02. 17. 2012. 07:53

Fantastic realism. Ervin Lázár: The Little Town of Miracles

Ervin Lázár is the creator of a genre we may safely call Central European folk surrealism, which takes on the quality of a hallucinatory exploration into that part of the soul where beauty, hope, and yearning live in close proximity with the harsh realities of life.

Ervin Lázár (1936–2006) was the author of several children’s books. His tales, loveable characters and playful use of language made his name a household word for two generations. Lázár's first volume of children’s stories, A kisfiú és az oroszlánok (The Little Boy and the Lions) appeared in 1964; his first novel for adults, the political thriller A fehér tigris (The White Tiger) was published in 1971. Lázár has also written children’s plays and radio plays. Several of his works have been made into films. His anthology of stories for adults, Csillagmajor (The Little Town of Miracles), first came out in 1996. In acknowledgement of the popularity of his works, Ervin Lázár received numerous prestigeous literary prizes, including the Kossuth Prize (1996). His children’s books have been translated into Swedish, French, German, Italian, and Russian.

Though a book of stories, The Little Town of Miracles is held together by the scene of the action, a manor on the puszta on the Great Hungarian Plain, which is a main character in its own right and is introduced in the first story; it is also welded together by the tight community of simple peasants living their isolated lives, introduced in the second, and their simple, unquestioned belief – one might say deep understanding and matter-of-fact acceptance – of the miracles they experience day by day, contained in every one of the tales. The book of stories is also characterized throughout by the author’s unmistakable language, his objective storytelling and the pared down viewpoint of the author-narrator, whom we first meet as a schoolboy and last see a grown man with a family coming to fetch his mother, one of the last inhabitants of the puszta.

The stories in The Little Town of Miracles are wondrous, uplifting, and haunting, a wreath of barely perceptible, intangible glimpses into the yearnings of the soul we hold in common. In “The Giant”, a young boy on his way home from school encounters a sleeping giant the size of a mountain. Realizing that he has lost his way and afraid, he is nevertheless prompted to climb over him to the other side if he is to see his family again. In “The Man from Csillagmajor”, a mysterious stranger in a white linen shirt – or is it a shroud? - offers to join in harvesting the corn, and as he walks away at the end of the day, he leaves the harvesters realizing that in their hurry, they have left the best pieces behind. In “The Sneak Thief”, an angel boy pilfers things from the young narrator’s country kitchen, and when found out, is released, but everyone hopes for his return. In “The Woman in Blue”, a mysterious lady with her infant son in her arms seeks refuge on the manor against her deadly pursuers, and when betrayed, slips through the betrayer’s hand. This is on Christmas eve, and in response, the land, as if relieved of a great burden, is finally covered in the first snow of winter. In “The Blacksmith”, the devil comes to get his horse fitted with new horseshoes; in “The Knotweed”, an old Swabian couple turn into beautiful flowers before they can be deported by the authorities; and in “The China Doll”, a Party functionary comes to announce that the people would be apportioned their own land, but, fired by his own omnipotence, leaves with a promise to resurrect the dead. Such is the world of the little town of Rácpácegres as told to us by Ervin Lázár.

A Hungarian critic has called The Little Town of Miracles an example of “fantastic realism”, which is very close to the truth, for if Gabriel García Márquez is the master of magical realism and Isabel Allende is a master of spiritual realism, Ervin Lázár is the creator of a genre we may safely call Central European folk surrealism, which takes on the quality of a hallucinatory exploration into that part of the soul where beauty, hope, and yearning live in close proximity with the harsh realities of life.

The book has been rendered into English by Judith Sollosy, the translator of contemporary Hungarian authors including Péter Esterházy, Mihály Kornis, János Háy, Lajos Parti Nagy, and István Örkény. Her recent translations include Péter Esterházy’s Celestial Harmonies (2004) and Not Art (2010). In 2005 she guest edited the Hungarian issue of The Chattahoochee Review, and in 2010, the Hungarian issue of Words Without Borders.

Ervin Lázár: Csillagmajor
Budapest: Osiris, 1997

Judith Sollosy

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