01. 03. 2019. 16:36

The Generation We Shall Never Be

In 2017 there's no lie that could keep Bálint and his friends at home. - A review of Dénes Krusovszky's Those Who We Shall Never Be (Akik már nem leszünk sosem, Magvető 2018)

In an abandoned lung hospital in the countryside, destined for ruin, Bálint Lente and his mates smash up furniture and instruments with iron pipes, and though this scene is in the first third of the novel, from the frantic blows and the real anger in the text, I knew Dénes Krusovszky had written an important novel. What hope has an online journalist in his thirties when he can’t even break up with his girlfriend? When he runs away from his own family, his own lovers and his own friends? And what to do about an almost unplayable cassette tape that will rewrite the history of a family and a country?

The novel was published in June and has been one of the biggest surprises of the year. The known poet, publicist, prose writer and radio critic, Dénes Krusovszky, adopting the role of a Carpathian Franzen, has written a Hungarian novel which, along several threads, with real surprises, tells the stories of 1956, of changing customs in media consumption, of shady EU deals and of the move to Vienna. But this is all merely a framework through which to understand the story of a very modern young Hungarian bloke, a journalist in his thirties searching for solutions. Like all well-told stories, it develops into the story of a generation. Krusovszky’s novel depicts the flight and the homelessness of the generation currently in their thirties, similar to Gábor Reisz’s film For Some Inexplicable Reason, or the first albums of Szabó Benedék és a Galaxisok.

The structure of the brilliantly constructed novel of five chapters brings to mind Franzen’s novels and the films of the Mexican film director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, as the narration is built of seemingly independent threads which delicately come together in the end. The protagonist, Bálint Lente at one point admits there’s no other way of stringing together the chain of events which begins in 1990 in America as a prologue. Immediately afterwards we find ourselves in 2013, in a trendy bar in Budapest, at three in the morning, as Lente is lugging about a hefty sports bag, like he had his whole life on his back, on route to his mum’s in Debrecen, before visiting a friend he hasn’t seen for four years, Tuba, to go to their friends’ wedding together.

Krusovszky constructs his first novel as the coming-of-age story of Bálint, who, after leaving his girlfriend’s, leaves the city blind drunk, only to run into more problems upon arrival in the countryside where he visits his mum and tries to clear up with his old friend why he made out with a girl at a reunion years ago. I wait for the grand score (it comes), the long journey through space and time (it comes), the newly enjoyed freedom (it comes) and the lens flare for atmosphere (it comes), but I’m also taken by surprise: the coming-of-age story is constantly pushed into the background to give way for a much more monumental chain of events that also affect the protagonist.

Before the boys get on their suits and ties for the wedding, they throw on a Tankcsapda record, turn it up, and after a few beers are exploring an abandoned lung hospital drunk. In the building full of dust-lined furniture and iron lungs that look like something from a sci-fi, the boys’ stifled anger reveals itself. From this seemingly self-centred destruction there shows the helplessness of a generation. The boys’ anger is also significant because after university, returning to their town, they’d dealt out the local positions of power amongst themselves; cue cynical double-dealings.

Bálint finds a Polimer cassette in the building and pockets it, and the novel speeds up as if Proust had put ecstasy in the madeleines. Suddenly we’re in 1986 in the still operating lung hospital, whose windows have to stay closed as Chernobyl has recently exploded. It’s a dilapidated hospital of constantly pulsating machines, and people bed-bound and kept alive by the equipment in a socially airtight pocket. We meet a nurse and a tubercular patient: Krusovszky depicts the different status of the patients and the protocols, as though he had worked in a clinic for decades, meanwhile he focuses on a patient called Aszalós whose entire life is spent in an iron lung. Aszalós wants to say something, which he can only do after some horrific physical ordeals, furthermore the senior consultant of the clinic essentially dehumanises the patients, painting a bad image of humanity’s egotistical zeal. The nurse gets a Dictaphone and Aszalós starts talking about his brother, about Hajdúvágás, about 1956.

The timeline of the 540-page novel runs from 1956 to 2017: Krusovszky tells the events with grandiosely large chapters, each of which focuses around one very brief period, and yet they have decades packed inside them. It might be Krusovszky’s handling of time and narrative that make this novel so vibrant. Only halfway through the book, does he begin to explain the untold 1956 story in incredible detail. This novel is of an upbeat tempo, and pulls the reader in deeper and deeper. By the fourth chapter we arrive with Bálint and Tuba to the wedding, which is by no means of exaggeration one of the best written weddings in Hungarian prose. The smell of sweat and pálinka mixes with the synthesized Schrammelmusik, the love of the hugging, drunken friends meets the stuffiness of the old physics teacher, stories which have gone untold and stifled for years emerge, and shots cut up the beer.

It’s not just the narrative which makes this book memorable but the characters too. Everyone is struggling with real questions and real problems, from Bálint facing up to his own decisions and mistakes, to his male and female friends who pop up and even his only briefly-present mum. They have memorable traits; they’re vivid. Krusovszky doesn’t over explain anything; we already know about the political buying up of the online newspaper (“Reflex”), about the stories of the refugees camped at Keleti train station, about the shady dealings, all of which add a very thin but important layer to a story which is strung up between 1956 and a move to Vienna. Even if the heroic story of ‘56 was important for local identity, that’s all lost if it’s built on a lie. While in 2017 there's no lie that could keep Bálint and his friends at home.

This book contains everything that troubles people in their thirties: untold stories, the betrayals of the older generations during the regime-change, the stifling atmosphere of everyday life, the permanent compulsion to flee, and realising how much we’d pictured for ourselves, and how much more important it is to picture the futures we’ll never have.

 

 


 

 

 

The novel is available from lira.hu here.

This review originally appeared in Hungarian on KönyvesBlog.

László Valuska

Translated by: Owen Good