07. 02. 2014. 16:40

The soul is a war diorama

Sándor Jászberényi: The Devil is a Black Dog

Sándor Jászberényi has worked as a correspondent in conflict zones for Hungarian newspapers for many years. His first collection of short stories, The Devil is a Black Dog (2013), is based on his experiences as a journalist in the Middle East.

Earlier in 2013, Jászberényi published a nonfiction book entitled Budapest–Cairo. Diary of a War Correspondent, illustrated with his own photos. The two books are based on roughly the same experiences – clashes and riots in the Middle East – though the short stories are specifically about the Egyptian revolution.

The stories delineate a world made of moral bricks, with clearly visible rules. Jászberényi’s characters behave in a way that probably many of us would like to behave – walking up to the gorgeous photographer during the shooting on Tahrir Square, and asking her out, that surely would be cool. This crazy, cheeky behavior reminds one of Camus’s L’Étranger (cf. the first sentence of the story entitled “In the Desert, It’s Cold in the Morning”: “By the morning, my father was dead”): these stories are characterized by alienation and loneliness.

The world of this book resembles that of Mad Max, with lots of dust, filth, blood and alcohol: the descriptions of Middle Eastern and Hungarian scenes are similar in their bleakness and lack of décor. If your world is rotting from the inside, then you will find no flowers blooming outside either, that is why the essential thing is how you feel within your own narrow space: these characters would probably make even the happiest city on earth dark, dusty and unbearably hot. Hell has many varieties, but Jászberényi seems to be at home in all of them.

“I never wanted to live a smart life. I didn’t want to become a model citizen, didn’t want a family, kids. Whenever things like that happened to me, the end was always terrible failure. I have an answer only to the purest situations, life and death, and I feel best when it comes down to such simple questions, without the overcomplications of the reflexes of a dying civilization.” (p. 17)

These stories are truly fiction based on experience: Jászberényi turns reality into fiction; in every story and every utterance, the language experiments with recreating the most precisely possible a feeling previously lived through very intensely. (“I cannot write about something that I haven’t lived through or that I cannot render the most authentically possible,” the author said in an interview.) The experiences described are not primarily about cities, love or work, but feelings that Jászberényi seems to be trying to come to terms with in all his stories. These feelings can only be coaxed out in a spare, tough language and tense dialogues.

The stories take place in such extreme situations that only a very sad, burnt out man with a vacant look and dark soul like Jason Bourne would be able to deal with them, but Jászberényi’s male characters are all like that. They sit and work in a war zone, wearing a gas mask; smuggle video recordings in underwear and start up with women with bullets flying all around, and while they look like superheroes from the outside, they wage a complicated internal war without victories, with continuous losses, and they can only survive with infinitely simple and unambiguous answers, hash, whores and amphetamine. Actually, all men are like that, but this is not usually noticeable from any angle, that’s why it has to be written down.

Jászberényi’s characters end up in various Middle Eastern scenes because it is only in a foreign culture, in foreign cities and a foreign language that one becomes so helpless as to build such a moral world around oneself. In this way, Jászberényi’s quest is similar to that in Cormac McCarthy's, or Hemingway’s prose, or western movies, for that matter.

The book does not abound in female characters. In “Professional Killer,” two boys are shooting at crows with a blowgun because they cannot visit their mother who is severely ill – here, the woman is present in her absence. The other women in the books are prostitutes, lovers or professionals; and in one case, none other than Fate.

One rarely reads a book in which weather is a basic creative force (a case in point would be Krasznahorkai’s Satantango, or War and War); this important aspect of life is usually made light of. In this book, however, the sweltering heat is everpresent – only natural elements are worthy opponents of a lone hero. “It was all because of the air, the high-pressured, humid, sweltering hot air that initially feels cold. It disturbed one’s mind, made it cold, as it penetrated into one's bone marrow.” (p. 92)

In one of the stories Jászberényi reads Hemingway in his father’s apartment, and indeed the author mentioned once in an interview how important Hemingway was for him as he gave him the impetus that eventually led to The Devil is a Black Dog. Jászberényi’s first short story collection is among the best in contemporary Hungarian literature. The author chose a very unusual place to examine moral issues, yet this place is far from exotic: these stories could happen anywhere; there will always be a Jászberényi character for whom the soul is like a war diorama – the rest is mere décor.

My Top 5

  1. "Die Toten Reiten Schnell": imagine that Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) shoots a romantic drama about journalists in the Middle East – this is how it would look like, though perhaps the film would be less sad.
  2. "Something About the Profession": burnt out Middle Eastern photo reporter gets an intern.
  3. "The Devil is a Black Dog": can you shoot the devil? I don’t know, but you must try.
  4. "Somewhere by the Border": the criticism of postcolonialism in a very short story. The meeting of two cultures in media.
  5. "In the Desert, It’s Cold in the Morning": I quoted the first sentence above, and the rest is just as tough. The story is about facing one's father, facing oneself, one’s possibilities, and a sweet dog who had a hard life.

Sándor Jászberényi: Az ördög egy fekete kutya
Budapest: Kalligram, 2013

Two stories by Jászberényi in English in BODY Magazine, here and here

László Valuska

Tags: Sándor Jászberényi