10. 10. 2006. 14:07

Storylining the absurd and the grotesque

Krisztina Tóth: Barcode

The stories of Barcode take the reader on a wild ride, alternately provoking bursts of laughter and gasps of horror, often in the span of a single page.

One of the finest poets writing in Hungary today, Krisztina Tóth, has ventured into prosewriting with the publication of Vonalkód: tizenöt történet [Barcode: Fifteen Storylines] this June. Storytelling is nothing new to Tóth - she had already revealed her considerable capacity for doing just that in her most recent book of poetry, Síró ponyva [Crying Canvas, 2004]. Her poems fuse musicality, word play and irony together with the draw of a good story. The word “ponyva” in Hungarian is also used to mean pulp fiction, and she’s making intentional reference with this title to a genre whose guiding force is the entertaining plot. In Vonalkód she takes the reader on a wild ride, alternately provoking bursts of laughter and gasps of horror, often in the span of a single page.

At the book launch for Vonalkód, Tóth called the volume a “detour,” and while it may be a detour in form, it still rests directly in line with her work as a whole. What connects her poetry and prose are their shared subjects, their taut and fluid language, and the rich and simultaneously pared down nature of her narration. Many of her subjects will be familiar to those who know her poetry: the body, the failed relationship, childhood, the limits of language and communication. However, new themes do appear in her prose, specifically motherhood, journeys and history. Many critics have praised her rendering of the 1970’s and 1980’s, her delicious detailing of the institutional buildings, the furniture and even the school supplies of the period, in the last decades of Communism.

The body, especially the body in pain, carries a central position in the work.  She often links the ailing human body to the wounded bodies of animals and the structures of buildings. One story’s narrator, while suffering from blood poisoning at summer camp, thinks of the limp bat she found the previous day; a father’s illness coincides with the family dog’s death; a dying grandfather’s house loses its spirit as he passes away; a dead owl fallen into a woman’s stove is suggestive of her own womb and aborted twins. 

Tóth also does a fair share of humoring the body. A Hungarian staying in Paris battles with a neighbor over the streaks he leaves behind in the communal toilet. A mother requests that her daughter flush the toilet quietly, so as not to disturb the American exchange student staying with them. A young girl walks in on her camp counselors having sex. A traveler explains to Japanese airport security that in fact her hair scrunchie can be used as a cock ring. This particular kind of direct humor, frequently obscene, is entirely new territory for her work. She offers many side-splitting descriptions of absurd, humiliating moments. The same traveler visits a Japanese shrine, and to the horror of  local passers-by, climbs up the sacred statue of a lion and feeds it a slip of sexually provocative paper. The Hungarian in Paris locks herself out of an apartment not her own, with the bathwater running inside and nothing but a towel the size of a postage stamp curtaining her naked body from the public. 
Directly alongside moments of the absurd, Tóth peppers her stories with the brutal and the grotesque. Many scenes are reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch paintings; she serves up a landscape where larvae instead of pasta swim in grandma’s soup, people vomit feces, frogs maneuver legless towards a lake and a pet goat is hung by its own little rope. Mingling these discomforting images with moments of hilarity and irony, she builds a narrative world which is both tragic and comic. Her world is at once unsettling and invigorating as she leads the readers on a romp through everyday existence distilled to its extremes, with all of its attendant traumas, serendipities and vagaries in the spotlight.

Tóth Krisztina: Vonalkód. Tizenöt történet
Budapest: Magvető, 2006

Rachel Miller

Tags: Krisztina Tóth