10. 31. 2011. 16:48

The epidemic called dictatorship. Sándor Tar: Gray pigeon

Sándor Tar, one of the most highly respected prose writers of the last third of the century, turned from writing sociography and short stories to a unique “novel of crime”. This was back in 1996, and critics have been trying to find the key to the book ever since.

They agree that the novel contains all the vintage Tar trademarks, his intimate knowledge of the environment and the people he describes, his gift for minute observation along with a strong hold on reality, creating an environment in which, to quote the writer Ádám Bodor, “men smell of their manhood and women of their womanhood”. Gray Pigeon also demonstrates Tar’s willingness and ability to look unflinchingly at the misery of small town people on the verge of losing their humanity, yet always holding on to it (or mostly), for being human, they have a will to live. Gray Pigeon also bears the stylistic marks of the author, most especially his sparing use of words which are always on the mark and say so much with so little, and his uncanny ability to remain inside his characters, as it were, thus giving them a much stronger presence than if the story were told by a narrator throughout. Such things are not easy to achieve, and in Hungarian literature, Sándor Tar remains alone in having accomplished them. Certainly, he was the first one to do so.

Still, Gray Pigeon continues to puzzle Tar’s critics and admirers. Judging by the reviews, they’re puzzled by the ’mysticism’ and ’absurdity’ that characterizes the work. Many, indeed, consider this a mistake on the author’s part. But what they conceive of as a slip, I consider a triumph. Sándor Tar’s Gray Pigeon continues to enrich the path of existentialist literature. Someone asked me recently what the novel is about, and I found myself saying that it’s about a mysterious case of a mass epidemic of vomiting and sudden bleeding seemingly brought on by some pigeons, but as we read on, we realize that the book is really about the contagion that is the inheritance left to us by Communism and the Kádár Regime. Though they are never named or concretized in any way, the often frightening nonchalance with which the population of the town and the police handle the crimes that follow the mysterious but concrete epidemic of bleeding, their basic insensitivity to murder and cruelty, is evidence of the deterioration of the human soul crucial to any dictatorship. Yet as in all of Tar’s works, there is someone who is thinking, someone who has retained more of his humanity than anyone else, possibly because his pain at the loss of his humanity is greater. In Gray Pigeon, this character, or positive hero, is Lieutenant Molnár, the only one to understand the true nature of what is happening. “Molnár,” the narrator writes, at the end of the book,“had the feeling that only the bats and zombies were missing from this ominous place, restless spirit shades come from the dead, the sin that refuses to die. Glancing at the one unshattered piece of the mirror he concluded that what he saw [a messy suicide] fitted the picture that had greeted him here.” … Just then, one of the CSI men finds a button in the clenched fist of the dead man. “Give it to me, Molnár shouted, that’s my son’s! And he ran to the dead man, elbowing everyone aside, that button was important to him, he realized he’d received a message: the lieutenant didn’t want to kill his son, for he could have done so. […] But he didn’t. That was his message. And he sent a button to the Little Prince that said… For minutes, the lieutenant could not speak. It was a big, red button with two button holes, Molnár had never seen anything remotely like it in his life, time had etched strange figures into it, and when he held it  up to the sun in seemed to be infused with light; later it even shone from inside.
    “Just like the intellect, Molnár thought, or like life. […] He didn’t forget the button later either, he was even annoyed, the nerve! It was his [the dead man’s] way of making sure that someone should always be thinking of him, and even feel a sense of shame! At other times it made him reflect whether a man can find salvation with just one good deed? […]. Later it disappeared, or was accidentally thrown out, they’d moved to a new place, and something like this is hard to safeguard.”

This, in my eyes, is existentialism at its best, the driving force and final message of a detective novel that could only have been written by a man of Tar’s caliber, insight, and understanding of the Central European dictatorship we call Communism. It also begs the question: After what has happened, after we have lost our humanity due to circumstances beyond our control, can we regain it? Can we find salvation, or are we damned? Nor can we help reflect on its corollary: Can anyone living under a corrupt system, whether social or political, remain innocent? As philosophers repeatedly warned us throughout the 20th century, the answer is No. The real crime and criminal is a system of government that through time imperceptively changes everything into its own image, for you cannot live in a corrupt system and remain pure. Yet the novel, brutal as it is, still leaves us with a sense of hope, perhaps because Tar presents us not with characters, but with real people.

Tar Sándor: Szürke galamb. Bűnregény
Budapest: Magvető, 1996

Judith Sollosy

Tags: Sándor Tar