An old, chocolate brown Chevrolet in 1980, a white Mercedes in 1986, and finally, in 1989, a new model, a silver grey Mercedes leaves from a village close to Zurich, and arrives in the town of Senta, situated in Voivodina, Serbia, a region with a large Hungarian population: the rise—the ‘success’—of Melinda Nadj Abonji’s characters, the Kocsis family, who had emigrated to Switzerland, is well documented by the sequence of their cars. To show things in a good light: this is not only an instrument but also an aim of this book. Tauben fliegen auf (Pigeons Taking Off) shows Switzerland and Voivodina, as well as the family and the two different worlds with the eyes of the older Kocsis girl of the two, Ildi, who is in a constant search for beauty; her loyalty and love manifest themselves in the fact that she transforms everything into beauty. The dirt and the heat are just as beautiful as the alley of poplar trees through which the Chevrolet passes, or the mud into which the white Mercedes sticks. Ildi’s lover, Dalibor, a Serbian guy who deserted from the army, has bad teeth, yet they make his smile beautiful. The Kocsis parents are beautiful as they are preparing for the mother’s fiftieth birthday party at a lakeside restaurant where an empty plate with a photograph is kept for the mother’s sister, Icu, who is stuck in war-ravaged Serbia. And good coffee is made with beautiful and economic movements in the Café Mondial, managed by the Kocsises—it is from her own confused, angular movements of the hand, among other things, that Ildi understands that she has to quit the family business, and even to stop living with the family. And Hungarian men are also beautiful, the fathers when they get drunk, when they swear and curse politicians and the communists who are responsible for everything—their necks, ‘bold and naked’, are beautiful.
Cars and other motifs—like the pigeons of the title to which we will come back later—are subtly hidden in the text; it is only at the second reading that they turn out to be structural elements. The rhythm of the novel is similarly determined in a subtle way by the alternation of chapters taking part in Switzerland and those taking part in Serbia. One here, the next there—initially, there is a tight order, just as the immigrant families try to keep order in maintaining their relations with the motherland (Melinda Nadj Abonji’s choice of word). But when in 1989 Granny—the person who embodied this relationship—dies, and then the war breaks out, and Ildi stops travelling to Senta for more than a decade, then only a few Serbian chapters are interpolated into the Swiss chapters, and those are all narrations of traumas: the grandmother’s story about the Forties and the Fifties, the decades that ruined the family; Ildi’s own traumatic story about leave-taking, leaving the well-known courtyard and the house, followed by another traumatic meeting with the parents toiling away in Switzerland, whom she had not seen for four years; and finally the last breach, the farewell to Granny, who returns to Senta.
Perhaps in every family of emigrants, or more precisely, in every family broken apart by distance there is a Granny, who is not merely a grandmother but someone who has a special name, and who, while alive, maintains the mother-ness of the motherland; to whom one can always return. The Granny of this novel is gentle and ‘pigeon-hearted’; one of her favourite songs goes: ‘I inherited a pigeon heart from my mother’. Béla, the beloved cousin of the Kocsis girls—who later on gives up hiding from the recruiters and is taken to fight in Banja Luka—raises pigeons. We do not learn from the novel if he will ever come back from there. There are also pigeons at the railway station at dawn when the Kocsis girls start home after a night of partying at the club, which was turned into a club from an occupied house—this is the only place where the pigeons taking off become metaphorical. But the motifs and the system of chapters are but a background—the novel impresses first of all with its strangely structured, long sentences and its slowly drifting language. The nicely tuned music of the text seems to render the intensity of feelings, yet there is great awareness and intentionality behind it—even though at times it slips out of the author’s hands, and in these cases the drifting language is in conflict with the awareness. And it seems that this duality manifests itself in the way Ildi relates to those she loves and as she tries to remain loyal: there is attention, decision and reflection behind this, the interplay of closeness and distance—seeing things as beautiful is sometimes a conscious beautification. (And what gives food for thought is why it is so shocking for me, a Hungarian reader living in Hungary, that this novel is not ironic, and not cynical—there is absolutely no irony or cynicism in the way the protagonist loves her dusty, anguished motherland, her short-tempered father, her sometimes submissive mother and the extremely male-chauvinistic culture she comes from.)
We must go through countless episodes and pages until we finally learn that in the meantime the Balkan Wars had broken out. The procrastination in the text precisely mirrors the numbness of the Kocsises, worried for their relatives and struggling with bad conscience in their secure Swiss home. Besides the Hungarian minority in Serbia, the whole line-up of the South Slavic region turns up at the Café Mondial: Glorija is a Croat, Dalibor is a Serb living in Croatia, whereas Dragana, who is haunted by the voice of his little son, who got stuck in besieged Sarajevo, is a Bosnian Serb. The Kocsis parents protect themselves against the depressing news by means of denial: "we cannot allow ourselves to talk about politics in business". Miklós, the father, prefers not to know the origin of his employees. His hope is that Hungarians in Voivodina are, after all, outsiders in this conflict—but war and ethnic conflict eventually reach Voivodina as well.
The Kocsis parents, who had sacrificed a lot for their daughters, know it all too well that in Switzerland (as well as back in Serbia) they can only be second-rate citizens, constantly sweating in embarrassment because of their accent and their language mistakes. The only way they can partially integrate is by working, then working even more, and producing impeccable results—their first word in Switzerland is exactly that: Arbeit, and their slogan is "We do not yet have a human fate here, we must work for it first." In the meantime it turns out that the country which has received them and which has a strong democratic tradition, is not receptive at all—it marks off strangers with democratic means. In the decades spanned by the novel, from the Seventies to the Nineties, there are ever new attempts in Switzerland to reduce immigrants to obedience—Schwarzenberg’s proposal would have excluded Italians, that of the Swiss People’s Party those coming from Yugoslavia, later ex-Yugoslavia; and we don’t even get as far as the anti-Muslim feelings that are prevalent today. This is how the history of immigrants in Switzerland evolves, while in the Balkans another kind of history plays havoc. In the Café Mondial Herr Pfister, Herr Berger and Herr Tognoni (himself an ex-stranger, a ‘Tching’, that is, an Italian) have unending discussions on the uncivilized character of the wild ‘homo balcanicus’ and their head shapes. Eventually, xenophobia objectifies into shit in the lavatory of the café, smeared with excrement, and this word is important, says the novel, because while it will not appear in a decent German sentence, it is used in the expression ‘shitty Yugos’. The Kocsis parents prefer to ignore this incident, whereas Ildi wants to report it to the police. And this is where we see that the parents’ sacrifice was worth it: their daughters do not sweat anymore; they speak impeccable German, and do not wish to accept the role of second-rate citizen. The Kocsises’ story is a success story, but it also entails the breakup of the tiny, closed microcosm of the immigrant family: Ildi, to experience freedom and loyalty to her parents, moves into town.
The way the father, Miklós Kocsis, swears is doubly incomprehensible in Swiss terms; it is a doubly marked, forbidden language. But Ildi is fascinated by it: "there is nothing I love to listen to more than his curses and invectives… this is when I know that there is something in him that I understand, and I wish that I could make Father’s curses audible, I wish that I could translate them into another language, but in a way that they would really be resplendent". It is obvious that, again, distance and love are necessary for the aggression coming from the father not to be frightening. The whole repressed family story of the Kocsises can be heard in these curses—the story of a family ruined by Fascists, partisans, the henchmen of the Yugoslav People’s Republic, the appropriations and the labour camps. Miklós’s daughter can hear the defiance of his father who longs to be independent. These curses are now resplendent, their translation is ready—the novel has been written.
(This review was originally published in Hungarian on litera.hu)
Melinda Nadj Abonji: Tauben fliegen auf
Salzburg: Jung und Jung, 2010
Tags: Melinda Nadj Abonji