07. 25. 2018. 09:57

Journey to the Heart of Ambaradan

Review of László Garaczi's Tearing Off

As the very best writers do, Garaczi has been writing the “same story” and reflecting on the “same period” (from his childhood in the 1960s up to the present) – László Garaczi's 'Tearing Off' is reviewed by Szabolcs László.

There is an intense and unique excitement to reading a new novel by László Garaczi. Even before cracking open the book you already know that it is going to take you on a road trip of linguistic brilliance and subtle-to-raw humor. Your brain gears up in anticipation of the wild associations and cultural references, and your memory prepares to accommodate a whole array of witty phrases or entire paragraphs that you will be recalling to friends and to yourself in the future. Not surprisingly, this excitement about Garaczi’s books is shared by most of the Hungarian reading public (and increasingly abroad as well), since he is that rare literary creature who earned his credentials as a writer’s writer and then won wide critical acclaim and popularity. Those few who have not yet read him, should start as soon as possible. To further boost the appetite, I can offer the following approximation: If you take the entertaining postmodernism of David Foster Wallace and distill it into the minimalism of Chuck Palahniuk and then mix in the rough life-worlds and characters of Irvine Welsh you might end up with something resembling Garaczi’s prose. Or close enough to get an idea.

His latest novel, Tearing Off is the new entry in the autobiographically themed “Lemur series” associated with Garaczi’s name. He established himself as a remarkable literary voice in the 1990s with the first two “confessions of a lemur,” As If You Were Alive (1995) and especially The Splendid Bus Ride (1998), published in English in one single volume entitled Lemur, Who Are You? Then, after a longer period of publishing short stories, poems, plays, and screenplays, came the third book entitled Face and About-Face (2010) focusing on the experience of army service in the Kádár era, and the fourth, Wünsch Bridge (2015), delivering a more poetic meditation on memory. Tearing Off is the fifth in a series of topically interrelated books, all of which also work as stand-alone novels. As the very best writers do, Garaczi has been writing the “same story” and reflecting on the “same period” (from his childhood in the 1960s up to the present) yet somehow managed to produce an entirely fresh and unique piece of literature every time he stepped into the proverbial river of memory.

If one were to define the theme of the current novel, it could be said to focus on the processes of “growing up” and “becoming a writer” while giving us a taste of the underground subcultures of 1980s Budapest. Yet the straightforward application of an autobiographical label to Garaczi’s mock-bildungsroman would miss the point of his art. His prose is like Schrödinger’s cat, if you will: simultaneously a meaningful story set in a certain place and period, and in the same time – or, on the same page – an exquisite game with language in which any illusion of a unitary and historically specific “self” is fractured by irony into its textual components. It is not by accident that Hungarian literature’s infamous “critics’ debate” of the nineties was mainly centered on the enigma of Garaczi’s prose. One side, flying the flag of pure textualism, claimed that his novels extinguish meaning and cancel out referentiality. The other, attempting to rescue his books for more conventional genres, emphasized the gripping ego-narrative in the coming of age story. Yet anyone reading the novels – without having an axe to grind in literary theory – can discover that such an opposition is misleading: the two dimensions of Garaczi’s novels nicely complement each other (i.e. thank God, the nineties are over). The combined effect sinks in later. Or it doesn’t. Either way you are left with an amazing reading experience.

Presenting seven phases in the life of the narrator, the novel testifies to a young man’s refusal to “grow up” and join the responsible, adult world. It also reveals the impossibility of maturing in the mind-numbing context of Kádár’s “goulash communism.” Both by choice and by necessity (the resulting contradiction is not lost on Garaczi), the narrator remains a rowdy kid, a Comecon-version Holden Caufield trapped in the “happiest barracks” of Eastern Europe with the corresponding defiant attitude, speech patterns, and psychological reflexes. The tenets of this oppositional stance come from what the narrator and his friends call “Thanatosian anthropology” according to which it is mere illusion that adults are still alive, they’re only moving due to some hollow impetus. However, readers will learn that it was not easy to remain hidden in such a parallel world during the communist regime. If citizens above the legal age had no job to report to, they were labelled a KMK (“közveszélyes munkakerülő,” that is, a „destructive work avoider”) and fined or even jailed. Yet, if one sought work willingly there was high chance of being swallowed up by the establishment and of losing one’s punk credentials. Or as one of the characters formulated this catch-22: „If you get a job, you’re a jackass. But if you don’t work, they’ll take you. Yet if you do work, they’ve already got you.” (64)

As a response to such a predicament, the narrator opts for a life of being in constant transition, from one odd job to another, from one girlfriend to the next, from one party to another, taking one day at a time. He consciously refuses to strive towards any reasonable and respectable livelihood in a country which was constantly and vulgarly “building socialism” and a bright future. This gesture fundamentally deconstructs the conventional logic and form of the autobiographical genre because it denies the possibility of progression. As the narrator states: “I do not change, I do not mature, I do not get better, I do not heal.” (131) Time also loses its linearity since „everything is always precisely right now” (146), and is replaced by accumulation and the layering of mnemonic details. There is no significant evolution in the socio-political context either, the world is not becoming a better place: the 1989 regime change is described as the “softening of the dictatorship.” Instead, the narrator’s horizon is defined by the eternal concerns of a teenager: a love of soccer, a life-long fascination with Maria Schneider, a steady addiction to alcohol and drugs, and a wish to become a writer. In a way, the predictable failures regarding a possible winning goal against Brazil and meeting the famous French actress are compensated by the latter two activities.

Partying hard and an interest in writing are both consequences of the alternative life-style chosen by the narrator – and are also closely intertwined. He secretly aims to be the chronicler of the Hungarian underground during the desolate and surreal 1970s and 1980s. To do this, he plunges deep into the Budapest night and goes with the flow, enhancing his perception with all kinds of substances and joining any activity which sounds just insane enough. The title of the novel, hasítás, literally meaning splitting, slashing, or ripping, is a Hungarian slang word that is meant to sum up this intense behavior – the other is the Italian slang, often repeated in the novel: ambaradan, or “beautiful chaos.” And the narrator does indeed reemerge with quirky and wild and humorous stories, portraits, observations, scenes, and dialogue. We follow him to legendary house parties, to sleeping rough in Paris, to smuggling weed from Berlin, and on a surreal trip across Northern Hungary in a Trabant to harvest poppy seeds. Reconfigured versions of these stories reappear in the narrator’s first literary publications which are integrated into the novel as destabilizing mirrors for the narratorial “confession.” They are all possible fictional accounts of the journey to ambaradan – and, of course, they are all true.

Garaczi’s game with the multiple literary forms of memory and self-understanding is ultimately a very serious one. The incessant quest for rhetorical sparks, puns, and punchlines, the delightful juggle with literary and cultural traditions is a conscious exercise in delaying the dull silence of reality, both past and present. It is postponing a pointless reckoning with the senselessness of life. An escape into a next escape, and so on. Or perhaps it is more. The ironic cloak which covers every word in the novel both pokes fun at our limited means of describing our place in the world and affirms the joy of using the tools at our disposal. It both denies meaning and gives form to a longing after meaning. Garaczi’s prose is sizzling as you read it and even after you put his book down, “something thrilling is still shimmering in the air, like the ozone before a storm.”


(László Garaczi: Hasítás, Magvető, 2018)


Previously on HLO:
A lemur in the army – Zsófia Szilágyi's review of László Garaczi's Face and About-Face [Arc és hátraarc]