05. 15. 2013. 11:37

Another Death (excerpt from the novel)

Barnás has found an authentic viewpoint and a language that is unique in contemporary fiction to trace that "other life" underneath the life of each of us.

Ferenc Barnás’s only novel in English to date, The Ninth, was hailed by Marci Shore in The Times Literary Supplement as belonging to a “distinctly East European modernist tradition, one that reveals the jolting proximity of the beautiful and the grotesque”. Barnás’s new novel, Másik halál (Another Death) was published in 2012, and has recently won a prestigious independent literary award in Hungary, the Aegon Art Prize.

Although this novel is populated with memorable characters, observation of the external world is first and foremost a tool for the protagonist to escape from complete decay and from his demons. His gaze is directed inwards: “after a certain time I noticed that something has begun to live its own life in my life”. This is true to such an extent that while in many cases we are unaware of what is happening in the outside world, the narrator goes deeper and deeper in mapping the mechanisms of his internal state of affairs, his obsessions, manias, compulsions and anxieties. And he does this so sweepingly that if I had to pin down the greatest virtue and the greatest achievement of the novel, it would be that Barnás has found an authentic viewpoint and a language that is unique in contemporary fiction to trace that "other life" underneath the life of each of us.

Everything and everybody in this novel is trying to balance on the brink of insanity, yet the fragmented story of the protagonist – who works successively as a schoolteacher, a busker in the streets of Western European cities and a caretaker in a Budapest gallery (jobs that happen to coincide with those Barnás has held in his life) – does not feel oppressive. There is no consolation, no happy ending, yet the novel is far from being an apotheosis of hopelessness; it is, rather, a memorable literary embodiment of staunch self-examination.

Tibor Keresztury

 

Standing above the entranceway, I read the letter. He wrote about the two of us. Basically he said in his own words what I had been thinking in mine.

I replied that night. Doesn’t matter what, also doesn’t matter how eloquently, though at the time I didn’t have any particular trouble with German. In case I haven’t mentioned it yet, “officially” I spent a year in Germany. I studied literature and philosophy at a university in Bavaria, or rather if I think about it a little, I studied something entirely different.

Since the post office, or rather one of my primary workplaces is quite close to my apartment, I decided to post the letter first thing the next morning, before teaching. In the entranceway I ran into old man Szamos. For some reason I regularly run into him in the entranceway, and the two of us usually chat too. Since I was in a hurry, this time I just asked him how they were, he and his wife, to which he replied, we are well, thanks. Szamos is ninety years old, he has been living with only one lung for forty years, “volume, who gives a fuck,” to which I once replied, yes Mr. Szamos, you are quite right. Sometimes we chat about Mrs. Szamos, who is eighty, but she is always suffering from some malady or another. Or rather not always, cause on this occasion everything seemed to be fine. Sometimes I would run into both of them. Last time, for instance, standing in front of the thieves’ corner building I saw them walking hand in hand down Király street. You don’t often see anything that beautiful in Budapest.

As I walked down Király street towards the post office suddenly I heard the man with the loden jacket behind me. I didn’t even need to look back, I knew it was him. He said, word for word, “those fucked up johnny boys from the shit filled towns, they think that the great powers won’t tolerate any kind of collusion. The great powers, pffft! They won’t tolerate, pffft! Cause of course it’s not them, pffft! Let ‘em think it! Gang of pigs, thinking about nothing but fried rinds all day. But they’re coming, they’ll see, they’re coming, they’re coming, I’m telling you, whether trains or something else, and they’ll put ‘em up, oh they’ll be surprised! And if not, then something else will come, something else. It’s all right there, plain to see, everything right before their very eyes, but fools, folks, I’m telling you, they don’t hiss and you don’t hiss, but they’ll put you on the trains and then it’s over, done, democracy gangsters! Or they won’t cause by then there won’t even be any trains left. The wheels will creak and squeak and squeak and creak. They don’t care about great power politics, and why not, why not collusion, if that’s what fits?! I’m telling you, that’s what’s coming, but actually it’s already here! I see what’s gonna come of it, see and hear, fools, they think they’ll be able to escape, but they won’t, and won’t they be surprised!”

I got it all done in time.

From then on we corresponded regularly. It would take far too long for me to recount all the things we wrote to each other about, and we also wrote about many things I wouldn’t mention even if I did have time and space, not that they were terribly unusual things or things to be kept secret. Just that it’s kind of hard to talk about why you don’t want to talk about certain things, since you’re not trying to avoid looking yourself square in the eye, not at all, and you’re not frightened by your own feelings, you are just afraid to talk about things that could be misunderstood, since there’s always a chance that they will be, just as there is always a chance, if you decide to go ahead anyway, that all of a sudden you’ll find yourself recounting something that you didn’t really want to confess even to yourself, and not because you’re too cowardly to do so; you don’t want to mention it simply because you’re afraid of everything that might come with it, even if in the end you don’t even know much about it, cause the whole thing is more like a memory, a memory about which at first you think that you have long known it well, but then you realize that even though you knew it, still, it’s a memory for which there is actually no real foundation, no foundation that would hold it up, as you would have wanted.

Then one day he stopped sending letters. He stopped because they installed a phone in my place. It was one of the days soon after spring break, I remember well, cause teaching had just begun again in the schools where I worked, and after not having done so for a long time I began again to follow the news in the newspapers. He covered most of the expenses. A few weeks earlier he had written that I shouldn’t worry, it was fair, sometimes this was the only way to make up for the injustices of life, which is a joke anyway, I shouldn’t concern myself with it, besides in the end he’ll get the most out of it.

In the end what had begun in Bad Heim continued, just that now when we spoke I sat in my own armchair or possibly on the bed or the kitchen stool, but if I wanted I could also squat or amble or just look out the window of my room, from which I can see old man Szamos’ apartment, the tower of the Church of Saint Theresa, or the side-wing of the building of the Budapest Talmud Society, which is used by the Lubavitch Hassidic Jews. True, in order to see the latter I have to open the window and lean out, which I often did at the time, since I wanted to see the walls from above, fifteen meters is still fifteen meters, and of course I looked at the walls from below as well, since on the way home or on the way to work for that matter I regularly looked not only at the façade of the Sasz Chevra, i.e. the Society, not just the synagogue in the inner courtyard, but also the little interior building perpendicular to the synagogue, because as it so happens it interested me the most, this side-wing, in the rooms of which at one time not Lubavitch Hassidic Jews had studied and prayed, but rather the rabbis and pupils of the Sasz Chevra, who at one time had been held in high esteem by the people of the city because they had dealt with the dead, a vocation that involved a great deal, not just observation of the various rituals and rules, but a lot of other things too, about which of course I never spoke with Michael, because we spoke of other things in the two or three hours a week that we had, including things that we thought we had brought to a close in our correspondence, but which apparently for some reason cannot be brought to a close, cause they kept coming up again and again, things like the clinic too.

 

Ferenc Barnás: Másik halál

Budapest: Kalligram, 2012


See our review

Translated by: Thomas Cooper

Tags: Ferenc Barnás