06. 22. 2014. 20:13

Who is Amundsen?

László Fábián: On Returning Home, My Horse Carries the Scent of a Flowery Meadow on Its Hooves, or a Strange Cramp in the Throat

This is a coming-of-age novel placed in rural Hungary but more embedded in the sphere of imagination and abundant intertextuality than in the actual time and space of the Kádár era.

Postmodern (experimentalist) literature can in many respects be as divisive for the wider range of audiences as postmodern visual art is. Twisted and torn narratives, abrupt perspectival changes and the lack of classic emotional identification are all elements which regularly throw off the less daring and flexible readers of Joyce, Georges Perec or Ezra Pound. The layman’s dilemma is the same as when encountering an abstract minimalist painting: without the help of any obvious, structurally inbuilt guidance for interpretation how is one able to decide whether or not certain elements are present for their own sake, whether upon not finding meanings intuitively it is one's task to consciously look for them. Perhaps the most characteristic feature of experimentalist texts is their resilience to an engaging form of interpretation. They compel the reader to make an active and conscious effort, to reach out towards the text in their reception.

László Fábián’s (b. 1940) novel, published in 1976, has traditionally been termed as the ‘first postmodern novel’ in Hungarian literary history, a book that is said to have paved the way to such classics as Péter Esterházy’s 1986 masterpiece, An Introduction to Literature. Yet Fábián is virtually unknown in Hungarian literary consciousness, his works never became part of the mainstream canon. On Returning Home, My Horse Carries the Scent of a Flowery Meadow on its Hooves, or A Strange Cramp in the Throat is a coming-of-age novel placed in rural Hungary but more embedded in the sphere of imagination and abundant intertextuality than in the actual time and space of the Kádár era. It narrates the world of a boy, from his fears of the rye witch to his sprouting aspirations of becoming an artist, in a highly pictorial and dense text, which tends to meander following the sudden veers of the protagonist’s mind.

The flowery text evokes Boris Vian’s delicate tones and symbolism of lethal flowers blossoming in women’s lungs, yet it does not reach the level of the astounding visuality of Vian’s world. Fábián does make the imaginative the main prism through which the world appears, but he does not follow the protagonist to the most private and absurd symbolism of his imagination. In Vian’s overtly symbolist texts the oddity of the lack of meaning and explanation is wrapped into a soothingly irrational and unpredictable world – if flowers grow in lungs, spatial and temporal continuity cannot be realistic expectations. Fábián does not go this far. In his text, time and space do become fragmented and they do absorb the everyday structure of solid reality: communist propaganda songs blend into contemporary poetry, Amundsen contemplates things invented long after his time. Yet the world more or less remains as it ordinarily is in a rural Hungarian setting with meadows, train journeys and walking sticks with pre-communist symbols carved on them.

As the protagonist narrates the text the figure of Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer who was the first to reach the South Pole, appears, and he becomes a more and more central character in the novel. However, Amundsen does not appear as a historical figure, he rather becomes the idealized extension of the child’s self, an alter ego and model of the child, and an allegory of an aspiring artist in his aesthetic discoveries. The difficulty of understanding the book starts with Amundsen’s character. The inner life of children, scared of drawings in their fairy-tale books, or their journeys with adults revealed from the children’s often fluid perspectives, are almost commonplace techniques in modern literature. That such worlds are often populated by unexpected characters is also fairly common. But how Roald Amundsen found his way to 1950–60s Hungary and why it is him and not someone else who came to occupy this central role remains an unresolved question, uncomfortably so. There must be a significance to the random appearance of his figure, slightly out of place in the novel, yet it weakens the coherence of the text and displaces it from the realm of Hungary in many ways. This is slightly puzzling, as the book is otherwise deeply embedded in the local context.

One of the most puzzling aspects of the book is the lack of the political; political references to the pre-communist past, to Christianity, to Jewry, to the territories lost after World War I are scattered all over the text, yet their function is not clear. And Amundsen, this utterly alien character, guards this distance from the political, from the actualities of the depicted era. Nevertheless, politics cannot be truly absent if socialist propaganda songs and contemporary poetry are cited repeatedly. The contrast between the childlike engagement with landscapes, the details of the surrounding world and family members and this political adult world that is only alluded to is an uneasy one. It often feels as if Fábián was hovering between two diametrically opposed literary traditions.

Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye or Stephen Daedalus in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man are both characters that one imagines as being capable of narrating such free-floating texts, and, most importantly, their character does not fade away under the weight of the ornate text. In contrast, the protagonist of Fábián’s novel sometimes gives the impression of being a character aiming to come to life through the adopted character of Roald Amundsen, a ready-made persona, who does not need to find his own voice, being an icon of strength and asceticism for generations. The dynamics of the boy’s self-identification would be intriguing, but this is not depicted in the book. Instead, the sameness of the protagonist with Amundsen, or at least with his Amundsen is taken for granted: writing from the boy’s point of view transforms the make-believe into the only known reality.

To have an English translation of this book is an immensely interesting experience as it makes the text accessible for a rather different audience than that of Hungary. The odd relationship with the political, the alienness of Amundsen and the referentiality to lesser known pieces of Hungarian literature are perhaps less relevant for a non-Hungarian reader, thus allowing the illustrative power of the book and the intimate details to come to the foreground. In many ways, debuting in front of a new audience may be the best that could happen to this text, now given a fresh start.

László Fábián: On Returning Home, My Horse Carries the Scent of a Flowery Meadow on Its Hooves, or a Strange Cramp in the Throat
Translated by Tim Wilkinson
Liverpool: The Bluecoat Press, 2014

Excerpt from the book

Diána Vonnák

Tags: László Fábián