03. 27. 2014. 22:06

Snapshots of border-crossings

Zsófia Bán: When There Were Only Animals

Zsófia Bán discovers a whole new continent for Hungarian and women’s literature, including an ironic and feminist rereading. And all this is done not with the hubris of a conquistador but the sensitivity of the cultural translator.

When we set out on the journey Zsófia Bán’s latest volume of short stories offers, a whole maze of potential paths opens up both in terms of historical time and cultural space. This unique textual universe makes the reader question and redefine their own boundaries of self and other, present and past, home and foreign. In this new collection of short fiction the author revisits various themes of her first volume, Night School (also published in German), such as memory, journey, gender roles or the literary tradition, but these stories demonstrate a more succint style and mature tone. Even though the book cannot be readily categorized as another contemporary body book, somatic impressions and sensual memory do play a visceral role in all the narratives, making them vivid recollections of personal 'herstories' (since most of the protagonists are women). The mysterious jungle green cover also emphasises the duality of intellectual and animalistic elements as well as that of body and mind, thus bridging distance in many ways, be it geographical, temporal, cultural or intersubjective – and eventually bringing close what seems to be far away.

Memory work
The various means, rituals and metaphors of memory and remembering are the master tropes of the volume, especially when it comes to the connection between the personal past and the cultural practices of collective memory, both traumatic in many ways. The short stories vaguely outline the 20th-century history of a Central European family, elegantly avoiding the enforcement of a family saga reading, and instead, offering hints about the characters’ shared past. In this sense, the three most beautiful pieces may be "Three Attempts at Bartók", "The Museum of Things" and the title story, "When There Were Only Animals". Lurking behind the plot of "Three Attempts at Bartók" we find the alienation and existential vacuum of the émigré. The short story is a series of flashbacks of a middle-aged woman, a talented and successful musician returning to Budapest after many years, who got stuck in a traumatic "present continuous" (61) and still cannot come to terms with what she had left behind. The culture shock of homecoming is also a key theme of "The Museum of Things", where the temporal and geographical distance between present and past selves is again painfully obvious. This is also the story of a middle-aged woman, who during a flight accidentally meets the man who abused her as a child. Beside the recollection of sensory impressions, language itself also becomes a vehicle of experiencing otherness and dislocation: "Excuse me? – I answered with the high-pitched intonation of American English, also trying to reproduce the devastating tone I’ve just picked up from the stewardess." (76) Apart from Bán’s unique ability to capture traumatic memories, her irony (a trait that also makes her academic writing utterly enjoyable) is also a true token of her style. The third story that is primarily preoccupied with memory and loss is "When There Were Only Animals", a piece that also provides a powerful closure to the volume (though by far not an easy conclusion). Set on the Antarctica and focussing on a young female biologist’s work of mourning after the death of her mother, the text takes the notions of geographical and intersubjective distance to their farthest point. The protagonist is trapped in a devastating storm – a 'white-out' – and suddenly manages to take the perfect photo expressing her pain: she

took the picture that was finally capable of conveying the serene and enveloping whiteness of the moment that had transpired in the hospital a year before, a moment when colors, smells, sounds, and space itself had disappeared, a moment in which they and everything else had dropped back into that singular, uncanny stratum of time, a time when there were only animals. (212)

(In Best European Fiction 2012, Dalkey Archive Press, 2012, p. 170. Translated by Paul Olchváry)

The photograph is the central visual metaphor of memory in all the stories, and eminently in "The Short History of Photography", "Frau Röntgen’s Hand", "Keep in Touch" or "When There Were Only Animals", framing the theme of the act of remembering in various ways. Both in the opening and closing texts of the volume the photograph actually signifies a lack within the family: that of the husband and the mother. "Frau Röntgen’s Hand" problematizes the masculine discourse of the history of science, offering a private, fictional aspect of a great discovery, the X-ray. The wife of the scientist, who is completely obsessed with his research, can only be a narcissistic extension of his own world – he uses her hand in the first experiment, but he cannot and will not be dedicated to her as a woman or as human being. The X-ray image is a par excellence 20th-century symbol of memory in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain or T. S. Eliot’s "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" ("But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen"); and Bán’s text recycles it as a 21st-century, micro-historical and gender conscious image. "The Short History of Photography" betrays an in-depth theoretical knowledge about photography (see Walter Benjamin’s famous book of the same title), evoking great moments of the previous century, which are actually considered great for the fact of being photographed. "An image is…" – runs the mantra-like refrain of the paragraphs, reproducing the almost vertiginously quick flashes of the camera, and this narrative technique also evokes Gertrude Stein’s modernist ideas on repetition (Bán devotes an essay to this in her volume of academic essays on North American literature, Amerikáner). There is no photograph in "Keep in Touch", but the text is typographically made to resemble a photo image imitating the thumbing of a family album, demonstrating the tension between the desire to record reality authentically and the essential fragmentation of representation (as Susan Sontag also argues in On Photography, a photograph album is always a reality substitute):

Suddenly giant trees, a road in the middle, the textbook example of perspective representation,
the end of the road disappears in a peak in the back of the picture, and in the foreground, like Mrs. Gulliver in the land of the giants,
tiny, but determined,
my mother and I are walking in the direction of foreshortening,
the vanishing point,
or the future, and if it is so, then I know where parallels meet, Farkas Bolyai was trying to caution his little Janos in vain about this.

Uncanny journeys
Travelling repeatedly becomes a metaphor of the distance between self and other, Budapest and South America representing its polar opposites. One of the most memorable pieces in Night School is entitled "Night Zoo" (published in English translation by Paul Olchváry in the Kenyon Review, Spring 2010; it also became the title story of a landmark feminist anthology), and the story entitled "Poison" seems to be its twin narrative. Set somewhere in South America, the story is about Katalin Karády, the celebrated movie actress, the femme fatale of the 1940s, who lives there as an immigrant. One day she visits a snake zoo, and witnesses a specimen moulting in this archetypal garden. The jungle is compared to a vulva, offering a psychoanalytic reading of the story as a female story of the re-invention of the self. Thematically and metaphorically, Zsófia Bán discovers a whole new continent for Hungarian and women’s literature, including an ironic and feminist rereading, even a reterritorialization of the 'dark continent' as the Freudian metaphor of female sexuality. And all this is done not with the hubris of a conquistador but the sensitivity of the (cultural) translator. "Keep in Touch" is a potentially autobiographical piece partly reflecting on this role of the cultural mediator: the story is also set in South America where the narrator, who was born there, strongly denies the identity of the tourist and decides to climb the Sugarloaf Mountain only twenty-seven years later. But she does take in the view in the end.

When There Were Only Animals portrays memory and representation as private but still culturally embedded mechanisms, demonstrating the psychological complexity of crossing boundaries, both intercontinental and intersubjective. The short stories thus read like postcards or snapshots of a journey where the reader can also discover and redraw the margins of their own map, and, as Zsófia Bán puts it, become a "translator and fellow passenger".

Zsófia Bán: Amikor még csak az állatok éltek
Budapest: Magvető, 2012

In German:
Als nur die Tiere lebten
Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2014

See publisher's page

Eszter Ureczky

Tags: Zsófia Bán