08. 11. 2011. 09:03

The puszta reloaded. Esther Kinsky: Summer Resort

Esther Kinsky arrived in Battonya, a town in the south-east of Hungary, from Berlin. About five years ago, she was held up at the customs. Stuck at a railway station, she looked for a place to sleep, and eventually she did not continue her trip to Serbia and Romania as planned. Ever since, she has written two novels about her experiences in German.

The sky is blue—unfortunately, there is no more apt adjective for it, perhaps ‘grey’, because the air in the heat of the southern part of the Great Hungarian Plain—often referred to as the ‘puszta’ in travel brochures—is so dry and blinding that one can hardly see anything at all. Or more precisely: what one can see is nothing itself. Almost nothing happens here; the atmosphere is extremely tense, yet it never explodes. This is perhaps how one could outline what this book—which is, by the way, very exciting—is about. It was written by a German woman about Battonya, a small town in the south-east of Hungary, close to the Romanian border. It is that region itself which is responsible for the fact that the author can only think in still images when writing about it. This is how she sees everything that she found there; this is how she sees us. She describes a realm of sultriness and immobility, perpetuated by the unnecessarily boisterous nature of the people living there.

When the wind blows, it brings some watermelon smell, but immediately afterwards the air is filled again with the smell of onions and the swamps. Commonplace after commonplace; always the same words, uttered in the same way. Antal, Hanna-Woman, the New Woman, the onion people, the peacock keepers, Uncle Laci and the Kozák Boys: these are the inhabitants of this land. Basically unemployed, they are into various sorts of businesses. Renting out rooms, operating a pub, tinkering and selling cars, stealing stuff. They are on perpetual holiday, the author says, ironically. All the stories in this book take place in summer, a season which is quite spectacularly unchanging for the narrator to find time to describe how she thinks people spend their lives at the southern edge of Hungary. She does this very carefully, never saying explicitly that her figures are unhappy; rather, she emphasizes their idleness and the inevitability of their fate—but the reader can guess that it probably means the worst. Luckily, the author has a sense of humour. Kinsky likes her characters; she breathes poetry into them, pays close attention to every move they make and attributes linguistic bravura to them. Of course, she might be doing this in order to conceal that she hasn’t the slightest idea about why they do what they do, and why they keep repeating what they do in the wrong way—why they keep repeating it a hundred, a thousand times over.

Summer Resort takes place on a riverbank. Its world revolves around love, family and money, and it is filled with marriages, divorces, alcoholism, poverty, selfishness and envy. Everyone means well, but everything always fails. The summer holidays at the resort are regarded as a duty in the same way as work in town. Esther Kinsky’s verbal camera records a few significant moments, she reports interesting episodes; however, her book consists almost exclusively of descriptions. For me, Summer Resort is not a novel, even though the subtitle of the book claims that it is, but rather a series of short stories built of mosaic pieces.

Esther Kinsky arrived in Battonya from Berlin. About five years ago, she was held up at the customs. Stuck at a railway station, she looked for a place to sleep, and eventually she did not continue her trip to Serbia and Romania as planned. Ever since, she has written two novels about her experiences in German: the first one is Summer Resort, the second one is entitled Banatsko. Both were received with enthusiasm by critics, who especially appreciated Kinsky’s poetic language and exotic topic, which is none other than the stifling atmosphere of the Hungarian puszta—in other words, the romanticism of Eastern European inertia. What the German reader regards as a weird, unique mood is our proper tradition. The text is characterized by dense, saturated images, unusual adjectives, laconism, a beautifully woven net of motifs and balladic construction. Kinsky’s word creations and her distant irony, which give the book a sense of timelessness gradually turning into a tragic tone, are characteristic of Hungarian prose tradition, especially of short stories. The writer herself has referred to László Krasznahorkai several times, and the book ends with a quotation by László Darvasi.

Thus, Summer Resort is lyric prose; it speaks the language of metaphors. There is no end to apt similes for the motionless landscape and whole paragraphs of concentrated images of dejection; only a story is missing. Apparently, this is the poetry of the puszta, represented in Kinsky’s book by a dried river, which does not fill up with water in a rainless summer. A century ago, Thomas Mann was looking for the same thing in Hungary. It seems that the German spirit is excited by this nothing, the excitement of boredom and desolation, its stench and its scent. Kinsky mentions repeatedly that she is writing about a landscape where there is nothing. For example, there are no shadows, because there is nothing that has outlines. “The heat has cracked the land, people said, it had cracked the land as if it were an old nut, because now everything lies around dry and scattered. Where formerly leafy branches had arched over the boundary between water and land, now the inside and the underside of the river lay exposed. Dust earth gradually passing over into mud earth, from the sewage pipes which otherwise, hidden under the surface of the water, had thrust the dregs of the town into the river, there now ran a stinking liquid. (...) In this heat year hardly anyone has missed out on beating one to death, the tired thirst of summer turned into a thirst for the thin little drops of blood which a felled animal left, yet for each one killed there were at once several inheritors who took ist place and provoked the hand.”

Esther Kinsky has gone through the same experiences as one of her characters, the New Woman, who came from afar, married Antal and settled in the town. She is a stranger, a dubious character in the eyes of the inhabitants. She arrives, she buys a house, renovates it, and moves in. In the meantime she does her best to learn the language of her neighbours in order to be able to mingle with them. Kinsky tries hard to understand what it feels like to live here forever. Her book is a real treat for Hungarian readers, even though it is a pity that the symbol of our country is still the puszta.

Esther Kinsky: Summer Resort
London: Seagull Books, 2011
Translated by Martin Chalmers

Noémi Kiss

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