12. 12. 2013. 06:14

Magical Tisza

Margit Halász: Singing River

The mixture of fantastical elements and the ordinary events of a small village makes the prose of Margit Halász a true gem of magical realism. "Singing River" proves that the provincial milieu can indeed be a contemporary and actual topic in 21st century fiction.

Margit Halász’s novel, Singing River, is set in a fictional village by the Tisza River called Kandicsfalva, where the everyday characters of provincial Hungary inhabit a very particular and localized world of their own. Although some of them have lived in bigger cities during their studies, or moved into the village from other towns, and on some occasions even went on short trips to neighboring fairs and festivals, the villagers’ way of life and view of things is determined by this confined perspective. Most of the external elements, like the EU, globalization or the internet, are incomprehensible or seen as negative in their daily lives. As a consequence, in such a small and closed space the significance, and also the impact, of local stories and key figures increases disproportionately. All new events, like the striking attempts of running away from home, committing suicide or the act of murder, are seen and treated as if they were the recurring echoes of similar past events, fitting into the familiar scheme of the village history. Moreover, there is no clear differentiation between the fate of humans and that of animals: the love story of two little piglets, named Romeo and Juliet, could be easily read as another one of the tragic tales in the village. This already points to the main feature of Singing River: in this book everything is lively and colorful, and everything – be it a plant, animal or human – has a fate that can be turned into a story. The novel comes to life through the voice of an omniscient narrator who truly sees and knows everything: we hear the talk of the firefly, we read the thoughts of a mole, and see the dreams of the lizards or pigs. Much emphasis is put on the description of various sounds, colors, flavors, and most of all, odors: the scent of Mari Vas evokes in her husband, Béci Mátyus, the memories of his mother (comically paralleled by the little piglets, who also remember their mother because of the smell); or the case of the two rivaling womanizers who share the same smell of creeping ivy…

The prose of Margit Halász combines mythical elements with the characteristics of fairy tales. The book is populated by dwarfs, river monsters, strange underwater animals, amphibians and reptiles, together with a breed of butterflies which seem to have fluttered into this world from the pages of García Márquez. It comes naturally to this universe, then, that one of the main “protagonists” in most of the stories is the river itself, being the master of life and death for the village, gaining mythical proportions by concealing mysterious creatures, and yet in some cases getting the anthropomorphic features of men and women alike. Furthermore, it has a central role in structuring the narration by providing a meaningful setting for the action: villagers traveling up- or downriver on a boat, someone fishing on its banks, or just simply sitting and watching the water. Not to mention the symbolic connotations invoked by the river, functioning as a vivid projection of collective or individual subconscious realms, and guiding the archaic, time-forgotten world of Kandicsfalva.

All aspects of this small universe are defined by the natural laws and circumstances of the land, or the primordial instincts of the people who live there. Even the name of the village is derived from a species of crayfish (kandicsrák), while the bars, for some reason, get their names from sea creatures (Shark, Shark Two, Blond Mermaid) and the types of pizzas in the local restaurant are called according to the fishes found in the Tisza River. Within this context, the novel tells the tragic tale of two lovers by combining and fusing the present of the events with the timeless past of the village. The unfortunate fate of Mari Vas and Renátó Sztojka follows the narrative patterns of an archaic world, reenacting the mythical tragedies living in the collective memory of the villagers, and at the same time adding another legend to the local chronicle.

This creatively rich and organic mixture of fantastical elements with the ordinary life events of a particular micro-cosmos makes the prose of Margit Halász a true gem of magical realism. Thanks to the novel’s unique, local perspective, the masterfully presented, complex array of details in the description of the rural world, the well-drawn, lively characters and also the wonderfully depicted riverside environment, the book definitely becomes a pleasant read (with only minor inconsistencies of storytelling). Singing River proves that the provincial milieu can indeed be a contemporary and actual topic in 21st century fiction.

Ferenc Darvasi

Translated by: Szabolcs László

Tags: Margit Halász