Some authors just keep writing the same novel over and over again. Just as Kerouac felt comfortable only on the road, it seems that Grecsó feels at ease only between Budapest and his native Szegvár.
It was while reading One Hundred Years of Solitude that I first felt the need to draw a family tree, and the last time I needed such help (now downloaded from the internet) in order to keep in mind the names of all the uncles, nephews and lovers was while watching Game of Thrones. Rather than Buendias or Lannisters, Krisztián Grecsó’s new novel is about the Károlyi and Szoloványi, Klein and Weisz, Gerla and Dániel Darida and Szél, Bernát and Lehoczki families. Among others, it has to be added. Even listing all the characters, hiding behind masks, would be too much, though the volume at hand is not a bulky one: it is less than three hundred pages long.
Grecsó started his career as a poet, but acquired fame as a short-story writer. He immediately found the topic he kept elaborating ever since in his first prose volume, Gossip Mom, to which he owes success as well as a number of lawsuits. This topic has still not run out, even though all of Grecsó’s novels published since then are about people from the south-east of Hungary, the region known as ‘the Land of Storms.’ Some authors just keep writing the same novel over and over again. Just as Kerouac felt comfortable only on the road, it seems that Grecsó feels at ease only between Budapest and his native Szegvár.
Rewriting the same experience and re-articulating the same problem can be an exciting game. Besides those who draw family trees while reading, Masquerade can also be interesting for those who seek to reconnect to previous books of the author. Like in Gossip Mom, the previously mentioned, slightly infamous volume of short stories, the sensual joy of gossiping remains, however, there is a darker side to this book: people who were deported and who returned after the war appear here, as well as the hopelessness, misery and provincialism of the villages and the peripheries.
The topic of love and the genealogical threads was more pertinent in this book than in the author’s previous one. The feminine voices too, are more significant and sensitive. We are presented with the fates of around half a dozen people who set off from the same place and later meet at certain junctions. People who come from the same settlement and yet do not know each other unmask one another in a pub, a restaurant or a train. Some try to conceal their past, others want to reveal it.
Central European culture is a culture of forgetting, reticence and repression. History gives life to such fates as that of János Klein who, upon coming home from labour service, becomes the Catholic cantor of his village. Other threads of the story such as orphanhood, unfaithfulness or murder are independent of regional history. The subtitle (Mosaics of a Family Novel) indicates that the novel can be regarded as a string of connected essays that can also be read individually. At first, it is hard to see the connections, then at around the middle of the book the diverging threads start forming a coherent whole, and it becomes clear that everything is connected to everything.
The narration is polyphonic, the omniscient narrator’s place is taken by various male and female narrators talking in the first person singular. The chapters, although more or less (or mostly less) rounded, are usually left open-ended; there is also a monologue consisting of a single sentence. This is all part of the game just like the ‘close-ups’ and ‘long shots.’ The main characters of certain chapters reappear as walk-ons in others; grandparents, neighbours and colleagues appear as seemingly insignificant minor characters in each other’s lives, only for us to learn their stories a few pages later.
Meanwhile, we walk the streets of Budapest; at Christmas and at Easter, we visit relatives in the countryside. Those familiar with that part of the country can recognise the settings in Csongrád and Békés counties. The novel also tackles generational conflicts, wanderlust and the search for identity. Some of Grecsó’s characters seem to have been born in the wrong place. They have a hard time adapting their careers to their backgrounds, with their parents and siblings drawing them down, whereas one of the female characters, who had been abandoned as a baby moves to the countryside from the city in order to find her roots.
Although the starting point is a crime story from decades ago, the murder of two girls and the kidnapping of a third one, Masquerade is mostly about the present. It is not short of tragedy or of humour, serving as a counterpoint. It talks about women who live most of their lives as widows, whose lives is reduced to tending to graves and attending product demonstrations; about men for whom the congregation functions as a handhold, and about countless lies, secrets, secret relationships, old offences and traumas.
As Grecsó mentioned at the book launch, he was inspired by Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Grecsó loves telling stories, and he sure knows how to do it. It feels as if he had randomly chosen photographs from school or from a family album, and set out to explain why two faces were identical. The branches and roots of the family trees are inextricably bound together by the time we finish the novel, and we keep trying to disentangle them even after closing the book.
Translated by: Anna Pályi
Tags: Krisztián Grecsó