08. 16. 2017. 18:31

Mastery of switching perspectives

Sándor Jászberényi: The Most Beautiful Night of the Soul - Review

To suit the narrative technique outlined above, Jászberényi's style is spare, sharply written dialogues make pages flow by, short sentences and to-the-point paragraphs draw the eye in, inviting the reader to enjoy the experience of reading. – Eszter Tarsoly reviews Sándor Jászberényi's second volume of short stories, soon to be published in English, translated by Paul Olchváry.

Sándor Jászberényi's new collection of short stories, entitled The Most Beautiful Night of the Soul begins with a punchy opening line: "I didn't find out I'd been dead until later". We are soon to learn that the narrator's (near-) death was an accident: a sudden collapse, brought on by chronic sleep deprivation, at a hotel reception in Cairo, followed by resuscitation in an ambulance car and hospitalization. "The first forty-eight hours without sleep are easy to take. Troubles begin only after seventy-two. For instance, you start seeing things which are not there. By the hundred-and-twentieth hour, you cannot tell reality from the hallucinations belched out by your brain. Your nerves are ablaze and pulsate like heated steel. This is a physical condition, it has nothing to do with the soul. It is a state in which death appears to be a compelling option compared to the present" (Vigyen el az ördög/Let the devil take you). The fine and fuzzy line which separates life from death, sleeplessness from a state of alert concentration, and delirium from dreaming is a thread that runs through the fourteen interconnected short stories. The first-person narrator of all but one of these stories is the war-correspondent Daniel Marosh, who appears to be a fictional alter ego of the author.

Neither Jászberényi's nor Marosh's name is new to English-language readers. The latter is the central character and narrator of most of the stories in the former's first volume of prose fiction entitled The Devil Is a Black Dog: Stories from the Middle East and Beyond (2014, New Europe Books, English version by M. Henderson Ellis). Marosh's character is that of a stereotypical war correspondent: an obstinate, self-destructive, hardboiled macho figure who constantly goes against the flow, and who is never too far from disaster zones and hotspots of humanitarian crises. Having covered the dangerous parts of Africa and the war in the Middle East, crossing into the Gaza Strip from Egypt fourteen times, Marosh suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Except that he refuses labels such as post-traumatic stress disorder for his condition; "it is not a disease that I don't sleep much" he would say when he is down to four hours a day (Valaki virraszt érted/Holding a vigil for you). For Marosh, even the terms of Western psychology reek of an ideological bias that flies in the face of capturing raw experience, whether that is of relentless brutality or profound beauty. Indeed, in his description of the course of treatment for PTSD, to which Marosh must submit upon his return to the UK in order not to lose his job, Jászberényi positions his protagonist as equidistant from the cultural assumptions and practices of both East and West, from the cultures of both war and peace. From this perspective, unaffected by the clichés of both worlds, conversation with a Yorkshire-based somnologist comes across as no less absurd than a session with a Bedouin ghost rider or a discussion captured on radio between two jihadists. Through Marosh's mouth (or pen) Jászberényi is reporting on the human side of war from an untainted, stripped-down perspective, which is unsentimental yet compassionate. The result is a book which goes beyond "a masterclass in how to tell a war story", evoking an almost Camus-esque experiment in searching for authentic selfhood.

This experiment is perhaps at its finest when Jászberényi reveals his mastery of switching perspectives within a single story, or, even, in a single sentence, clause, or phrase. The stories thus contrast and question symbols and slogans belonging to both contemporary global commerce and long-established communities of faith. Having just got out of Gaza, Marosh spends Christmas Eve in Israel, hosted by an Orthodox Jewish couple, an Israeli man and his Hungarian wife, who put up a Christmas tree because "that's what a Hungarian girl is used to" (Tél az ígéret földjén/Winter in the promised land). While a glass of Chivas Regal keeps him from looking at his Facebook page, flooded, he imagines, with kitsch cards and messages about "peace, love, and Christmas sales", he suddenly remembers how close he is to the place where "the woman who gave birth in a stable to the redeemer was by now deep in labour two-thousand-and-something years ago". "In theory", adds Marosh sceptically before commenting: "I have never seen a trace of salvation in the world, so, of all holidays, Christmas is the one that irritates me most. In vain have I run away from it to the Middle East, I was followed, here, too, by peace on sale and last-minute love". His musings are interrupted by a beep: Christmas greetings to all foreign correspondents from the international press office of Hamas. But the real hero of this story is the robodog: a robotic toy dog which barks, sniffs, and wags its tail. Advertised as the ideal gift for both Christmas and Hanukkah, on both Arabic and Hebrew TV channels, it is acquired, if needs must, not quite at the cost of, but certainly in the midst of bloodshed.

The sudden swaps between frameworks of interpretation permeate the collection: the reader is taken by surprise by precisely what she is most familiar with. This renders Jászberényi's tales of war particularly unsettling yet gripping, speckled with a sinister kind of humour that brings forth the boundless cruelty of light entertainment, even at times of peace, in Cairo's City of the Dead (A kutya kölyke/A dog's chance), or extreme beauty even in unrepairable brokenness, such as a group of Kurdish peshmerga women sitting under a tent on a sunny rooftop, combing each other's long, dark hair, laughing, just moments before deployment (Isten országa úton van felénk/The kingdom of god cometh). The two slightly longer pieces of the volume counterpoint each other: nowhere else is the brutality of fighting as overwhelming as in children's wrestling in A dog's chance, and compassion as unaffected as in the comradery between the Sudanese and Congolese prostitutes of Cairo's al-Ma'adi suburb in the title piece (A lélek legszebb éjszakája/The most beautiful night of the soul), in which the mysterious, blood-thirsty black dog, familiar from the author's previous collection, also returns.

To suit the narrative technique outlined above, Jászberényi's style is spare, sharply written dialogues make pages flow by, short sentences and to-the-point paragraphs draw the eye in, inviting the reader to enjoy the experience of reading. This kind of writing can do without extra padding: not a single adjective or adverb feels superfluous, yet in setting the scenes and contextualising the dialogues not a single detail is missed. Rooted in the matter-of-fact realism of his work as a reporter, Jászberényi's writing allows the reader to feel equally at home in a broad variety of locations, whether that be a military headquarters in Iraq, an ex-pat bar in Egypt, or a Roma household on the edge of a Hungarian village. In English, Jászberényi's themes and characters have been compared to war-memoir writers such as Philip Caputo and Tim O'Brian, as well as Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway; for the Hungarian-language reader his unfailing sense of humour and ability to disguise profound humanity as cynicism nods to Jenő Rejtő and Frigyes Karinthy. But while both of these interwar coffee-house-going bon viveurs were masters of caricature, Jászberényi's raw material comes from his actual experience as a journalist in contemporary North Africa and the Middle East.

The most accurately enumerated items across the short stories are numbers of prostitutes, quantities of booze, and types of drugs that the narrator consumes, as if delirium was the only possible source of sobriety in the world of war (and peace). Although the present collection would have benefited from a sharp-eyed editor's further intervention to eliminate the occasional, and seemingly unintentional, verbatim repetitions of short passages, it remains an intriguing possibility to imagine what Jászberényi could do in a longer work of prose fiction, a short novel or more closely-knit short stories, which the two key pieces of the current volume anticipate. As previous English-language reviewers have remarked, Jászberényi may well have exhausted the topic of the war correspondent, but he surely has still much to say about the ways in which our sense of self is shaped by culturally mediated expectations and challenged by the unexpected.


Sándor Jászberényi: The Most Beautiful Night of the Soul (A lélek legszebb éjszakája, 2016, Kalligram, Budapest, English version by Paul Olchvary, forthcoming in 2018, Penguin-Random House).

Eszter Tarsoly