10. 17. 2018. 14:30

Depth in Irregularity

Review of Réka Mán-Várhagyi's Magnet Mountain

I loved the irregularity in Mágneshegy – which isn't to be confused with a lack of form. The author reveals that our common narratives are just structures, they can be played with. – Réka Mán-Várhegyi's Magnet Mountain is reviewed by László Kőszeghy.

Réka Mán-Várhegyi's first novel is ambitious. It has a yoga-class held in an artist's apartment in New York, the movements of young skinheads in Békásmegyer and an introduction to the exclusive world of Hungarian sociologists, meanwhile posing a number of relevant questions regarding social inequalities. Mágneshegy (Magnet Mountain) at times combines sociographical elements with the appearance of ghosts or an almost Kafkaesque dream-scene, but the density in content doesn't degrade the novel; it makes it all the more interesting with great formal solutions.

The author uses a number of parts from her first short story collection, Boldogtalanság az Auróra-telepen (Unhappiness at Auróra – PRAE.HU – József Attila Kör, Budapest, 2014). First of all, we can see the characters and main motifs of the title story: an academic party, sociologist love, the difference between the Hungarian countryside, Budapest and New York. Although, understandably, the text of the almost 400-page-long novel is not as even, its rhythm is not as paced as the denser short stories of Boldogtalanság az Auróra-telepen. Mágneshegy is constructed of sentences rich in creative rhetorical tools (repetitions, lists) typical of Mán-Várhegyi (although there are some unusual – for me – neologisms).

Two narrative voices are present in the novel: some chapters are from the perspective of Réka, the young sociology-student, telling her story in the first person, and the rest is told by a third person narrator. The two narrators aren't so far apart however; the inside and outside perspectives aren't so different. Maybe this is what a sentence of Réka, struggling with the difficulties of writing a novel, refers to: "I can never decide – I say after some consideration – whether I should write in the first or third person." Réka sometimes describes her own behaviour with such accuracy as if she was watching herself from the outside. She only starts showing interest in Tamás Bogdán when she finds out what sort of position he has in the academic hierarchy. She thinks of him merely as a "stocky guy", comparing him to a cartoon character, but then: "I realize who he is. The gnome that I have seen up until now suddenly disappears, his figure elongates, his face gets more character, somehow his entire presence becomes better [...] I didn't choose for it to be this way, I don't want to stand up straight and look at this man with bright eyes, this professor, talking to me right now." Later she analyzes her own role in even more detail: "I know I wouldn't find Bogdán this attractive if he wasn't a university lecturer. I'm not proud of this. I also know I'm being passive and our relationship is determined by what he wants." The omniscient third person narrator often blends in with the words or thoughts of a certain character: "This Tamás Bogdán was exactly the type, at least Enikő thought so, and lo and behold, around forty, he turned himself into a big boy, got chubbier, his hair turned elegantly grey around his temples, and he's not even a sociologist, he's an anthropologist. When did he change field, or did he study anthropology as well?"

Although the self-reflection of the characters, and the psychological and sociological observations throughout the novel could become over-didactic, Mágneshegy manages to avoid that. The characters aren't black and white, there are no obviously good or bad characters, pure oppressors and oppressed, etc. The novel shows a variety of social groups and their perspectives (from the rational approach of sociologists through esoterism to political conspiracy theories), it reveals the mechanisms keeping patriarchy up and the constant reproduction of inequalities, while visibly not intending to educate its readers so directly. This, however doesn't mean that there is nothing to be learned from Mágneshegy. It isn't by chance that such great names appear: Pierre Bourdieu, Zygmunt Bauman, Woody Allen. I could even say, Mán-Várhegyi takes the party drinks and conversations directly from Woody Allen movies to a Budapest of Zygmunt Bauman's ambivalent and postmodern world, and then observes the interactions like Bourdieu, sensitive to social discrimination.

I loved the irregularity in Mágneshegy – which isn't to be confused with a lack of form. Although the novel always indicates where we are in time in the beginning of each chapter, it constantly jumps around in time (the stories take place between 1999 and 2002), therefore it's difficult to follow what happens when. Not everything is resolved in the novel, there are unfinished events, unsatisfied desires, the story doesn't live up to our expectations from a number of aspects. One comment on moly.hu reads: "you can't do this to the reader." But the characters develop. The author reveals that our common narratives are just structures, they can be played with. Furthermore, we've already seen in her collection of short stories that Mán-Várhegyi knows how to finish, be it a short story, the chapter of a novel, or an entire book.

This work is, above all, well-written literature. Apart from that: a sensitive and pure experiment to reveal urgent problems in "the country of malevolent gloom."

(Réka Mán-Várhegyi: Mágneshegy, Magvető, 2018.)

The review was originally published in Jelenkor.

Translated by Fruzsina Wilhelm.


Translated by: Fruzsina Wilhelm