02. 28. 2013. 08:28

A relentless march towards tragedy

Judit Kováts: Denied

Anna was a carefree teenager in 1944. Then World War II broke out. She is now 85 years old, and narrates her life, broken forever by her war experiences. Judit Kováts's "Denied" shows history as we have never seen it in books and sources.

Perhaps the most horrible aspect of all those tragedies we have learnt about from history books is that those who suffer them are never aware of what is going to happen. Things don't happen all at once; they unfold from hour to hour, from day to day. In their misery, people are bound together by hope: they keep telling themselves that it won't be so bad, it just cannot happen in a civilized world. Then gradually it becomes clear that it can happen after all – and what is worse, it has already happened. Those who suffered them are still alive, but only time will tell how they are going to live from then on.

Anna Somlyói, the protagonist of Judit Kováts's novel never asks the question whether one can continue to live after all that has happened, and if yes, how. The novel begins in 1942, with an idyllic teenage world where Latin tests and teenage love affairs are the biggest worries. This idyll will soon come to an end, however.

The protagonist of Kertész's Fatelessness, Gyuri Köves says that one of the main secrets of staying alive is that you must want to live just another day. Or, as Ágnes Heller writes in Auschwitz and the Gulag, things just happened somehow, one after the other. First the yellow star, then the ghetto, then the camp, and the people just made one step forward at a time, straight into the midst of the horror. Few books show this relentless march towards tragedy, controlled from above (from who knows where) with such an incredibly elemental force as Judit Kováts's novel. These steps alter life so radically that there is no way back ever, under any circumstances. This is how the characters of the novel march forward in a small town in northeastern Hungary, somewhere around Nyíregyháza, where first the Jews were deported, then the Russians arrived, and the narrator is trying to find the words to describe what happened to those who remained there.

Kováts's novel builds upon the theory that there is no such thing as an objectively narratable and immediately available history. The author sought out survivors, and applied the method of oral history to make them speak about their denied and never articulated past. The novel seems to embrace the theory that the personality before, during and after the trauma cannot be one and the same. These survivors and sufferers mostly articulate their experiences just like Anna Somlyói in Denied: whatever happened must have happened to someone else. This conception and position of the individual determines the novel as a whole; the narrator and the narrated I are split and duplicated, and the narrative framework created by Kováts fits this scheme perfectly and delicately.

There is a common conception that a trauma cannot be transformed into a narrated experience, one that the individual is capable of fitting into their own life. They try to force upon themselves the interpretation created by society, and must forget whatever had happened. While reading Kováts's novel it gradually becomes clear that this collective concept is not only inapplicable but it causes further damage and loss. The text proves that forgetting is impossible without evoking the events. All through the novel Anna Somlyói is trying to forget – and this is one of the causes of her tragedy of a lifetime. This is what she understands at the end when she says "Now it is only me who knows the truth, the others are gone. I never wanted to remember. I spent my whole life wanting to forget what had happened. But it's no use, I cannot escape this."

The denied past is dominated by suppression: the horrors that happened to Anna and the other villagers are articulated by pronouns, silences and omitted details. The story focuses on Anna's rape by Russian soldiers, as well as other personal tragedies. Yet it is undeniable that Anna's fate is dominated by rape, bleeding, pain and her subsequent infertility. And most of all, shame arising from all this – shame that neither she nor her fellow sufferers could overcome. They regard the past as their own shame that can only be washed off with a decent marriage. This is the verdict of a village community who did nothing when it happened, nor when the Jews were deported.

The novel is an intricate network of stories about crime and punishment, victims and victimizers. This is the most sophisticated aspect of the book: the victims are guilty themselves, yet the question constantly arises if this guiltiness can be condemned. Is a father guilty if he sacrifices ten villagers in order to save his son? Is a mother guilty if she stands by without doing anything as her daughter is being raped, so that she could save her other children and the child in her womb? Is a woman guilty if she marries a man twenty years her senior without loving him (and without being able to confess him even on her deathbed what horrors led them to where they are now), in the hope of a 'decent' life? And what do those villagers think now who failed to do anything at the time, and who will now wait for their Jewish neighbours and friends in vain forever? Judit Kováts's novel, made up of oral history, individual stories and historical events, poses these questions which are unanswerable, but it is not her aim to answer them. Her aim is to explore a past that we – the second and the third generation – have a right to decide whether we accept it as a part of our identity and a part of our past. We can decide about our own fate, but we can make judgments only within narrow limits.

This novel is an important work of contemporary Hungarian prose, despite its weaknesses. The articulation of rape here does not go beyond the language of Alaine Polcz's One Woman in the War, which is a thematic predecessor of this book. Yet In Denial has a rightful place in a literature which aims to answer the question of who we are, actually. 'A star is no big deal, you won't die from it', Anna says to her Jewish friend when the Jewish laws are introduced, but she soon realizes that, this way or the other, they will both die from it. And this is what the reader must also realize and remember.

Kováts Judit: Megtagadva

Budapest: Magvető, 2012

Nikolett Antal

Tags: Judit Kováts