János Háy: Subterrane
An accurate enough version of a contemporary, disillusioned Hungarian zeitgeist, this novel is an uncompromising rebellion against consumerism, bourgeois values, and ultimately, all the banalities of social norms and interpersonal Catch-22’s.
In a subterrane parking lot, a man sits pondering the life he has left behind, his two failed relationships, children and career – all the things he has thrown away in existential frustration. He narrates his story in a monologue, providing a digressive commentary to his dilemmas and decisions. Two more speakers, the two abandoned women give their own takes on the events of his life, their lives together. Oddly, their thoughts seem to echo one another in a spiraling narrative exploring the futility of escapism and the repeated failure of trying to cope with an alienating cultural habitat – one that is painfully, prosaically recognizable as our very own.
Surprisingly, János Háy seems to have discarded his trademark humor, a brave departure from the safety zone of laugh-it-off comic relief, while delving ever deeper into the darker strata of human existence. The result is oddly unsettling and audacious, gravitating to a sort of emotional ground zero of disenchantment. It's quite a trip.
The narrative is basically a monologue for three voices, an unbroken flow of retrospection defining a love triangle, but weighted toward a male protagonist. A research physicist, as a matter of fact. As the narrators push on with an interminable gush of banalities and specifics, there is little in the way of a focused plot. In fact, there's a continual flurry of debris, some of it cumulates into a piece of the larger story, while most of it is digressive. While the self-talk monologues appear to be trying to make sense of it all in retrospect, there is no clear storyline, though through all the analytic babble, some recognizable characters do come and go. But for the most part, we are caught up in a stream of self-analytic consciousness. Or more like three.
The language is highly accessible, in fact most of it reads like live dialogue interwoven with excerpts from various popular media and self-help texts, stereotypical in a subtly futile way. The clichés are often overpowering, and the male protagonist displays a disturbingly negative, thoroughly cynical thought pattern of self-defeat which pervades the narratives of all three narrators. It is, as he puts it, an unavoidable slip into a downward spiral.
To break free from the alienating ordeal of his bleakly meaningless existence, the physicist rationalizes a cop-out from all his roles and responsibilities, as well as all forms of emotional commitment. In his words, “Doing nothing isn’t something anyone imposed on me: the reason I do nothing is because I choose to.” This is elaborated in a self-righteously escapist, albeit comprehensively studied rejection of life. Bizarrely enough, even with alternating narrators telling different sides of a shared story from individual angles, they are all somehow caught up in the same double-binding web of reasoning and rhetoric.
Digressing into a wide spectrum of social issues and generalities, the book also offers a thorough and quite poignant general social critique. It is an uncompromising rebellion against consumerism, bourgeois values, and ultimately, all the banalities of social norms and interpersonal Catch-22’s. These are meticulously, if haphazardly, catalogued, for the most part of the 250 pages. Radical and anarchistic, the commentary falls well short of becoming a manifesto, the rattling machinery far too ungraceful ever to leave the ground and fly. Ironically, it still passes as an accurate enough version of a contemporary, disillusioned Hungarian zeitgeist.
This unflagging grind is at times entertaining, always eventful, hellishly familiar, superficially sagacious, and pointlessly prophetic. Lapsing into inhumanly cynical and negative twists of reasoning, what might have started out as a quest for truth or at least self-knowledge keeps bellyflopping into unhappiness and flat-out nihilism. It soon starts to read as if one of Krasznahorkai’s mad geniuses elbowed their way into the Háy universe of fiction and took control. Perhaps the most horrifying aspect of the relentless, inconsequentially circular reasoning is how readily recognizable these phrases, conspiracy theories and well-fashioned truthinesses are. If only these pedestrian reasonings were more skewed, or less plausible-sounding! But it’s safe to say we all subscribe to some of these cleverly self-defeating lines of thinking, and it will be shocking to see just how far down they can go.
Down they carry us, into the bowels of the Earth, into a subterranean garage under an unspecified mall in suburban Budapest, where our protagonist has taken up work as a security guard. Watching closed circuit screens, pondering his past, his fruitless philosophy and plotting a vindictive exit, he sits and does nothing, a voyeur and disgruntled prophet. The scene of his musings is as anonymous as the location is otherwise symbolic. Carefully dissecting choice, free will, family values, parenthood, career, faith, progress, civilization and humanity in general, the buildup leads to a likewise clichéd, brazenly genre-bending but uncannily valid conclusion.
Háy thrashes out a lot of frustration and harsh negativity in this book, using extensive commonplace pseudo-argumentation sculpted into a monstrosity of everyday proportions. It is definitely a great feat to carry this off in a masterfully and consistently executed, if overwhelmingly depressing work. Well worth reading, at once gripping, draining and somewhat relieving to finish. One wonders if there is after all some residual humor hidden in the machinery, behind the very structure of this text; if there is a glint of humor there, it is sealed off behind the mirrored glass of some subterranean security booth, dark and opaque like a blanked-out CCTV monitor, unspeakably black.
Previously on HLO: our review on The Kid by János Háy
Háy János: A mélygarázs
Budapest: Európa, 2013
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