Noémi Szécsi: A Communist Monte Cristo
Noémi Szécsi's (1976) first novel, Finnugor vámpír (Finno-Ugrian Vampire), an end-of-the-century vampire story, was enthusiastically received by a wide audience upon publication in 2002, so much so that it soon had to be reprinted. The book uses innovative means of the highest literary standard and a dynamic, natural and yet ironic style as it pumps fresh blood into the anaemic arteries of the vampire myth which the literary and audiovisual world is making such desparate efforts to reanimate.
After the vampire story, Szécsi published A kismama naplója (Diary of a Pregnant Mother, 2003), the book version of a blog she edited, followed shortly by A baba memoárja (The Baby’s Memoir, 2004). With their ironic scepticism and directness these books lend a novel and entertaining form to the genre of pregnancy or mother-and-baby books. (Plus there is the added bonus that you no longer need to rack your brain what sort of practical and entertaining present to buy for pregnant friends.) Although a film version of Finno-Ugrian Vampire is at the moment only a distant promise, the torment of waiting is considerably alleviated by Szécsi’s recently published long novel.
Kommunista Monte Cristo (A Communist Monte Cristo) is an obvious reference to the romantic adventure story The Count of Monte Cristo. Written in 1845-46 by the most widely read French author, Alexandre Dumas père, it has also been screened in a number of different versions. Szécsi’s novel, however, offers encounters with a great many more literary and non-literary characters.
The narrative combines the traits of a socio-historical novel with those of a family saga. As a special treat, it also offers a full review of the history of the communist idea in Hungary. One of the main characters is Sanyi the butcher, whose life story, a life devoted to Communism, constitutes the backbone of the novel. His biography unfolds in constant interaction with the social and political events of Hungary’s history between 1919 and 1957. An illegitimate child, his surname is never revealed; he spends most of his life under various pseudonyms, legitimises his marriage through a surname ending in ‘y’ (which is seen by many as a mark of aristocratic origin in Hungary), and when he is forced into illegality he uses the pseudonym 'Count’). It is actually he who is seen turning the pages of Dumas’ novel in a cheap paperback edition, or at least a certain part of it, while at the same time he is mesmerised by the deeds of the Communists during the short-lived Hungarian Commune in 1919. A devoted Communist since 1919, he is a servant and victim of any number of consecutive political regimes (the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, the Commune, the Horthy era, the rule of the Arrow Cross forces, Mátyás Rákosi’s Stalinism, the Kádár regime). I will not spoil the reader’s fun by revealing when and how this comes to an end. Exposed to rebuffs from all sides, he suffers most from permanent beating. On top of all else, after a brutal lesson (of sodomy) taught him by the police he undergoes a cure which leaves him a vegetarian for life. Forever anxious, he is indeed forever menaced, least of all for his dietary habits so oddly incompatible with his chosen trade. His story is unique, yet he is the paragon of the man of the street whose life is determined by and interwoven with politics. In this quantity even tragedy becomes comical, at least up to a point, but in the final synthesis this is superseded by an overall tragic quality devoid of pathos.
Sanyi is surrounded by a great number of historical figures from each of the relevant periods. Presented in a distinctly understated fashion, Béla Kun the big eater, Korvin the aborted poet, Szamuely surrounded by fumes of blood and the avid chess-player János Csermanek (later know as János Kádár) appear in front of our and Sanyi’s eyes not as subjects of academic analyses but as ordinary figures from ‘the thick of life’ – offering so many extraordinary encounters.
According to Péter Esterházy, "it is darned difficult to lie if you do not know the truth". The historical figures in Szécsi’s book are also drawn from the ironic double perspective of lie and truth, fiction and reality. Just how much research went into the writing of this book is shown by the number of imported texts built into the novel at various grades of literary quotation. The most convincing evidence is offered by the para-texts of the book (the mottos, the index and the chronology at the end of the volume). Historical documents, memoirs, literary works, gossip, jokes, rumours, legends and anecdotes of the period and the history of their influence once more turn them into linguistic events, considerably enhancing the artistic polish of the narrative.
There is another sense in which double vision is a significant and meaningful trait in A Communist Monte Cristo. When I referred to Sanyi as only one of the main characters, this was because the other main character is the narrator herself, who also appears in the book. In the epilogue she becomes explicitly visible as a descendent of Sanyi’s who is commissioned to write her forebear’s life story but does not feel equal to the task. Luckily, we have the tangible result in our hands to convince us.
The narrator’s position most emphatically defines the form and tones of A Communist Monte Cristo. The plot is presented in the third person singular as the story of ‘my great-grandfather.’ As Szécsi simultaneously evokes the great-grandfather's contemporary setting and the reflective position of the narrator removed in time, she manages to avoid any air of make-believe archaic pleasantry – a frequent yet most unfortunate trap in historical novels.
The great-grandfather bears a tattoo on his chest which is only revealed when he is stripped of his shirt before a beating: the Gothic script reads 'Gesamtkunstwerk'. The covert meaning of this covert inscription can be viewed quite justly as a symbolic summary of the novel. It is partly referential to the man’s bodily virtues and his extreme power to attract women, and partly to his ever-alert resistance whether to the pathologies of an age, to old age or to any other malaise. Although "the time for total art is over", as we are informed in the very first chapter by the tattoo-artist, for someone who knows how to squeeze the best out of life, the opportunities are unending. Resistance and involvement do not guarantee the opportunity to pit an artistic life against the cruelty of the real world – at least this is what the lives of Sanyi (and his alter ego, Józsi) seem to prove. At the same time, the appearance of A Communist Monte Cristo seems to prove the opposite, and at the highest standard.
All things considered, Noémi Szécsi’s book is a truly great novel. It is extremely topical, without subscribing to trends. Nor was it published at an easy time – the 1956 revolution was commemorated by over 200 fiction and documentary volumes, dozens of conferences were held to appraise the period in question. At one of these events I heard a great deal of conjecturing about the causes for the absence of a representative long novel treating the events of the revolution. Although I suspect the author has no ambitions of this kind, knowing what is on offer I would gladly propose awarding this title to A Communist Monte Cristo. It is a book for all reading lists.
Szécsi Noémi: Kommunista Monte Cristo