09. 14. 2012. 10:15

Rats, revolution and cotton flowers. Zsolt Láng: Beasts of the Earth

This novel speaks in a refreshingly normal tone about sexuality and about Hungarian life in Romania – two topics surrounded by lies, hypocrisy, shame and suffering.

No sooner did Bori “start to take off her pants than school began”, we read on page 172, although our heroine is only a ninth-grade student (age 15). We follow the kids up to the twelfth grade, until they become more or less adults – and then, precisely then, the world suddenly changes around them.

The story mostly takes place in 1989 in a town in Romania, formerly belonging to Hungary. It is a town close to the Hungarian border, most probably Szatmárnémeti/Satu Mare. There is only one vague reference to it being Satu Mare (p. 155), yet those who know the town well can easily recognize it from the detailed descriptions. The novel is about Hungarian high-school kids in Romania, who are just now becoming aware of the world around them (they go to the Hungarian high school). The story is narrated in third person singular, so we get a bird’s eye view of everything that we can, and should. Amidst the exciting school events there are budding friendships and romances, and in the background of the ‘apprentice years’ of our adolescent heroes we also get a glimpse of the political and social life of contemporary Romania. It is still a harsh dictatorship, with its security officers, party secretaries, political pressure weighing on private life, news about escapes across the border, dreaded and wooed yet not-so-dangerous comrades from Bucharest, pressure on schoolteachers, horrific circumstances in hospitals, lack of supply and rationing, and at the same time abundant supply in party canteens. And towards the end of the novel the great Romanian Revolution breaks out.

By that time the students have become more mature, intellectually as well as physically. This novel speaks in a refreshingly normal tone about sexuality and about Hungarian life in Romania. This is by no means an easy task. Both topics have been loaded with falseness, self-righteousness, lie, self-deception, hypocrisy, and of course, shame, suffering, bitterness and tragedy – and an incredible amount of ideological ballast. Therefore it is extremely hard to speak directly, if you like, naturally, about what an adolescent boy does with his willy, or how an adolescent girl relates to her period (‘cotton flower’), or how the sexual and family life of adults actually looks like. Just as it is very hard to speak naturally about what the concept of Transylvania means for those who live in it. In the concept, that is. Our heroes, for example, do not live in Transylvania proper – they live in the Partium, to the north of Transylvania.

Beasts of the Earth is the third novel in a series with the title Bestiarium Transylvaniae. The first volume, Birds of the Air, published in 1997, evokes the stories of the 150 years of the Principality of Transylvania (1570–1711), deploying its major characters, and narrating historical events quite freely, since, as the author claims, we have no sure access to these events anyway. All we definitely know is that there was indeed this principality, a country beyond the forests, which was pretty much independent of Hungary, yet governed by Hungarian aristocrats, under Turkish, Romanian, Austrian and royal Hungarian pressure.

The second volume, which is a sort of two in one (volumes II and III of the series), was published in 2003 with the title Beasts of Fire and Water. It mostly takes place in the Principality of Moldavia, and is narrated by a Hungarian person, probably from Transylvania, in conversation with an Orthodox Romanian monk, Father Eremie. The two ramble about the non-Hungarian cultural past and present of the region.

The third book (volume IV) provides an explanation to the author’s earlier choices. With characters from the former two novels appearing in this one as well, the two cultural memories also meet in the present time, in the present novel, as well as in the country created after World War I, in which Transylvania exists today. Bori’s adult life begins in the Romania after the Revolution, starting after the last page of the novel, it continues up to now, and will continue tomorrow. With its gentleness, calmness and refined sense of humour this series of novels is a momentous and very serious contribution to how Transylvania could be seen in contemporary Hungarian culture.

The three books are not only called Transylvanian, but also a bestiary. The bestiary is originally a medieval, heavily didactic genre, which linked the description of real or imagined animals to allegorical and anagogic moral and religious interpretations. Zsolt Láng subverts this genre, although he keeps its enigmatic and allusive character. He seems to prefer to leave things ambiguous and somewhat mysterious. Even the reason why the novel is called a bestiary, if it is not one, remains largely a secret. Of course, there are some animals in it. The chapters of the first book at least had birds in their titles, and these birds even appeared in the text. And indeed, the chapters of the second novel bore titles of beasts of fire and water, from the sunfish to the fireworm or the flamingo. However, by the third novel the animals have disappeared from the chapter titles (although there is one title with a dead rat in it, and two with a fox), yet they seem to be more vigorously present in the story than in the second novel. There are dogs, fish, owls, foxes, and even subterranean horses. However, the most important animals are rats. Casually and secretly, the life of a rat family, headed by a blue-haired male rat, unfolds as a parallel, subterranean story. They live under the main square, in the gutter – the best location, close to the party canteen and to the security officers. Their story is masterfully interwoven into the story of the upper world. With their bare, primitive fate they show something, echo something, refer to something that happens in the upper world.

The novel abounds in excellent dialogues and comical dramatized parts, like the dialogue of two old women written in a dialect, or the great historical scene of the unification of the country by Mihai Viteazul, dramatized by high-school students.

Zsolt Láng (1958), who lives in Tîrgu Mureş, and is editor-in-chief of the Transylvanian literary journal Látó, published his first volume of stories twenty-two years ago. One of the best stories in that volume is about the impossibility of writing a novel today. In my view, Beasts of the Earth, the most recent outcome of this impossible, decades-long venture is the best and most solid work of its author to date.


Láng Zsolt: Bestiárium Transylvaniae IV. A föld állatai

Bratislava: Kalligram, 2011

A shortened version of a review published in Hungarian on Litera.

Csaba Károlyi

Tags: Zsolt Láng