07. 10. 2013. 12:11

“Our memories shall not be our memories”

Szilárd Borbély: The Dispossessed

Szilárd Borbély’s new novel, The Dispossessed, a very significant and touching book, is about the inhabitants of a village in the easternmost part of Hungary.

More precisely, it is about the narrator’s family, which resembles the author’s family in many respects. The narrative takes place in the sixties and early seventies, though internal narratives and reminiscences reveal more remote layers of the historical past as well.

Poverty, or rather, a state of complete destitution, is the basic existential experience of this milieu. The material-economic circumstances, the geographical determination, the habits, the education, the language and the consciousness of the inhabitants of the village are all constitutive elements of this destitution, and Borbély’s attention is extended to all of these. The narrator’s family is marginalized even in this general state of privation. The mother is considered a stranger; she does not feel at home in the village. The father is not an equal member of the village society either, since he bears the stigma of being the Jewish “Mózsi’s bastard”. Thus, his situation is precarious, and he is unable to assert his will. He is cheated on in the shop, and protests in vain; he does not receive a proper salary; he is unable to get a job; he suffers an accident. Then he even has to escape from the village, and visits his home in secret, while his family lives in the deepest poverty. In the end, his siblings deny him and dispossess him of his heritage. Following the death of their youngest child, the mother falls into a depression, and rumours in the village say she has gone crazy.

The novel deploys all the usual topoi connected to poverty. We read about starvation (“Eat whatever you find”), pitch-covered linen tablecloths, kitchen tables (“Everything happens on it. Our whole ‘fucking’ life”), stinking swill buckets. The book is full of naturalistic images, with special emphasis on people’s relations to animals. Already in the first pages of the book we read that the narrator’s mother pushes the cat’s head into its own excrement in order to educate it not to mess inside the house, then beats the panicking animal with a broom, until the children open the door, so that the poor thing can escape the house. This is followed by a detailed description of the suffering of this starving cat who tries to swallow a frog, but it turns out to be too big, and the animal eventually vomits it with huge pain. “I got nausea, the sight took me so unexpectedly. However, I could not take my eyes off”.

In the child’s sensual perception of the world animals play a fundamental role, especially winged ones, with deeply ingrained images of horror attached. Cruelty to animals and the clearing away of their corpses are recurring subjects of the novel; we read nightmarish stories of the child beating hens and slaughtering doves. As these images accumulate, the reader totally loses his or her sense of comfort, a reading experience which perfectly fits the hopelessness of the world represented in the book.

The attitude of adults towards children is basically archaic and pagan. Several sections of the novel describe the practice of beating children and the beliefs connected to it, complete with continual reflections on the child’s perspective and situation. In this environment, childhood is by no means happy and carefree; parenting has nothing to do with tenderness. “I shitted you! My shit cannot talk to me like this!”, Otto’s mother says to her son, when the child refuses to kill the kittens. Just as sexuality between adults is devoid of love, respect and happiness, the private sphere and dignity of children is unprotected from adults in an environment which does not respect the individual.

After all this, one can easily guess that the waiting for the Messiah, evoked in the subtitle, can only be understood as a constant sense of lack. The motif of the Messiah is linked to the village’s unspoken history, including events related to the Holocaust. The innocence of the narrator’s little brother, doted upon by the family, and his incapacity to speak, link this child, deceased very early, to someone who is Messiah in a different sense: the Mesijás of the subtitle, the fool of the village – a Gypsy.

Mesijás lives on the periphery of the village society. His marginal position is stressed by his speech defect, as well as the fact that he makes a living emptying the villagers’ pit latrines. This incredibly meek man is a continuous target of jokes – digestion and reproduction are primary sources of laughter for the villagers. As the book’s title indicates, in this world there is no room for a Messiah who would offer some hope and a metaphysical, religious perspective; the word ‘Messiah’ can only appear in a  dialectal form (‘Mesijás’ as opposed to ‘Messiás’), and – as the subtitle indicates – if he ever showed up, it could only happen in the past.

The family’s Jewish origin plays an important role in their uncertain identity. The narrator’s mother keeps differentiating herself and her family from the peasants. However, she cannot define where they belong in socio-cultural terms, except for the fact that her father was a drill instructor. So it comes in handy that the larger family and the village consider her husband to be the Jewish shopkeeper’s illegitimate son. On the other hand, this is of course a serious setback for the family. Their relation to Judaism is one of the manifestations of their constant self-torture.

Further layers of identity are revealed in the novel. Grandma Juszti, the mother of the narrator’s maternal grandfather, tells the child about the family’s Ruthenian origin, but the mother denies it, claiming that they are Hungarian, notwithstanding their Ruthenian ancestors. At another time the old lady says: “We are Hutsuls”, whereas the grandfather claims: “We are Romanians”. The impossibility of fully understanding and controlling one’s identity, and, consequently, its sense of impersonality – a contradiction in terms – is echoed by the constant reference to prime numbers, recurring in various contexts, from the first page almost to the last. (“We are walking in silence. There are twenty-three years between us. Twenty-three cannot be divided. It can be divided only by itself. And by one. There is such a solitude between us.”)

Certain words that the narrator’s family uses in a peculiar way are evoked with the formula “that’s how we say it”. Szilárd Borbély evokes a language which is no more his own, and recalls a world that belongs to the past. On the basis of former interviews with Borbély, as well as his own writings, we can recognize quite a few episodes of his parents’ history. The last pages of the book tell the story of how the narrator left the scene of his childhood; by that time the family was living in another village. The narrator, who is now an adult, takes the blueprint of their former house to a picture framer. His mother comments: “Why on earth would you want to do that? We are not in the picture. Only the empty room. Nothing is there that happened to us…”. The main character concludes that “the drawing was of another house, a perfect one, without any people in it”, and eventually does not pick up the framed blueprint from the picture framer. The novel represents the imperfect house with all the suffering. It is a grave and moving book which does not offer release.


Borbély Szilárd: Nincstelenek. Már elment a Mesijás?

Budapest: Kalligram, 2013


This is a shortened version of a review published in Hungarian in the literary magazine Műút.

József Krupp

Tags: Szilárd Borbély