03. 19. 2018. 18:07

On the Final Frontier

A Review of Benedek Totth's Second Novel

The precise time and place are unknown: the city is simply the city, the ruins simply ruins. There is a river, but it is simply the river. We don’t know where we are, nor where we are going. The rubble-strewn football pitch is no different to a thousand others, the bombed-out bunker as anonymous and nondescript as the few remaining buildings with a first floor. – Dániel Szmerka’s review of Benedek Totth’s The War After the Last War.

War rages, leaving the city and its surroundings a burnt-out wasteland. The Americans and the Russians are locked in interminable combat, fighting with pistols, rifles, knives, axes, grenades, bombs and rockets. Fighting with poison gas. Fighting with nuclear bombs. We find ourselves on the front line between these rival armies, in something which is still called ‘the city,’ but bears little resemblance to one: In reality it is now nothing but a rolling sea of rubble and ruined buildings. Beyond the city boundaries, only the blackened stumps of trees break the endless, blank monotony of the plains. And the mounds of bodies.

The American, the black soldier, came from the sky above, while the Russians – like rats – emerge from the sewers below. They shoot not only at one another, but at anything that moves. Even if the war itself is utterly impersonal, it is composed of numberless personal battles, and these can only be won by using your wits. It’s possible that the war will never – can never – be won, but one day the first bomb fell, and since that day the war simply is, while the city is not. You’ve got to know when to run, but you also have to know how to kill. Not only to kill, but to choke the life out of someone silently, and to know that a man is at his most vulnerable when he’s taking a piss.

The precise time and place are unknown: the city is simply the city, the ruins simply ruins. There is a river, but it is simply the river. We don’t know where we are, nor where we are going. The rubble-strewn football pitch is no different to a thousand others, the bombed-out bunker as anonymous and nondescript as the few remaining buildings with a first floor. The sea of ruins, at once concretely, materially real yet utterly formless, becomes at length as blank and monotonous as the bare plains encircling it. And always there falls, as in Cormac McCarthy’s nightmarish vision, an endless rain of ash that slowly buries everything.

It’s the boy who finds the American. The boy has lost his family, his friends, and indeed the whole community of people in whom he had once trusted and who bore the responsibility of looking after him. Standing dumbly before the bombed out bunker, he seems to have personally lived through the paranoid ‘law of rockets’ outlined by Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow: The rocket spares nobody. Still, the boy has survived, and even succeeds in saving the life of an American parachutist – Johnny, to be precise – who has had a bad landing and been shot through the leg. It eventually transpires that one person from the boy’s past life, his brother Teó, is still alive: he chances to see him in a photo taken months after he had disappeared. This naturally sets up a quest; the boy sets out to find him, with Johnny at his side.

Through ruined streets and minefields, dodging Russian patrols and gangs of cannibals who have escaped from the ‘Red Zone,’ as well as the burned and poisoned survivors of radiation, they at length make their way out of the city and onto the scorched plains. Here they find a world in which it is increasingly difficult to survive, where every night a thousand pairs of eyes – the eyes of animals mutated and deformed by radiation – gaze hungrily at the two humans sitting by the campfire. The story unfolds through a series of narrow escapes interspersed with vicious firefights, until all that is left is a dead silence, shattered only by the occasional clatter of distant machineguns. Then some new danger emerges, and the whole cycle begins anew. The goal, however, remains the same: Rescuing Teó, and by extension supporting the continuation of human life. When the purpose of life becomes saving another life then there is some possibility for continued humanity, even if only as detritus.

But are there really bodies that rise from the dead? And if you shoot them, do they really keep getting up again and again? Or are the endless waves of Russians who keep throwing themselves against the resistance in the forest simply a sign that their numbers are far greater than seemed apparent at first glance? Johnny is a survivor, a real American hero, and his machine gun blasts away as often as one might expect from an American action hero. But what if the things they encounter in the woods cannot be killed? What if they’re already dead? What if a war of this sort, having distorted, twisted and crushed humanity, having gone beyond the human, has at last ended by going beyond even itself?

In ‘The War After the Last War’ Benedek Totth has created an oppressively dark vision of the future. As we accompany our two heroes through this nightmarish world, we feel a continual urge to reach into the novel and take the young boy by the hand, leading him to safety. We can’t, of course, any more than we can warn him to be careful, having seen – or rather implicitly sensed – that he is in terrible danger. Everywhere he goes he must reckon with the unavoidable unknown which might strike at any moment. All we can do is stumble with him amid the ruins, the sewers, the bomb craters and the petrified forests. Clambering over bodies, heading straight towards the place where something is waiting. Something which may prove much worse than death. Something inhabiting the shadowy borderlands of life, with working arms and legs, perhaps even some species of mental activity, but whose humanity has been blasted to dust and scattered on the hot, nuclear winds.


Benedek Totth: The War after the Last War, 2017, Magvető, 264 Pages.

The original review in Hungarian can be found at litera.hu

Translated by: Tom Sneddon