10. 19. 2012. 14:40

In cold blood? - Szilárd Rubin: The Holy Innocents

A posthumous work by the recently rediscovered Szilárd Rubin, this documentary novel tries to investigate a mysterious case of serial murder, committed in the 1950s by a 20-year-old woman in a small Hungarian town.

Two and a half years after the death of Szilárd Rubin, the recently rediscovered author of Chicken Game and Roman Numeral One, two literary scholars, Péter Siklós and József Keresztesi edited and published The Holy Innocents, an unfinished documentary novel that Rubin wrote and rewrote obstinately for almost forty years.

In 1953–54 there was a series of mysterious murders in the town of Törökszentmiklós in central Hungary. Five young women disappeared one by one, and their decaying corpses, bearing signs of torture, were found in a well. Their murderer, the twenty-year-old Piroska Jancsó was soon condemned and hanged, but many details of the affair are still ambiguous, mysterious and unanswerable, and the quick conclusion of the investigation and the hasty sentence only confirmed the suspicion that the whole truth was hushed up for political reasons. It has remained unexplored to date.

But is this the real starting-point of Szilárd Rubin’s novel? Similarly to Géza Ottlik, who translated novels by Agatha Christie, Rubin also liked thrillers; he himself wrote two. So initially, he may have been attracted by Christie’s perhaps most cherished basic scheme: the investigation of decade-old crimes, for the sake of the clarification of the past and redress for the vilified innocent. Yet for Rubin, the expression ‘the whole truth’ meant, above all, the Christian moral project of redemption. That is, the sensual torment of being immersed in sin and the ordeal of identification with the sinner, even though he tried to elude this with a self-ironical tone. That is why the prologue includes a weird, frivolous description of the events leading up to the private investigation and the trip to Törökszentmiklós.

A grotesque beginning for someone planning to walk the Way of the Cross. Our self-appointed detective is inflicted with a strange illness that he deems fatal, and even though he is obviously a malade imaginaire or a hypochondriac, yet the urge to face death feels as an imperative. It is also sarcastic that he goes to the Crime Museum, the repository of a past that is closed forever, in order to find a sin to take upon himself, yet his conversation with the director of the Criminal Museum envisages his failure. He chooses a case and a criminal at random, yet the iconic picture of Piroska Jancsó obviously has a great impression on him – he is immediately infatuated with her.

The title of the novel is also telling: the girls are not merely victims of a serial murder, and not only martyrs of the horrible 1950s, when lives were cheap and were traded indifferently; they are more than that: they represent human beings helpless in the face of various kinds of miseries. And this is precisely the reason why the author was incapable of finishing the novel. Most probably, Piroska Jancsó was ‘merely’ the accomplice of a Soviet soldier, the perverted partner of a monstrous pedophile – however, this fact was hushed up by the Soviet and Hungarian comrades: the suspect was immediately made to disappear, and the archival material relating to the case remained inaccessible even after the change of regime. Yet even if the criminal and those who backed him were identified now, it would merely serve to make the thriller and the critique of the regime complete. But what is really at stake here would still remain unsolved: the inner conflicts of the investigator and the material of investigation (to wit, fate); the anthropological secrets of the virtues and evils coexisting in Piroska Jancsó’s strange personality; the horror of the basically unburied corpses (the parents, in their blind hope, would not identify the corpses as their daughters). The oft-repeated statement that the act of remembering equals to an investigation works the other way round in this book: here, the more one investigates, the more the evocation of memories becomes a hopeless enterprise. The editors of the book did well to include a synopsis by the author, written as late as in 2008, and thus to open up the decade-long work of the author with new self-reflections, references to literary predecessors and comments by colleagues who had witnessed the author’s Sisyphean work – as if by returning to the narrative layers of the prologue everything was starting anew, without the prospect of ever being able to be closed.

In the first part of the book the author jumps into the middle of events, together with us, so to say – the rhythm of the text and the dynamics of the metaphorical comments are perfect, the polyphony of impressions works marvelously. Then in the second and third parts we can see the same mirror structure as in Chicken Game: the narrative voice changes constantly, sometimes narrating the story of the trip, then that of writing the story; heavy facts are replaced by an even heavier fact: bewilderment and confusion. The influence of Rubin’s friend, the poet János Pilinszky is clearly felt here. In a 1969 issue of a Catholic weekly Pilinszky wrote an article on confessional and documentary literature, in which he claimed that confessional literature can lay bare the roles we play, whereas documentarism lacks this ability. Can ‘human reality’ be grasped by visits to the scene of a crime, Pilinszky asks, and answers in the negative. Szilárd Rubin’s project is an attempt to bridge this dilemma: by combining confession with documents, he proposes to consider as fact certain things that investigative reconstructions usually do not.

The genre of the book – which is, as we learn from the subtitle, is a moritat, a murder story with a moral lesson – refers to the duality of thriller and pious literature. The props for this moritat are images of a small town, drawn with the fidelity of a sociographer, and the stations of the investigative trip. But this fidelity involves an abstract vision, a rhapsodic artistic logic and a complete dismissal of an arbitrary synchronization of various details. It is not the pieces of information that speak for themselves, but rather the gaps between them. Rather than bringing us closer to the solution, the accounts of meetings with relatives and authorities bring us closer to variations on human solitude.

A map with fissures. Solidarity and resignation. Perhaps the most shocking and most characteristic episode of the novel is a conversation with a girl who was a young child at the time of the events, and was later on brought up by step-parents. Living by another name, she is ignorant of the fact that she is the daughter of a murderer. Better so? Is it really? Her orphanhood is probably more bearable this way, but is it the less absolute for that?

(A shortened version of an article published in Hungarian at Litera.hu)

Szilárd Rubin: Aprószentek

Magvető, 2012

József Tamás Reményi

Tags: Szilárd Rubin