Ferenc Barnás’s most recent novel belongs to those rare books which depict our times in an original voice and with an individual vision.
The narrator of Másik halál (Another Death) is a man in his fifties, who lives in Budapest and spends most of his time struggling against his spiritual and intellectual disintegration. The first pages already make it clear that the text is much more about the exploration of the mechanism of a certain state of mind than the narration of a story in the classical sense. The plot is elaborated enough not to be a self-serving act of linguistic bravura, yet low-key enough to turn the reader’s attention towards the protagonist’s inner state.
Initially, the nameless protagonist teaches in art schools and at the University of Budapest, spending the summers as a travelling busker. It is during such a trip that he meets a person called Michael Landenberg, with whom he develops a strange relationship. It is him who encourages the protagonist to give up his teaching position and devote himself to working on his book entitled Transcripts, while living on donations by his Swiss friend. However, when Michael, who suffers from insomnia, commits suicide, the narrator suddenly finds himself existentially challenged. After spending months looking for a job unsuccessfully, he finally becomes a caretaker in an art gallery. Regular working hours at the gallery help him keep control of his life, then finish his book and start a new one.
This series of events happens to coincide with the author’s own biography at several points. However, it would be a mistake to read the novel as a confession. The workings of the imagination are consistently felt in the novel; it is probably only the basic situations that coincide with the author's real life.
To escape from his own boisterous mind, the protagonist continually makes observations about the outer world. He considers every situation as an intellectual challenge: for him, being a caretaker is on an equal level with being a busker, communicating with his neighbours in his apartment block, or loafing about in inner-city Budapest. It is precisely because of this special attention that Barnás manages to paint an authentic image of present-day Budapest, which, in my opinion, is unprecedented in contemporary Hungarian prose. He even makes direct and indirect references to daily politics, describing party feuds as “the struggle between those who won’t speak to each other”. There are lots of minor characters, some of whom are evoked only with a precise, descriptive name (“the obsequious one”; “the man with the matted hair”; “Bluehair”; “Birdie”), others are brought quite close to the reader. One of the latter is Michael, whose friendship bordering on love with the narrator is described in an extremely sensitive way, rare in Hungarian literature.
Barnás creates a special language for the most important minor characters. Michael’s dizzying monologue about a shooting incident at a restaurant is implanted into the text as a single, endless sentence, just as the stories of the Old Woman, who talks about the history of the inner-city apartment block, the persecution of the Jews before 1945 and the piles of dead bodies. Through these figures, Barnás’s novel speaks about the sacrality of speech, of communication. As if there could only be a real relationship between two people in such an alienated city as Budapest if through the act of speaking we burst open like a wound full of puss.
The text is broken up in an unusual way. Instead of paragraphs there are spaces of varying length between sentences; instead of numbers and titles, there are asterisks and page breaks between chapters. The shorter spaces could as well be considered as separating paragraphs; however, there may be a more conscious idea behind this technique. In fact, none of the sections seem to be continuing the previous one in the strict sense. Even though we often remain within the same scene for pages on end, yet each block of text describes some new information or event, and each section is a unified whole, therefore we can stop reading after any one of them. The concept of temporal coordination is thus there not only on the level of narration, but on that of sentence construction as well.
Like the minor characters, the protagonist also bursts out from time to time in the novel. Barnás’s greatest invention as a writer is the formulation of the language of disintegration. Although the narrator repeatedly visits a psychiatrist, we never get an exact diagnosis. There is no external reference point; we are enclosed in the mind of the narrator all through, as if in a cage. Only the grammatically extremely tight, but rationally often self-extinguishing long sentences are there to give us some guidance as to the narrator’s psychological state. Barnás is extremely radical in his insistence on using a word in its nominal, verbal and adjectival form within the same sentence; taking the structures apart, then putting them together; sometimes using them in a new sense with each usage as another part of speech, at other times overusing them to the point of senselessness. It is also part of his incredible linguistic performance that towards the end of the novel, he builds back the disintegrating consciousness of his protagonist with the same method: “In short: I observed the observer and the observed”, the narrator writes when he himself deems it necessary to clarify and summarize the exaggerated sentences.
It is rare to find a text which, rather than speaking directly about its themes, creates a transparent surface with the tools of the poetics of prose. A pharmacist could not be better at portioning out the unity of structure, language and content. Ferenc Barnás’s best novel to date deals with the past and present of Budapest, with communication, writing, respect and how to live with our craziness. An independent and acutely topical novel.
Ferenc Barnás: Másik halál
Budapest: Kalligram, 2012
A shortened version of a review originally published in Hungarian at litera.hu.
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