Failure is often accompanied by a loss of identity, or at least a loss of self-confidence. This is not a new idea, but it is one that first came to my mind when reading Krisztián Grecsó’s new novel. Room For You Beside Me explores an individual’s search for identity in the context of his biological and socio-cultural dependence on his family. It argues for the therapeutical effect of cognitive efforts; it claims that the personality constructed in the act of learning is one which accepts her biological and socio-cultural roots; and that the most important component of the personality thus constructed is tolerance. In the following I will try to elaborate and illustrate these claims.
The identity crisis of the narrator of Room For You Beside Me is not, or at least not only, fed by his feelings of inferiority on moving to Budapest from a small settlement in the puszta. Although his roots and the realization that his abilities are far beyond those around him play a basic role in shaping his identity, the immediate cause of his loss of self-confidence and his decision to investigate the family history is a much more elemental sense of failure caused by a romantic disappointment. On the first pages of the novel the narrator, who works in an office of government-issued documents in Budapest, is informed by a colleague—who is, as it turns out, the seducer himself—that his girlfriend is being unfaithful to him.
By a lucky coincidence, on that same day the narrator meets the editor of the district newspaper to whom he offers to write an article on his uncle. Then—also by mere chance—when doing research for the article, he discovers certain half-truths concerning his own family which compel him to make further investigations. But before that, on the day of the breakup, he tries to escape reality by reading the autobiography of his paternal grandmother that she had given to him years before to type, but that he had forgotten all about. “It felt good to occupy myself with it, it calmed me down, and it eased the cramp in my stomach. By dawn I had read it twice, the second time I even enjoyed it.” (p. 16) Thus, reading becomes a therapy, a means of forgetting about a real-life situation. The next day he returns to the text: “Straight after finishing I started reading all over again, like a holy text in which it is not the meaning that matters. While reading I observed myself: when does my heart beat faster, when do I get bored, which are the sentences that make my heart sink.” (p. 17) Although at this point it is not yet the meaning that matters but rather the effect the text has on the reader, later on the content will gain importance as the narrator tries to unravel the facts, legends and half-truths that feed the family history and confront them with the memories and the oral tradition of the family.
The idea that the personality constructed in the act of learning is one which accepts his/her biological and socio-cultural roots is important also because in the context of this novel it allows for the possibility of narrating failure. And if failure can be narrated, it can also be accepted and confronted with the success-oriented value system of the 21st century that tends to gloss over such experiences. The narrator’s family, not destined to survive even in a biological sense, mostly consists of people with derailed lives: “The troubles of Daddy Márton and Granny Juszti have converged in us, a physician-scientist in Szeged had told us then, we are a great family for testing, it is rare to find such an unfavourable genome.” (p. 118) Due to the unfavourable genome, the socio-cultural environment, or perhaps both, the novel is full of unsuccessful life stories. Rather than becoming a Benedictine monk at the monastery of Pannonhalma and thus proving that it is possible to break out from the disadvantageous circumstances, the paternal grandfather’s brother, Benedek, does a stint as a kitchen hand at the monastery, then gives in to his homosexual leanings and returns to the family home where he eventually goes mad after losing his partner. Márton, the narrator’s uncle fares no better. He quits the technical university to work as a ticket controller at the railway company, and ends up as an alcoholic and a game addict. His career culminates at the psychiatric ward, just like that of the narrator’s father. “Our men tend to be miserable” (p. 44), the narrator says. Apart from the unfavourable genes and the psychiatric problems, their misery is also caused by the environment: “dad and the other [men in our family] were just as miserable as the others. No more, no less. Why should they have been different? They weren’t; they were just as crazy as all the others. It is exactly that: their grievances, their silliness, their petty selfishness that made them similar to the other people who lived at the settlement.” (p. 161) Thus, the investigation of the family history ends with the realization that the narrator carries in himself all the failures handed down to him by the family genes and the environment.
The last story of the novel is that of Domos, the paternal grandfather who had left the family house to work as a scaffolder in the Budapest of the 1950s and 60s where he fell in love with the daughter of a Budapest middle-class family. The girl eventually refused him and married another man because of Domos’s peasant origin. On the last few pages of the novel Grecsó draws a parallel between the present events and those that happened fifty years ago. The narrator is waiting for a girl on the same corner where his grandfather had waited for his lover in vain decades before. Will the girl show up? The novel ends with an open question, offering new possibilities, and leaving the answer to the reader: “I looked at my watch. Already ten past five, and Juli is nowhere in sight. I was thinking about Domos, how he was waiting and Éva was not coming. I tried hard to chase the memory away. This is now, and it is me here. Twelve past five, Juli is nowhere in sight. How long did Domos wait, the question occurred to me. The waiter stepped out to the café terrace, looked around and went back. Quarter past five.” (p. 287)
The girl actually used to be a prostitute with whom the narrator had a brief affair before. Later on, when he meets her again, she works as a waitress. The only paragraph that clearly refers to the title of the novel is related to her. Having accepted and appropriated the family history, the narrator seems to find his way back to himself, as evidenced by the calm, self-confident tone of the following paragraph: “Some of the things that come to my mind I don’t really understand, they just come like a stream and sometimes I say them out loud, like there is room for anyone beside me. And anything. I imagine a fat, cube-shaped man who fills his own cube completely, there is no room beside him, everything belongs to him. The moment, the space, the possibility. Now I think of the waitress, I don’t even know her name. And it occurs to me that there is room beside me for more than just the past. What would she say if I told her this. That there is room for her beside me. She would be even more scared of me, she would think that I am absolutely crazy. But she must understand that I have no prejudices…” (p. 277)
There is room for you beside me. Regardless of the context, this is the most tolerant sentence I have read in the Hungarian literature of the last few years.
Grecsó Krisztián: Mellettem elférsz
Budapest, Magvető, 2011
This review was originally published in Hungarian at irodalmijelen.hu.
Tags: Krisztián Grecsó