11. 02. 2009. 16:07

The pharmakos of memory

Gábor Schein: Lazarus

An attempt to come to terms with the death of a father who narrowly escaped the murders of Nazi-allied Hungary, this short novel is a chronicle of the fraught relationship between a Holocaust survivor and his son, as well as an attempt to work through a specific historical situation: the long-lasting, and notably patriarchal, “soft dictatorship” of Hungarian Communism.

Who is my father in this world, in this house?
At the spirit’s base?
My father’s father, his father’s father, his –
Shadows like winds
Go back to a parent before thought, before speech,
At the head of the past.
                 Wallace Stevens
How difficult to travel to the “father before the beginning of speech” when the graves are dug in the air, “the empty air between us,” an air devoid of narrative, of history, of time. 
His son-in-law, who was also a forced laborer and also disappeared, once caught a glimpse of him [the narrator’s great-grandfather] at the Király Baths, where the forced laborers were taken once a week to wash. M’s grandfather’s emaciated, arched nose stood out sharply from his dessicated bony face; his sparse grey beard had grown, his hair had turned completely white. He did not look like a patriarch. His gaze hung, void of expression, in the air. And thus, with his ravaged face, he withdrew from the family history, not even leaving his name to M…
states the narrator of Lazarus. This short novel is an attempt to come to terms with the death of a father who himself narrowly escaped the mass deportations and murders of Nazi-allied Hungary: a chronicle of the fraught relationship between a Holocaust survivor and his son, an attempt to piece together a family narrative in which all too many pieces are missing, an act of mourning for a narrative that can never fully be resurrected.
 
Lazarus was written after the death of the narrator’s father, and in defiance of his explicit request never to be the subject of his son’s writing. It is one of the many “father-memoirs” that have appeared in recent years in Hungary Celestial Harmonies by Péter Esterházy, Fairy Vale by Endre Kukorelly – which, as many critics have noted, are not only psychological attempts to come to terms with the individual parents concerned, but equally workings-through of a specific historical and political situation: the long-lasting, and notably patriarchal, “soft dictatorship” of Hungarian Communism under János Kádár, its leader from the crushing of the 1956 uprising up until his own death at very end of the 1980s. In Lazarus, the father (known only by the initial “M.”) appears as a figure of almost unbroken silence; in a sense a personal counterpart to the vast public silence under Communism about Hungary’s complicity in the crimes of the Holocaust.
 
In Gábor Schein’s book, the disintegration of the father’s body is described in often excruciating medical detail; indeed, the overriding narrative framework is largely confined to the last months of M.’s life as he descends into an ever more tortured and grudging silence, caused by his incurable illness. M.’s agonized last statement, not even a physical utterance, as at this point he can only indicate letters pointed out to him on an alphabet-board by nodding his head, is “siralom”: literally “misery,” yet also “lamentation”, its grammatical root “sír” meaning both “the grave” and “to weep”. M. embraces muteness, which his son tries to chase away with ever more words and stories, irritating his father still further. An eternal battle in which the son seems at times to grant the father victory:
Like a cloud, the story of an illness falls away. I will relate it for a time, but it shall pass with me: it never was, it never shall be.
At the same time, the son acknowledges his own compulsive need to fill the voided space in the family history with narrative, although as one critic points out, the author displays “unbelievable discipline” in his unwillingness to alter the original narrative beyond recognition. The metaphor of photography and image-alteration forms one of the most important strands within the book: the narrator’s grandfather was the author of a manual on photographic retouching, which the narrator reads as a metaphysical tract on the possibility of preserving images or narratives.
What is the original that we are not permitted to repair? Clearly, an image that is unduly valuable even in the state it happens to be in. A repair, in such a case, would merely ruin it, rendering it worthless as a keepsake, even if – since it cannot be re-photographed – there is no way to preserve it.
How, though, can a writer depict silence, if compelled to use words – and without “retouching” the silence by endowing it with false narrative? Many of the sentences that make up Lazarus employ an extraordinarily complex syntactic structure, even by Hungarian standards, a grammatical labyrinth that, with its density verging on nearly complete opacity, seems to replicate the prison-like grip of the father’s silence over his son.
 
Narrative as prison; yet also narrative as liberation: a place simultaneously of origin and of exile. Speech and narrative are themselves exiled entities in Schein’s book, like the lonely grouping of household items taken from the house of his grandmother after her death, and the only things to be taken from the household of the great-grandparents. Items bereft of context, a book (which Hungarian readers will recognize as Sándor Márai’s Confessions of a Bourgeois) known only through bare scraps of beginning and end: these are emblems of the alienation and displacement of the human characters in the novel. Again and again, though, this orphaned assemblage of objects is ceaselessly invoked, almost like a religious litany: however denuded they may be, they still represent fragments of an original, as yet untouched image.
 
And of course, in the most unforgettable paradox of all, there is the emergence of another, completely unretouched list. In his efforts to discover what really did happen to all of those in his father’s family who simply “didn’t come back”, the narrator is compelled to turn to the archives of a certain Gestapo officer, Wassermann: in other words, the most concrete information as to the possible fate of his father’s family is from the hand of the murderer himself. Indeed, Wassermann’s clinical recounting of the transports from Budapest to Kamenets-Podolsk provides perhaps the most complete and coherent single narrative thread in the book. It is certainly one of the most objective – although the “narrator” in this case regrets his inability to ascertain the exact quantity of dead. By contrast the son strives to locate the purported origins of the paternal family history in Poland, yet this attempt to register the saga of the individual clan inevitably dissolves into a general haze of “Hapsburgesque” myth.
 
The most complete story in the book, however, belongs not to the world of objective historical events, nor to family legend. The opening pages of Lazarus begin with its narrator relating a fairy-tale to his son, a fable of a fisherman and a water-sprite, which is interrupted when he is suddenly called to the hospital to his dying father’s bedside. Yet the same story is related again, in its entire length, at the very end of the book, although this time it is placed within the framework of a Talmudic-like parable of a disciple who is asked to record a story dictated by his master, and who subsequently casts the Book of the Day and the Night into the fire. When asked by his son why he has done so, he replies with the entire story of the fisherman and the water-sprite – something of a Hungarian version of Andersen’s "Little Mermaid", in which the water-sprite, her dress of scales hidden from her by the fisherman who has fallen in love with her and wants to keep her as his own, actually chooses to re-don her fish-garb when given the chance.
 
Once the water-sprite has re-immersed herself in the silence and seamlessness of the ocean, the fisherman expresses his inchoate rage at having been abandoned by narrative, at the triumph of silence. To the prohibition of altering an original image, then, this parable expresses the prohibition of surrender to complete silence. The narrator of Lazarus is indeed something like the fisherman in his attempts to quell silence, to murder narrative’s absence. “But I do not wish to write about the water, but rather the illumination of fire,” writes Schein early on in the book. He is willing to inject the poison of memory into his own veins, what Derrida referred to as the pharmakos (i.e., both curative and poisonous) residuum of writing, just as the narrator cannot decide if the formulae appended to his great-grandfather’s manual on photographic retouching are a technical necessity or a recipe on how to mix poisons. Memory itself is the toxin.
 
As the events of World War II move away from us in time, its legacy increasingly becomes reproduced in the hearts and minds of the second and third generations. Lazarus explores this profoundly complex state, which to a certain degree touches us all, with absolute and unflinching honesty. It provides a marked contrast to much of recent American writing on the same topic, which admittedly has laboured under the shadow of Art Spiegelman’s MAUS, itself a masterpiece of visual narrative, and which as it were seemed to provide the definitive statement about the afterlife of the Holocaust in America. Other recent attempts have reduced the relation of “descendent of survivor – descendent of perpetrator” to brutally simplistic outlines, to crude stereotypes in their own way perhaps as damaging as what Robert J. Lifton has termed the “genocidal threshold”: the emergence of that state in which the Other becomes little more than a reductive caricature about whom we need not care. The stance of Lazarus towards the story it tells is deeply ambiguous, but its stubborn faith in the redemptive act of speech, and of witness, even when distorted and fragmentary, when speaking of that which cannot be spoken, is exemplary. 
 
Ottilie Mulzet
 
This review is an abbreviated version of the introduction to Gábor Schein's Lazarus, to be published soon by Triton Press, Prague in Ottilie Mulzet's translation.

Tags: Gábor Schein: Lazarus