06. 01. 2010. 09:01

James Dean and the bright future of socialism

Szilárd Rubin

Recently deceased Hungarian prose writer Szilárd Rubin’s chef-d’oeuvre, The Chicken Game, is one of the undeservedly forgotten masterpieces of the Kádár era, re-published in Hungary in 2004.

Born in 1927, Rubin began his career as a poet, along with such members of the post-war generation as János Pilinszky, Ágnes Nemes Nagy and Magda Szabó. This line of his career, however, came to an abrupt end with the communist take-over in 1948 and from this time onwards, prose became the dominant genre within his oeuvre. Rubin became a novelist, in fact a socialist realist novelist, but despite this clearly politically motivated compromise did his best to evade the rigid stereotypes of socialist realism. From time to time his works touch on politically delicate issues, particularly his second novel, and he also manoeuvres surprisingly freely for his period as regards the use of gender roles. For instance, one of his heroes, upon returning home from the war, takes revenge for all the ills that his mother had suffered by going to bed with his step-aunt, otherwise a class enemy. In fact, after careful calculation, the attentive reader can even work out that all of this takes place on the night of April 4, 1945 – the day when the Russians entered Hungary. Possibly the rediscovery of Rubin’s oeuvre will take place through an investigation of gender roles.
 
It is a fact nonetheless that Rubin’s first two novels are not well written and only merit the attention of the literary historian. The same is true of his Stalinist propaganda booklet published in 1953 entitled Partizánok aszigeten [Partisans on the Island]. Rubin, who worked for the national film-making company and the prose journal Rakéta Regényújság was quite at home in the various popular genres: in 1973 he published a crime story under the title Mulatság a farkasveremben [A Party in the Wolfs’ Den]. By no means a bad crime story, as crime stories go, its reader first needs to get over the trifling fact that the investigation is carried out by an intelligence officer aided by well-intentioned workers’ militia men with machine guns.
 
Rubin’s opus magnum, however, is beyond doubt Csirkejáték [The Chicken Game], first published in 1963. Relatively unnoticed by critics at the time, after the appearance of the second edition of 1981 critic László Földényi F. took note of the existentialist inspiration in its context. The amoral view of the hero is "alien to the Hungarian prose of the past decades, but The Chicken Game is so committed that the reader begins to wonder whether it was really written in the 1960’s along with other Hungarian novels known from that period." Péter Esterházy "stumbled upon" it in 1997 and came to similar conclusions. "At first this book seemed impossible to place amidst those harsh years – it must have been like a meteor or a Martian. In the Hungarian language we rarely read such minute analyses of the bad side of the self, without sentimentalism or emotion. The cold fire of dispassionate interest, like a naked, pagan gaze, is, though not objective, very direct and undisguised, quite rare."
 
What was it about The Chicken Game that provoked this shock of discovery? At first sight, the book is the love story of a writer at the beginning of his career, Till (Attila Angyal), combined with a portrait of the age, meaning the late 1940’s, early 50’s. While Till’s lover Orsolya Carletter, a woman from a family of déclassé aristocrats, is doing her best to take advantage of whatever grips the new regime offers, Till, the rebel without a cause, drifts into increasingly desperate and hopeless situations until finally he mindlessly destroys the relationship.
 
Till’s narrative revives the events as a massive effort of recollection and finally comes to the truly weighty questions lying at the bottom, behind the sequence of scandals. "It seemed as if I were on track: remembrance revealed the secret of my vacuity and indifference." This vacuity and indifference indeed render Till akin to the great rebels of modernism. In a way which is totally unparalleled in the Hungarian literature of the period, the dictatorship of the 1950’s provides no more than a backdrop or frame of reference to the world of the novel, while The Chicken Game itself seems to stand independently of it all. Far from being an apolitical book, it would be very hard to say that it is about the oppressive, crippling influence of dictatorship or the Rákosi era itself. Till’s demons are not delegated by the Party Committee – they spring from his internal world, in their own right as it were. Decadence, a rebel without a cause and the 1950’s – one possible parallel to this context, however appalling this may sound, is James Dean. Indeed, the book’s title motif, the chicken game itself, might well be related to what is called ‘the chicken run’ in Dean’s 1955 classic Rebel Without a Cause.
 
Szilárd Rubin was acquainted with the famous scene where people have to jump out of a car heading toward a rift, as late on as possible. Whoever jumps first loses: he is the chicken. In Rubin’s novel the chicken game is also mentioned by American young people as a way of having fun: here the players have to stand on the railway tracks and jump out of the way of a rushing engine at the last moment or, preferably, the one after.
 
The motif occurs in both a political and an existential context. A bunch of young critics and poets are talking on New Year’s Night, saying that sooner or later all of them would be compelled to follow the party line. Instead of writing lovely but unpublished poetry, "if we want to make it, we will have to write differently. As it is now, we are just waiting for it to get worse." Till replies, "I know. In America they call this the chicken game." Till does what he needs to for his part and writes an appealing political piece, but he has no real interest in ‘making it’ in the world. The most famous and much quoted sentence of the novel, where the hero comments on his own image in the mirror, says, "I looked at the tense, pale face, that of a belated, inverted Julien Sorel who is enchanted, instead of Napoleon, by Metternich and leans his ladder against the crumbling wall of genteel mansions in the age of revolutions."
 
Later on, the image of the chicken game recurs as the symbol of a hysterical love affair: one of the characters refers to the protagonists as a couple kissing on the railway tracks. The Chicken Game seems like a negative love story – starting with moments of idyllic happiness, it deteriorates into a sequence of humiliating  situations which drag Till lower and lower down the vortex. There is always something worse to come, there is always another station. One chapter ends with a scandal so shameful that the reader assumes there can be nothing further. Indeed, the engagement comes to an end but for all that the next chapter starts with "In a room in the cottage at Zebegény, at ten o’clock at night, I slapped my wife round the face three times. The blows were not strong, but the third one hit her nose." No – Till’s life is a trap he can’t escape from simply at the cost of further scandals. The structure of the book adds up to some sort of a self-psychoanalysis where instead of the understanding of one single traumatic event it is the process of understanding itself that leads to some sort of an explanation. The moment of resolution comes through a segment of the past which is in no way related to Orsolya – the memory of four summers spent at the mansion at Orfu as a child. Escape is secured by a private secret which is embedded in the immovable past and is not related through a single element any more to the present. "Orsolya was gone and I still stood there in the ally at Orfu and did not feel aggrieved or bereft. It was here of all places that I once triumphed in a hopeless struggle and this awakened hope in me that one day, even if it was a long time to come, I would live in peace both with her and with my dead – in peace with myself." This is not, however, where the book ends – the finale is more hopeless and unmerciful. Twenty years later we see Orsolya as wife to the military attaché at Ulan Bator – looking at her life one seems to know for sure that Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina had a relatively easy ride. However, returning from abroad, Till is just as helpless and desolate: stepping out from the "mausoleum silence" of the airport waiting lounge, the closing image of the novel shows the disheartening neon light of a paint advertisement.
 
Rubin’s novel is a subtly constructed, yet sweeping piece of writing which blends self-pity with hysterical rage by a cunning sense of proportion. Its dynamism is as powerful today as ever. All of this is complemented by a striking ability to create atmosphere. It is enough to open the book on the first page. "I stopped in the moonlit street in Pécs. Behind me stood the stone wall of the lido – I could smell the water of newly filled pools. Their coolness poured into the night. There was not a soul about. I leaned against a tree and looked at the dormant street. It was silent, with a bicycle track of sand glowing phosphorescent in the road."
 
And so it goes on. At one and the same time wild and sentimental, The Chicken Game is a novel constructed with a taut rhythm and powerful counterpoints. It is also a half-forgotten book – a fact for which, I admit, I have found no reasonable explanation up till now. Except, perhaps, the commonplace knowledge that success in the literary world depends on continuous presence: that authors who publish little and live a retired life are quickly blotted out of view by more eager colleagues. It is rumoured that there were plans for a film script, which, had it come true, would have changed the state of affairs radically. The material had the promise of becoming the great Hungarian James Dean movie of the 60’s (and it is perhaps no accident that its reader is reminded of the figure of Zbigniew Cybulski from Ashes and Diamonds). Let it suffice that The Chicken Game is a masterpiece, indeed, it could easily turn into a cult book. Read it if you doubt it.
 
Szilárd Rubin’s last book, Római egyes [Roman Numeral One], written in 1985, is a novella also based on the process of remembrance, which can be seen as a sequel to the previous volume in a number of ways. Again, it is in the context of a failed love affair that the monologue unfolds, showing a life which comes to be derailed and finds its solace in the distant past. This familiar constellation results in a story which, although somewhat more economically drafted and narrower in scope than The Chicken Game, is highly atmospheric. In the figure of Martinszky it is easy to recognize Rubin’s friend the poet János Pilinszky. Rubin is fond of the technique of presenting powerful portraits of existing figures through a character in a novel. And although it is not very elegant of me to hide behind arguments of authority, I must mention that in a conversation János Pilinszky called Rubin one of the most important prose writers along with László Németh and Géza Ottlik. He was clearly aware of the existential element in Rubin’s work, the struggle of a solitary man against the darker side of his own nature.
 
In one of the scenes of Roman Numeral One, Pilinszky/Martinszky shows a photograph to the hero, "the photograph of a small boy which was taken in the street of a village somewhere in Paraguay, showing a child whose face is menacing even in its beauty." Only a moment later we are told who is in the photograph. "Heathcliff aged five." The hero of Wuthering Heights is a secret key figure in Roman Numeral One. For Pilinszky, too, he is one of the most important and heavily laden novelistic heroes. This time, however, it is the location in Paraguay I wish to focus on. There is another photograph in Roman Numeral One which shows the ruins of some baroque buildings left over from a Jesuit state founded in the middle of the jungle in Paraguay – remnants of an Indian sample state which was later destroyed by colonial powers of the world. The desolation of the displaced Paraguayan child is thus interwoven with the motif of the orphan, a symbol of lost paradise and expulsion so characteristic of Pilinszky’s poetry.
 
The same motif recurs in an anecdotal instance in Szilárd Rubin’s short story "Artúrka" [Little Arthur]. Participants of a 19th century scientific expedition are listening, in utter amazement, to the Indians singing the tenor solo of an 18th century Italian opera in the depth of the Amazonian jungle. I like to think of these images as symbols of desolation in Rubin’s prose. Baroque relics in the depth of the jungle, a meteor or Martian, all bespeak an unexpected and unprecedented achievement at the turn of the 1950’s and 60’s. Szilárd Rubin, just like his hero, leans his ladder against the crumbling wall of genteel mansions – but I think this time it was rather a good idea.

József Keresztesi

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