07. 10. 2007. 09:05

Every mum is a wunderkind

András Forgách: Zehuze

"Zehuze" – that's how it goes: this quasi-magical phrase returns over and over again in this monumental novel composed of letters written by a mother to her daughter. The daughter returns to her mother's native land, Hungary, from her land of birth, Palestine, to build a happy new world...

"Every mum is a wunderkind" – this sentence is a quotation from a 1993 war poem by a Sarajevo poet, Ferida Durakovic. The poem is about how an old woman and her daughter survive the blockade as the days melt into weeks and years, fighting with each other, fighting for water, losing their home. When bullets are raining on the town, the grandmother walks out to work in the garden, so that her grandchildren will have lettuce, onions and carrots to eat. ”Aren't you scared?, I ask. No, my dear, she answers. I think hard of my children, and God immediately opens a way for me. That's how it goes.” This ”eto” – that's how it is, that's how it goes –, the word concluding every section of this poem in prose, means essentially the same in Bosnian as ”zehuze” in Hebrew.

András Forgách's (1952) novel, Zehuze, is composed of letters written by a woman to her daughter. The letters span almost thirty years, from 1947 to 1976, the year of the older woman's death. Over the course of these years the middle-aged woman (she is almost fifty in 1947) turns old and becomes a great-grandmother, and her daughter a mother and a grandmother. The mother – who has no name, all we learn of her is that she is the wife of Henrik Apfelbaum, writer and translator of Thomas Mann into Hebrew – lives in Israel where she emigrated from Hungary some time before World War I; and the daughter – whose name we do not know either, she is merely referred to as jakirati (darling, dearest) in the letters – lives in Hungary where she emigrated in 1947 from Palestine. The endless stream of letters paints an extremely vivid image of maternal love, covering all aspects of life, down to the minutest detail. For this mother and daughter, writing is the living relationship itself, and with his novel, András Forgách has revived something of the significance of writing which has lately become somewhat arid. Writing is ecstasy – stepping out of the permanence of ”that's how it goes” and connecting oneself to the loved one who is far away; an act of love and rebellion.

This woman's speech, based on family documents that Forgách has so brilliantly shaped into a novel, reflects a female culture that has become almost extinct in our days. This vital, sustaining culture, in which nurturing love, devotion and belonging were expressed in a pragmatic and easy way, without sentimentality or romanticism, lives on for the most part only as a memory today. In our complicated world of information society and mass culture this kind of femininity is untenable. (As poet György Petri wrote with impish irony, today ”mothers are food technicians”.) This beautiful book preserves that saturated womanliness that today lives only in tatters or in caricature, or perhaps in silence, unnoticed.
 
This voice is the essence of this epistolary novel, and it is indeed a mark of great literary talent that András Forgách managed to take down this female voice from memory and from family documents – moreover, to recreate it and base a whole opus on it. The essence is the rhythm, the melody, the temperament. Besides painting an authentic picture of the era, the orthography and the peculiar usage of words – mixing Hungarian with English, Hebrew and Yiddish – mirror the grandmother's personality and peculiar education. The current of speech/writing exudes vitality, and in the stream of words this passion for life becomes iridescent in a way that it shows the patchwork of the content in an ironic light.
 
The frequent and capricious alternation of trivialities and pathetic outbursts results in an absolutely unique mixture. The layers of content, often jammed into one and the same phrase, are the following: everyday family life, daily business, society and politics – domestic and global politics –, reminiscences of the past and advice for the future. That is, the melody is made up of pragmatic talk, love talk and talk about creed.
 
For this family, creed means political creed. From the thirties up until her death, the grandmother, being an illegal or ”heretic” communist first in Hungary, then in Palestine/Israel, is in a state of permanent struggle and ideological preparedness. She looks at the social and political world through the ideological glasses of Marxism-Leninism. As time goes by, she reconsiders her Stalinism, but she remains a hard-liner Muscovite Communist throughout. Her Marxism gives her a well-defined world view as well as an ethical stance and vitality. Today her explanations of the world and her political views sound like parodies, yet – and this is due to the author's delicate treatment of the material – we feel that there is some truth in her conviction – or rather, in her striving for truth – as the precious core of her ethos radiates through the vulgar dogmas.
 
For it is not a hypocritical functionary speaking here, but an intelligent, thoughtful woman, full of good intentions; a modern woman of the twentieth century who has emancipated herself from her old prejudices, become secularized and chosen progress instead of tradition. True, she has replaced her old prejudices with new ones; instead of the faith of her forebears she had devoted herself to Communism; and for us, her modernism is obsolete. Yet, even though her stock phrases and beliefs sound ridiculous to us, her will, her thirst for knowledge and truth that make her a wunderkind shine through and transcend her dogmatism.
 
Who does not have ideologies, concepts and dogmas? Zehuze shows us the prism, made up of opinions, prejudices and theses, through which we look at the world and which, whatever its type, distorts reality. The physics of ideological distortion is so clearly presented in this novel as if we were looking at literal drawings of lenses, refractions and reversed images. In this sense, the tragicomedy of the mind is staged here. And if there were not the heart of a woman beating behind this mind, we would have had enough of this ideological bullshit by page twenty, but since we have a wunderkind-mum speaking here who walks out to the garden in a hail of bullets, we are still smiling on page six hundred, enjoying this text full of life.
 
Zehuze is terribly long (630 pages), but its length has a meaning: this epistolary novel is at the same time a novel about time. The endless stream of letters and years, the entanglement of ephemeral matters and historical events make us sense the quality – weight, mass, consistency and speed – of time. Reading the myriad details, from the trivial to the historic, and waiting, as a reader, for the great lyrical-dramatic resolution, sheds an ironic light on our attitude towards both life and literature. Zehuze.
 
In the meantime, nations are dying out, and the endless Israeli-Arab war continues. Zehuze is also a war novel. The grandmother is always fully committed to the weak and the persecuted. While history rages, she does everything possible for her loved ones, with female humbleness and devotion, and harangues against Jewish nationalism and for the human rights of Palestinians. ”The war will end like a grave disease only if you stay by my side”, Ferida Durakovic says to her mother in the Bosnian poem. ”You will hang on it your secret balm made of wisdom and herbs. And your old-fashioned stories in which, needless to say, the winner is always the one who never means anyone any harm nor thinks any ill.” Zehuze ends suddenly, and this also bears a formal meaning: after the middle of page 630, death becomes visible.
 
Viktória Radics
 
Read an excerpt from the novel on Eurozine
The novel's website (in Hungarian only)
 
Forgách András: Zehuze
Budapest: Magveto, 2007 

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