Blood-sucker and tale-teller: Noémi Szécsi’s latter-day vampire girl is a combination of the eastern European and the Indian vampire. - Ottilie Mulzet's review on The Finno-Ugrian Vampire, recently published in English.
The vampire has had a long and varied history, not least in the often fraught climes of central and eastern Europe. According to Florent Montaclair, in his study Le Vampire dans la littérature romantique française 1820-1868, the word ‘vampire’ in French was borrowed from German, which in turn borrowed it from Serbian. In French as well, we find oupire or upire, from Czech upír or Russian upyr’. (The Czech word seems to be closely related to the word for bat, netopýr.) It is possible that all of these terms ultimately harken back to a Turkish word. Montaclair writes as well that the first theoretical text on vampires is Augustin Calmet’s Dissertation sur les apparitions des anges, des démons et des esprits, sur les revenants et les vampires [Treatise on the Apparition of Angels, Demons and Spirits, on Ghosts and Vampires] from 1751. Calmet presents vampirism as a relatively recent phenomenon specific to the lands lying to the East:
In this century, for about the past sixty years, a new scene has presented itself to our eyes in Hungary, Moravia, Silesia, Poland: men dead for several months have been seen, it is said, to return, walk, talk, infest the villages, mistreating man and beast, sucking the blood of their relatives and thus causing their death; in such a manner that one can only be rid of their dangerous visitations and their infestations by exhuming them, impaling them, cutting off their heads, snatching their hearts, or burning them. These ghosts are given the name of oupires, or vampires, that is to say bloodsuckers… Certainly nothing like this was ever known in Antiquity. When one examines the histories of the Hebrews, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Latins, one cannot find anything even remotely similar.
Eventually, certain vampire-like creatures that were nonetheless known to Antiquity (stryges and lamiae, the latter being female devourers of small children) were, as Montaclair demonstrates, themselves submerged into the figure of the Vampire. Almost invariably, the threat is seen as coming from the East: there were no vampires in England, Spain, France or Germany, according to accounts in the 18th century.
Ultimately Montaclair sees the vampire as a kind of return of the repressed East of eastern Europe: the original inhabitants of Hungary and Bulgaria came from somewhere in the East (the Hungarians from somewhere around the Ural mountains, the Bulgarians from the Volga River). At the same time, the vampire myth serves as a metaphor for the Turkish invasions of the eastern fringe of ‘Christian’ Europe, which, however, itself becomes vampiric after its ‘blood’ has been ‘sucked’.
On some deep primordial level, the vampire myth must reflect one aspect of the universal human fear of the return of the dead, who, forgetting their proper ‘place’ in the order of things, come back to disturb and haunt the living. Many if not all Asian cultures have rituals to ensure that the dead remain contently in ‘their’ realm: certain rituals, some of which survived in eastern Europe, ensure that they will not get lost as they travel to there from here.
Yet it is interesting to note that, somewhat contemporaneously with the child-eating lamiae of Ancient Greece, there existed a specifically Indian ‘vampire’, who spoke Sanskrit and was not known for sucking blood, but rather relating fantastic tales, which, however, are dangerous as one must remain completely silent as they are being told. This set of narratives, known as the Vetāla cycle of tales, is as well-known and popularized throughout Asia as is Count Dracula (the fictionalized version of the 16th century Vlad the Impaler) is in Europe. In the original account, reaching back to an oral tradition most likely thousands of years old, the Vetāla is a risen corpse who inhabits charnel grounds. A certain King Vikramakeśaren has to come and fetch him and put him in his sack so as to carry out a tantric ritual with an ascetic who has turned up at his court. Once the sacrifice of the Vetāla has been completed, his body (in the Tibetan version, for example) turns to gold ‘for the benefit of religion’. The Vetāla, therefore, bears certain clear alchemical functions, but is also capable of fatally ‘infecting’ entire villages and communities, and has a certain proclivity for human flesh as well. He infects not the living, but the dead, who, once inhabited by his spirit, carry on the contagion principle to others. The term Vetāla has been alternately rendered into English by scholars as ghoul, zombie and vampire. In more popular terms, though, the Vetāla has already began to acquire blood-sucking habits in some quarters, somehow assimilating with the figure of Count Dracula.
This particular combination of the figure of the undead as blood-sucker and tale-teller in one brings us to Noémi Szécsi’s novel, recently published in English. The protagonist of The Finno-Ugrian Vampire is as loquacious as the Vetāla of old, but does not demand our silence in return. Jerne is an immediately recognizable figure in just about any urban setting of the present day: a young woman who works in a publishing house merely for the greater glory of making a contribution to the cultural life of the nation in which she lives: ‘It seemed unacceptable to me to make a profit from an institution like Elektra and Co. Publishers, an institution that fulfilled the noblest of goals.’ She also scribbles on the side, in this case somewhat off-key fables for children:
‘This story is so obscene that there is no question we have to leave it out,’ said Norma-Elektra [co-owner of the small publishing firm where Jerne works] about the story of the little girl who was lacking something. We were in the middle of our usual Monday morning business meeting.
‘But what shall we put in its place?’
‘A similar story with something lacking. What would you say to “What the man takes away on horseback, the woman brings back in her apron?”’ I interposed.
Throughout the course of the narrative Jerne’s 200-year grandmother does her vampiric best to induct her granddaughter into the family’s traditional profession (when she is not taking a rest in her coffin in the flat they share). Along the way, there is little about present-day urban Hungarian life (chiefly literary) that is not satirized, often brilliantly, as in this passage:
…to keep up my spirits, I produced a list of the six most popular basic themes to be found in lyrical poetry, ranking them, as I went along, in order of frequency. These were the candidates:
- You are beautiful and I love you
- You don’t love me
- I don’t love you
- I am immortal
- Carpe diem
- The changes of the seasons
The Finno-Ugrian Vampire clearly will take its place alongside other present renditions of the vampire myth, including the novels of Anne Rice and the most recent Twilight series. (Perhaps it is unfair to compare Jerne to the rather lock-jawed Bella, but there is certainly no contest when it comes to wit.) Hopefully, readers will find their way to this eminently enjoyable novel, in the highly readable translation of Peter Sherwood.
See also our interview with Noémi Szécsi.
Photo by Tamás Dobos (Hamu és gyémánt).
Tags: Noémi Szécsi