08. 08. 2008. 08:49

The deep well of time

Gergely Péterfy: The Gravel Pit Lake

The Gravel Pit Lake did well enough in Hungary but, undeservedly, failed to raise any particular storms. It took a German audience to come and throw laurels amid the waves of the lake. Over the past months, directly after its publication in German translation, the book was lauded in superlatives by the most prestigious dailies and literary forums.

Gergely Péterfy (1966), outstanding member of the Hungarian prose writing generation who began their literary career in the 1990’s, first attracted remarkable notice by his book Side B. This is a generation novel, a father novel, a key novel about young people doing nothing much in the elite ivory castles of inner city grammar schools of Buda. Next came The Sorrow of the Fire Brigade Captain with more mature sorrows and lost loves discussed and analysed to the final limits. Next, a children’s story, Mikey’s Book, fascinated its readers with its inner tunnels, torture chambers and external enemies. This was followed by The Gravel Pit Lake which did well enough in Hungary but, undeservedly, failed to raise any particular storms. It took a German audience to come and throw laurels amid the waves of the lake. Over the past months, directly after its publication in German translation (by Zsolnay Verlag, see publisher’s page), the book was lauded in superlatives by the most prestigious dailies and literary forums.
The Gravel Pit Lake is a collection of 12 stories – numbered and titled pieces follow each other in alternation. This solution serves to emphasise the smooth transition between the novel and the short story genre, but does this without imposing anything that is forced, trying to get away with anything or pushing some artificial concept foreign to the body of the work.
Péterfy works with ‘old’ techniques. His two narrators, the guard of the gravel pit and the listener/re-teller of the stories seem to be repeating the staging of Dante’s Divina Commedia, one representing Dante, the other Virgil, his guide to hell. “‘They come here to drown,’ said the guard. ‘They think they come to bathe because they don’t know they are going to drown’”, goes the first sentence of the book which, of course, brings to mind the theme of Hades, just as it does in Dante. And as each story has water as its central focus, the association between Kharon and the gravel pit lake is also self-evident. We are roaming a treacherous, wet, marshy landscape, a secluded zone, the land of secrets with figures singing and floating, ancestors and descendants passing through. The steep banks and underwater rifts of the gravel pit suck in the accreted flotsam of the ages and then burp it back at unexpected moments, while any event is elevated to mythological heights by steams and fumes and vapours. Péterfy is very subtle in attuning to and assimilating the resonances that the spirit of the story suggests. The various planes of reality intersect each other in fine counterpoint: the so-called realistic elements of the couleur locale are set against the miraculous events that crop up in the environment; the external life world of the figures and the text’s internal labyrinth keep this world in motion by their permanent interdependence and fused presence. The plausible and the imaginative create force fields and span distances in which their very mutuality reveals ever newer strata of the mystically soft and yet splintered and harsh space of the gravel pit.
The numbered texts mostly carry us through the pits inhabited by the guard and the paths and tunnels of the gravel pit along to the next section and the next open quarry. By contrast, the pieces that have titles appear as Platonic shadow plays of the inner purgatory. “‘I’ll tell you something different. When I am going to sleep these days I see a forest before me. This thing, what I see before me when I am half asleep, always changes. Last year I was in a cellar for months, a network of cellars, with smaller and larger cellars opening left and right. If I walked into any of them, I found a thought. One cellar led to wicked thoughts, in others I found friendly things. […] Now the trees are the cellars. Each tree is a thought. As long as I lean against one of these trees I don’t wake up. […] One of the trees is Annuska. The other is the trip to Chopok. Then there is my father. Or Schmidt who sold gingerbread. Then the steamboat. You are one of the trees, too,’” says the guard in one of the pieces. This instantly refutes our earlier approach, showing that it is completely impossible to define Péterfy’s work by any watertight formal categories.
The guard’s monologues seem to plunge into the unfathomable, inaccessible depth of the lake. They appear to be pointing at some archaic, primordial knowledge that has now become untenable – about forces which originate in the infinite past. One knows that they exist but the language is too lame to convey it. In fact, the reader senses the treat of private language drifting to the brink of madness. We see the inhabitants of his marshy, messy zone - the widow Katalin Vadász and her potential gentleman friend unable to break away from the pub and arrive at her home; Anti who collects bones and sees them as jewellery or head-dress; Vera Wicked who tries to impress by juggling foreign words; or Kovári who breeds rabbits. Their characterisation and the colours and outlines of the surrounding lake district testify to the peak of Péterfy’s talent. The stories are more than mere anecdotes hacked together to create some makeshift structure – this light and airy composition creates a balanced and coherent world which beckons the reader to enter through a number of open doors.
In the third chapter the guard finds an audio cassette amid the rubbish that the wind had heaped together by the lake, with the sound of “doors banging, windows creaking, cats’ footsteps, the sound of water being lapped up, the wind blowing, a far-away car driving by, splashing water, the distant screeching of a group of schoolchildren passing by in the distance, someone breathing now louder, now softer, and soft, shuffling footsteps.” With the help of another tape recorder he records the noises of his own existence to blend with this unknown world of sound, merging the two as if “by sliding the daily half hours one on top of the other you could listen not always to the same half hour – as though some foreign half hours had slipped in from other, unknown spaces. […] He heard an entire world coming to him from the speakers, where decades go by in half an hour, peoples, villages, cities stir to see birth and death, make peace and fight wars again.” The two above quoted sections represent the book’s centres of gravity. It is here that the text is softly anchored to the deep, deep well of time – the gravel pit. But we could equally well speak of time as a mirror labyrinth, with unending corridors of inner and outer secret passages, where the spirits of the living and the dead dance their ghostly dance in lethal embrace. As in a game of pick-up sticks, all the elements seem to move as soon as you touch a single point – but you can also move a single stick without changing anything about the status quo.
Péterfy Gergely: Bányató
Budapest: Palatinus, 2004

Lajos Jánossy

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