05. 23. 2018. 10:11

History of a Stutter

A Review of Gábor Vida's History of a Stutter

Gábor Vida's heavy yet delightful autobiographical novel takes us through years of Ceausescuan oppression as he lives in various parts of the earlier greater Hungary, now the Hungarian-speaking parts of Romania. – Here's our review by Sára Zorándy.

Gábor Vida's heavy yet delightful autobiographical novel takes us through years of Ceausescuan oppression as he lives in various parts of the earlier greater Hungary, now the Hungarian-speaking parts of Romania. Shortly after WWI, Hungary was made to give up over 70% of its territory, the largest part of which became part of Romania, which therewith nearly doubled in size. Vida describes the fate of the suddenly minority population.

The inheritance of famous authors passes through the book, he mentions many by name: János Arany, Attila József, Gyula Illyés, Péter Eszterházy, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Éva Cs. Gyimesi, Mircea Eliade, Martin Heidegger, as they became available to him. Vida has a passion: "In 1975, just before school began, I put down my last fairy tale, and read The Last of the Mohicans, to finally find out who I was in the group. With that, literature began, and I began to devour books."

He sets the mood on the first page. His father is having an argument with him on literature. Some retort comes to mind, but he continues: "I don't tell my father this, (...) our relationship is not that close." Vida is already a well-respected author at the time, he has been invited onto television talk shows and published various books, yet to his father he remains a clumsy boy, a stutterer. His father has not read any of his books, Vida is certain. They never speak about women, "as about so many other topics." Then there is the matter of Vida's beard, his father is contra. He should have shaved before going on the telly! But Vida has a reason to keep his beard, and it’s revealed gradually throughout the book. The beard is A Thing. We learn football players did not sport beards until Paul Breitner. A menacing rail guard is mentioned early on, whose opinion of beards matches his father's, but we understand the trauma only much later.

His mother is not much better. During his childhood she cuts his nails so short every time, he could hardly hold a pencil. "My mother has a life program, work that needs to be done. (...) I too follow her life program, and her life problems as well, it seems." Vida's stutter also follows him throughout the book. It is the reason he writes: spoken words come out garbled, in writing he can communicate. Mother buys a green pressed-wood kitchen set, even before she's married, with her first salary. Next, she purchases everything by dramatist Mór Jókai, the full seventy-book set. She enjoys going to funerals, because she can sing out loud there.

There are complicated differences between the two parents. She's from Transylvania, and he is "heavily Hungarian." She speaks the Hungarian of what today is central Romania, he that of those "across the border," in Hungary. His father is into making wine - no matter whether the soil will allow it, his mother hates anything with the faintest smell  of alcohol. The father likes to take his time, the mother is always efficient, always bustling. New shelves need to be put up, they're nailed together clumsily by father and son, neither of whom is really up to the task. Mother buys Vida a telescope, it costs a fortune. Father: "'Why on earth? He'll just break it.' As if I wasn’t even in the room. I didn't though."

Vida claims to be lost in his novel: "I'm not writing it, it's writing itself, it does not care about the carefully prepared framework. At that stage I don't quite understand yet why prose behaves like a river running wild, I don't know the language is an enormous live creature, but I feel it." Mother is not supportive: "God will punish you, if you write things like this."

There is poetry, as when Vida speaks of his aunts, his father's sisters, who were "taught to be maids, in Brasov, Budapest, Bucharest, that's how they're raised." Or when he mentions his uncle, his mother's younger brother: "He was a hardcore alcoholic who hung himself in the shed." Or as he lists his maternal grandfather's ways: "1941: Heléna, 1942: Violetta, 1944: Anette, 1947: Tom. When they let him home from the front, or from the war camp, Uncle Gyuri makes a baby." He describes parents working so hard they don't have time to raise their children who are taken to grandparents, who don't have time because they are farming: "The children are free, no one has time for them, they roam around, the boys play football, and often so do the girls."

And there are the horrors of the system, the policeman on the corner who can hit you in the face without reason, the agricultural labourer stepping away from her fellow workers to relieve herself only to be found later by concerned colleagues with a frozen newborn in her hands, "and now she gets to visit the Militia until she manages to convince them, it wasn't her." Vida goes to secondary school, he's very good in Romanian language classes, he doesn’t stutter. However, his teacher used to date his dad, who then broke up with her. Vida can’t do anything right. She writes him into the registry as Gavril, not Gábor, she has Romanianised him with the flick of a wrist. Vida's mother goes into the school, to no avail, Gavril it is. Once they return from Hungary, with some books on cowboys and Indians. At the border, the Romanian guard questions his mother about these. "They don't take away the books, although those were the days where they could confiscate anything, for no reason." The police does ask his mother to come in a few days later, and the Securitate officer questions her thoroughly about all sorts of things, including the books: "It's that kind of friendly chat." In the army, he experiences the Sisyphean tasks of the planned economy: for days the regiments are made to collect corn cobs, which are then left - for who knows what reason, to rot on the land, until they are covered in snow.

State futility and suppression intertwine with a smattering of private horrors. Mean grandmother Zsüli leaves grandpa at the bottom of the ladder when he falls, she goes into the village. "He makes his way in, muddy, sober for a change, but his heel never mended properly." Or how Vida avoided getting into trouble with his parents: "I understood at a fairly young age, when I'm asked a question, I shouldn't answer it. I should tell them what they want to hear." He is understanding of his mother's erratic behaviour: "Naturally there's this aggression in my mother, as there is in all badly abused children, whose character is built on top of their trauma." He is sent to boarding school, the experience of which is summarised concisely: "There is hardly a degrading ordeal I did not experience. What teenagers locked up together can think of doing to each other, they did to me."

In 1985, Vida decides to study Hungarian. His mother warns him; she knows full well the government will be keeping an eye on him for just that. It was the year a friend filled a Dacia car with rolls of toilet paper, the Vida family also got at least a hundred. There is still a roll at Vida's house on which his mother had written in 1985; "such is a souvenir," Vida writes. He ends up having to wait a while, there is military service first, but then, finally, he makes it to Temesvár (Timișoara) and it is a revelation. He goes to the theatre, sees a ballet performance to Jean-Michel Jarre's Oxygen and falls in love with a girl from Marosvásárhely (Târgu Mureș). He does not get accepted, he had not prepared properly for the entrance exams, he is aiming for a double MA: Hungarian and French, and especially his French is not up to par. He takes classes from madam Vulpescu, a worldly older woman, with American and Armenian grandparents, whose family lives all over the world, from the US through Western Europe to Jerusalem. "It's the first time I meet Romanians who were not lifted from village life by Socialism and who do not communicate with outspoken or covert anti-Hungarian sentiments." Madam Vulpescu introduces him to everyone, he is Monsieur Gabor. In 1988, he passes his entrance exam with flying colours and is mesmerised by his surroundings: "Until then, I had never been in a place where on the footpaths, between the blocks of flats, everyone spoke Hungarian."

(In Hungarian: Vida Gábor: Egy dadogás története, Magvető, 2017)