The female companion of a recently deceased athlete is asked to record her memories of her lover, but she is unable to write the "official" narrative that the Communist regime seeks from her.
Considering that Miklós Mészöly is generally regarded as one of the most important Hungarian prose writers of the second half of the 20th century, it is especially fortunate that one of his most seminal works, Death of an Athlete, has now appeared in an excellent translation by Tim Wilkinson, published by The BlueCoat Press.
While the title of the work would appear to indicate the main narrative course being formed by the protagonist’s death, the novel itself presents the reader with a vastly more complex situation, far less suitable to any directly linear retelling. Indeed, from quite early on in the novel it becomes clear that the athlete himself, prematurely deceased at the very start of the narrative time, is of somewhat lesser importance than the memories that he provokes in the narrator. At play here are questions of "official" and non-official, or subjective, memory, particularly as these two narrative tropes are placed within the context of the Hungary of World War II and of the era immediately following, the 1950s, when (beginning in 1948) one totalitarianism had effectly been replaced by another.
For those familiar with mid-20th century Hungarian literature, the immediate association that comes to mind is that of Geza Ottlik's School at the Frontier [Iskola a határon], which examined a totalitarian-ordered society within the microcosm of a military boarding school, and in particular the effects of that society upon human relationships and communication, the creation of a meta-language between individuals within a rigid order. In a sense, Mészöly's oeuvre forms one of the most significant way-stations on the path that leads from Ottlik to the groundbreaking prose writers who became active in the 1970s, Péter Esterházy and Péter Nádas (often referred to as Péterek, "the Peters" ). Yet at the same time, Mészöly's work testifies to the enormous legacy of Ágnes Nemes Nagy, especially in the writerly commitment to objectivity, a deep fidelity to the surface and texture of everyday life, an absolute refusal to romanticise or aggrandise. Mészöly' s work embodies a deep affiliation to existentialism as well, and because of that his work often met with a deeply negative reaction in post-Stalinist Hungary, not to mention the neighbouring Soviet satellite countries. The entry for Mészöly, to cite one example, in the Dictionary of Writers (Hungary) [Slovník spisovatelů: Maďarsko, Odeon] published in Czechoslovakia in 1971, states:
Studied law. His stories are characterised by a particularly strange atmosphere, at times associated with existentialism. Thematically they are often based on wartime experiences, for the most part gloomy.
Granted, this was written just after the debut of his career (and immediately after the brutal crushing of the Prague Spring), but as Beáta Thomka also reminds us in her outstanding monograph (Mészöly Miklós, Kalligram, 1995), it was common for Mészöly to be accused of being susceptible to "decadent bourgeois influence" in the form of existentialism. As the postscript to the novel points out, Death of an Athlete was published first in French translation in 1965, followed by a West German edition in 1966. Only then did the censors give permission for it to be published in Hungarian.
Reading the novel, it is easy to see what might have given the one-time socialist censors concern. The ostensible impetus for the novel — that the close female companion of the recently deceased athlete, Bálint Őze, records her memories of her lover — is at every turn undermined by the process of memory itself, its twists and turns and lack of perceptible logic. The "official" narrative that the regime clearly seeks from the narrator is one that she can never fulfil, as she herself is well aware, often giving voice to her self doubts as to this task. (As an aside, it is here fascinating to note another intriguing strand in Hungarian literature, that of the assumed female narrator. Extending all the way from Sándor Weöres’ Psyche to Péter Esterházy’s assumed female alter-ego, Lili Csokonai, to Szilárd Borbély’s poetic narratives written in the female first-person singular in his recent collection To the Body, it is a persistent phenomenon. And, for reasons hitherto unelucidated, Hungarian writers have succeed in this sub-genre of literature as no others have.)
In a sense, the official narrative of the athlete's life that the regime expects from her is the chronological and narrative equivalent of the spaces of socialism that fill the novel, particularly those of the purported public spaces of socialism, such as housing estates and sports facilities. The inscription of a personal subjective chronology onto these impersonal spaces constitutes a major philosophical and moral triumph (even if left unstated) for the female protagonist, even as she discovers at the end of the novel that the regime has no use for her memories and has alredy published its own account. As opposed to the military academy in Ottlik's School at the Frontier, the space that dominates Death of an Athlete is that of the telep, a word translatable into English by such expressions as "settlement, colony, habitation, premises, [housing] estate, establishment" and so on, and which in actuality translates one of the most essential spatial tropes of Socialist space in the Soviet satellite countries. As Beáta Thomka writes:
The telep is a part of a space of desolation, in spite of its openness, and along with it as well, the spatial model of a perfectly surveyed, enclosed world. (p. 95)
The narrator describes as well those relics of pre-war Budapest that somehow survived into this era. The description of the puppet theatre at Városliget, nearly documentary in its detail, renders a vivid picture of the sheer diachrony of life in a small central European country where not all layers of the past could be effectively and thoroughly erased. "Her small park theatre, incidentally, was not touched by the post-war wave of rationalisations… Even then it had already given the appearance of some sort of asylum against various police security threats…" And the description of the theatre itself becomes subordinate to the narrator's need to unravel the personality of its director, Becky, her sister-in-law and one of Bálint's lovers. It is possible to see, in the dispassionate depiction of these deeply complex affective bonds, a narrative germination which will eventually attain a kind of further magnificent fruition with Péter Nádas' Parallel Stories of the early present millennium.
The Bluecoat Press has produced a handsome volume, with beautiful cover art photography and high-quality printing. As a fellow translator, it is gratifying to see the translator's name reproduced on the cover of the book, a practice which does not occur often enough. Tim Wilkinson succeeds admirably in capturing the dispassionate quality of Mészöly's narrative voice, with its unswerving attention to the minor objective details that, in the end, grant to the story its profound verisimilitude. The narrative is extremely condensed, and in combination with the associational technique, may leave the reader feeling they are wandering through an infinitely complex labyrinth of memory. One in which, however, it is a privilege to dwell.
Miklós Mészöly: Death of an Athlete
Translated by Tim Wilkinson
Liverpool: Bluecoat Press, 2012
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Tags: Miklós Mészöly