evil, their fears and their anticipation of miracles. All of this is rendered only worse by the frequent or, in some cases, almost permanent drunkenness of the characters.

This is a village novel, because it gives a truly powerful notion of Sáraság along the Kurcza Stream (which in all likelihood stands in for the village where the author was born, Szegvár). Radiant descriptions allow us to picture in vivid reality the streets and houses of the village, the pub named The Crematorium and the tobacconist’s on the main square. The characters are also most evocative and characteristic. Practically everything that takes place vacillates between the most earthy profanity and the most ethereal sanctity: at the wedding of Hildi and Ignác the heavenly light of the church plays an equally important role as the contents of the cesspit.

This is a novel about provincial Hungary in that it provides a sharp relief of the mentality of people living in the countryside. You can learn a great deal about what it feels like to live in a village, the realities of life in a small town, and how people who are still close to "the life of working the land" think. Contemporary Hungarian literature is rich in authors who are still well acquainted with this world and, just as the so called népiek (ruralist writers), map it out as precisely today as did their literary forebears. It is enough to think of Sándor Tar, Pál Závada, Ottó Kiss or Margit Halász. And, of course, Grecsó himself.

The life of the orphan, homecoming – these are key words in the novel. Members of the Ede Klein Society have no father and some have no mother, either. For all that, "everything was safe, warm and understandable, with no sign of decline" until the first year of secondary school, as the protagonist reveals. Then all of a sudden everything changed. "For the first time ever I began to feel that although I was at home – on the only terrain which I mastered with no doubt or hesitation and which I knew, better than anyone else, to be the most magical place in the world – I longed to be somewhere else. Sáraság suddenly seemed dreary and boring to me." Indeed, he leaves the village at 15, not to return until he is 23. At this time he hears two contradictory stories about his own background. According to one, told by Pannika, he is not her son by Ede Klein, as he might have long suspected, because she had an abortion at the time. The other story, related by "Glass-Eyed Tót", claims that he is, indeed, none other than Gergely Klein. His father left and his mother, who, having done so much good and having saved so many people’s lives, "suffered the lot of the Jews" and after being exposed to several bouts of persecution, she put her child into an orphanage in an attempt to rescue him. "It is on the altar of all this that you remained an orphan, all the events followed like so many falling dominos and you became the sacrificial lamb." The text of the novel gives us no easy answer as to which version is the truth.

Is it a religious novel? It seems as if it was trying but failing to be that, too. Its textual engineering and wealth of motifs suggest a mythical background to the history of the boys, encouraging the reader to experience it almost as a narrative of initiation or sacrificial history. The hinted presence of some divine will is felt working in and through the text. Several passages resort to Biblical concepts and figures in order to strengthen this impression.

The religious perspective serves to render Gergely Gellér-Klein’s story even more universal, even though it is, in my judgement, sufficiently universal and rich anyway, with a truly widely applicable message. The hero, who comes to face a Jewish destiny step by step, eventually decides to become a Jew in the symbolic sense. Gergely, brought up as a Catholic, also creates a simplified theological explanation. "We are now left without a heritage; the first half of the testament is missing, our brethren, the descendants of the people of the original alliance have burnt to death. (...) We have been left alone, with the new alliance which is weak and feeble without the old, just as the old one cannot stand up any longer without the new, whatever the hyper-sensitive orthodox say with their heads in the sand."

Thus, I prefer to stick to the original meaning of the title: "isten hozott", which means "welcome, I am glad you are here", rather than meaning it in the literal sense, i.e. "God brought you here". What I know for certain is that the world depicted in Homecoming will remain memorable to me. Not many novels offer scenes which reoccur to you time and again. This one does. The characters are truly alive, and so are the descriptions. I will not easily forget that masterful depiction of eating bread with duck drippings – ideally, you must read it at home, when you are actually hungry and thirsty.

Previously on HLO 
The Inheritance Question (short story)

Csaba Károlyi

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