11. 21. 2011. 09:51

Historical fusion fiction. Noémi Szécsi: The Restless

The story of The Restless begins in 1853, and follows the destiny through half of Europe of a Hungarian family who had escaped from their homeland after the failure of the revolution and struggle for independence against the Habsburgs in 1848-49.

Noémi Szécsi’s novel is one that could have been written by our great 19th century storyteller, Mór Jókai, while sitting in his fruit garden on hot summer evenings, sipping a glass of wine in the company of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, with Jane Austen phoning over from time to time to give advice on narration. Since this event could unfortunately not happen for temporal, spatial and technical reasons, we must consider ourselves lucky to have a writer who has all these ingredients at the same time for The Restless to be born: exciting historical events and characters; social criticism, portioned out in good taste; chilling presentiments we are used to encountering in horror stories; and irony finely woven into the texture of the narrative.

The Hungarian history of the 19th and 20th century could be written as a series of emigrations. The story of The Restless begins in 1853, and follows the destiny through half of Europe of a Hungarian family who had escaped from their homeland after the failure of the revolution and struggle for independence against the Habsburgs in 1848-49. After the failed revolution some major figures of Hungarian history headed towards the famously liberal cities of Europe – London, Paris and Brussels – to spend some time there until amnesty is announced or until an opportunity for a new struggle presents itself. Many of those who fled to Turkey went to fight later on in the Crimean War, the American Civil War or alongside Garibaldi, or followed the leader of the revolution, Lajos Kossuth to America in 1851, though there were also quite a few people who converted to Islam and stayed in Turkey. Noémi Szécsi’s novel is about the ones who stayed on in Europe, waiting and wandering about without a homeland. Through their fate we can get a glimpse of some of the major events in the life of Hungarian émigrés. The cross-section of these political émigrés gives the historical background of the novel: there are barons and peasants, déclassé bourgeois types and fervent freedom fighters, spies and secret policemen, Poles and Italians, a rich and noble widow and a noblewoman, Rudolf Bárdy’s wife, Aimee, who is an ex-governess of Scottish descent.

Aimee does not speak Hungarian, she talks with her children in French and gives vent to her emotions in English (whereas her husband does the same in Hungarian, so they have no common language to express their emotions). Her rootedness in language nicely sets off the experience of Hungarian émigrés of being strangers. The novel focuses on a different character in each chapter, thus there is always someone on whom communication is lost, someone who does not speak the language of a particular country or that of a particular group of émigrés.

Although the novel centres around the tragedy of the Bárdy family, in the beginning this tragedy is not revealed but merely intimated so that the novel could culminate in a grim Gothic scene. The Restless draws on the tradition of Anglo-Saxon Gothic novels: slow narration, a creepy atmosphere laden with secrets, the precise measuring out of tension and a narrative mode well adapted to table-turning scenes. The popularity of spiritualism in the 19th century was due to the spiritual crisis of the émigré society who had lost their faith and were looking for transcendental explanations. The American fashion of table turning quickly gained roots in Hungary as well: there were many people looking for information about their family members who were in hiding. They evoked the ghosts of the executed heroes and enquired about the fate awaiting Hungary and themselves. The protagonists of The Restless are also preoccupied by these questions.

Noémi Szécsi’s career as a novelist has also been quite adventurous: starting with Finno-Ugrian Vampire, a vampire story set in 20th century Budapest, she continued with two maternity books, Diary of a Mother-to-be and Memoir of a Baby, then she wrote Communist Monte Cristo and Last Centaur, and now The Restless which, besides being a mature work, represents a genre eagerly awaited by the Hungarian reading public: a historical novel rich in adventures that takes place in the 19th century, in which slow descriptions alter with fast dialogues, and it is all narrated with a slight Austenian sarcasm.

Szécsi Noémi: Nyughatatlanok
Budapest: Európa, 2011

Szilvia Sz. Molnár

Tags: Noémi Szécsi