“The novel takes place in Budapest in the 1980s, and its protagonist is youth.” This sentence is written on the blurb of István Kemény’s first volume of prose (The Art of the Enemy, 1989), but it would also suit his 2009 novel under review here. Twenty years have passed between the publication of the two books; the price of the new one is almost exactly a hundred times, its length is almost three times that of the previous one. There are, of course, more important differences. For example, while the avowed—and fulfilled—aim of the 1989 book was to “express emotions with a power only poems are capable of”; in other words, it was a kind of ‘prose extension’ of Kemény’s poetry, one of the most significant poetic oeuvres in contemporary Hungarian literature, Dear Unknown is proper and unadulterated prose, a ‘decent novel’ that proves the coming of age (and marketability) of its author in the eyes of Hungarian literary consensus.
However, Dear Unknown owes its existence to much more than mere external expectations weighing on its author: it is a genuine coming-of-age novel in which a 48-year-old man and father says farewell to his youth and tries to come to terms with his early years, which happen to coincide with the end of a historical era. Yet it is far from being an autobiographical novel: what Kemény wants to record here is the atmosphere of these twilight years, its typical characters and its sensibility, rather than his own personal memories or even those of his protagonist. Sometimes, disobeying the rules of his craft, he even forgets about his I-narrator, Tamás Krizsán, for several chapters in a row. Perhaps it is precisely by virtue of his half-presence/half-absence that this floating, vague figure becomes a symbol of that era. One of the main scenes of the novel, the gigantic library— first called Korvin, then Széchényi—located in the Buda Castle is also symbolic: it is a mammoth institution typical of the communist era, entrenched—ironically—within walls that had witnessed many discussions about historical issues of great import. This institution is halfway between a world of small-minded bureaucrats and a commune of loafers made possible by the phantasmagoric idea of full employment. A complete and separate universe, which, besides its purgatory-like ordinary world (the eventless corridors, storage rooms and research rooms of the library) has its own regular heaven (the half-illegal apartment of the revered Kornél in one of the cupolas of the Castle) and hell (the alarmingly and excitingly debauched company of artists nestling in the caves reserved for the computer system, to be installed in the future). Looking back from 2011 one sometimes has the feeling that the whole Hungary of the late Kádár era consisted of nothing but such hidden nooks and crannies. From the perspective of these hideouts people had the impression that really important things always happened elsewhere and at other times—perhaps in 1956, perhaps in Moscow.
It probably remains an eternal question of modern prose whether it is legitimate and fair to the reader to represent small-minded, boring times as a series of small-minded, boring scenes (Flaubert, the author of Sentimental Education, would probably nod approvingly, or even commandingly, but he may be wrong). In any case, we are fed an annoyingly large dose of these, especially in the first part, in which Tamás tells about the vicissitudes of growing up in his family in a fictitious village close to Budapest called Nyék. However, when reading the second part, we have the feeling that it might in fact be impossible to get around the boring scenes if we want to appreciate the rare moments of liberty and poetry that Tamás Krizsán and his friends somehow manage to snatch for themselves in this twilight zone that is slowly rotting away.
While this world—familiar or unfamiliar to us, depending on our age—is unfolding in front of our eyes, we also realize that István Kemény knows something very important about the structure of time, and it is eventually this knowledge that informs the inner dynamic of this book (as well as his other prose volumes, and even his poetry to some extent). This knowledge amounts to more than the fact that adolescence and youth last forever, because they encompass not only the traumas, the magical moments and the incomprehensibility of childhood, but also the whole future time of adulthood; it is not even the knowledge that a young person sometimes ages years in seconds and carries on a ten-sentence conversation for decades. Kemény also knows that youth is not merely a time out of time, but also the synthesis of all potential and past times, on a historical scale. It is no accident that the narrator always interprets the position of the library clock as a historical date—our last occasion to reflect on world history as well as on the past and future of our family, our native city and our homeland, without risking ridicule, is at the twilight of youth when we must draw the conclusions that will shape our later course of life.
There is nothing extraordinary about the final conclusion of the novel: it is a sort of wry, adultish ethos of survival, complemented with an attention to small miracles that one tumbles on on the way. The publisher of Dear Unknown advertised the novel as the “new Journey by Moonlight”, suggesting a parallel with Antal Szerb’s 1937 cult novel (English edition: London: Pushkin Press, 2001, 2006, trans. Len Rix). It is perhaps this attention to small miracles that may remind the reader of Szerb’s novel. However, as opposed to Journey by Moonlight, where the protagonists travel to Italy and this trip changes their life, in Dear Unknown we merely have a girl called Hugi sunbathing in bikini on the Queen’s Balcony in the Buda Castle and learning Italian, to the indignation of the library workers. True, at least she is taken to bed by the I-narrator, even though he ends up marrying someone else.
Kemény István: Kedves Ismeretlen
Budapest: Magvető, 2009
Tags: István Kemény