05. 10. 2007. 11:11

Unfulfilled promises

János Háy: The Kid (A gyerek)

There are several authors today in Hungary who describe the erosion of the village way of life, which runs parallel to the destruction of the countryside. Some do it with the passionate tone of a prophet. Háy's voice in The Kid is that of quiet desperation.

"In point of fact, the whole world is a conspiracy like this one, as hatched upon us by others. These people exist in order to take the grievances they have accumulated in their lives out on us in the most devious way possible, and by the time you notice, you are already standing there with a knife in your hand ready to kill someone." The hero of János Háy's new novel A gyerek (The Kid), a talented village boy who tries his luck in Budapest, learns this very early on, and subsequently, his whole life becomes a series of variations on this fundamental theme.
There are several authors today in Hungary who describe the erosion of the village way of life, which runs parallel to the destruction of the countryside. Some do it with the passionate tone of a prophet. Háy's voice in The Kid is that of quiet desperation. Budapest and the rest of the country – according to this novel, these are two worlds apart. Hungary is commonly referred to as a ”hydrocephalous country” as there is an enormous discrepancy, in terms of opportunity, between the capital city and the rest of the country (especially villages). The Kid takes place in a village that is too far from Budapest to enjoy its advantages, but close enough for the men of the village to seek employment there by commuting to the capital city every day. This village is modelled after the author's native village, Vámosmikola, but remains unnamed (just as the characters); it could be just any village. Only Budapest, the land of opportunities, is mentioned by name.
Yet the novel is far from idealizing the capital city: besides the dispassionate portrayal of the inertia, lack of initiative and alcoholism of villagers, it describes city people as insensitive, vain and ignorant of life in the rest of the country. Whenever the two worlds meet, there is some fundamental misunderstanding, like when the kid's Budapest friends come to visit him in the weekend. After consuming his mother's lunch, that she had been preparing for two days, they reflect on ”how hard it must be for the guy to read Hegel here, with such a background. How hard it is, and how low his parents are, and how high the kid has risen with Hegel…The kid didn't understand what they were talking about. He had guessed all right that this was not like a city environment, but he hadn't thought he was that low. So spectacularly low.” And while the kid is ignorant of the rules of the big city, the city-dweller becomes a comic figure when he moves into a village. ”He can buy a fully equipped house for the price of a small city car, and he can come out at the weekends, and be there with his wife, the city-dweller, and breathe fresh air, and then in the city he can say 'my village' – and here he names the village which was originally the kid's – moreover, he wants to organize village festivals, because it is important for him that the community, from whom he had taken their houses for peanuts, and then their last property, the village, should survive.” It seems as if these people, living in the same country and speaking the same language, were members of different tribes.
The protagonist, whose name – Laci – we learn only at the end of the novel, is born in this village, the only son of a father whose life of toil and lack of perspectives is sweetened only by the hope he puts into the kid, who is ugly but especially bright – especially, at least, in village terms. So the talented village kid applies to the university in Budapest to study philosophy. He is not admitted, because what is considered as impressive knowledge in village terms is far from adequate for admittance to the best university in the country. Unable to meet this challenge (or so he feels), he goes on to study history and literature at a teachers' training college in an unnamed provincial town. Since it is financially impossible for him to settle in Budapest – a meagre teacher's salary not being enough to pay the rent – he returns to his native village where he is immediately appointed director of the local school. He marries a girl who takes up with him only to defy her ex-boyfriend, and has a child with her. Feeling horribly and definitively stuck in roles he has no desire to play, he takes to drinking, and soon loses his job and his wife. He returns to his mother's house, lives the life of the unemployed and drinks heavily. One day, completely inebriated, he walks into the fields, takes off his clothes and lies down. He is found almost lifeless by one of his drinking pals. As a result of this incident, he becomes a vegetable and is taken to an institute where he spends the rest of his days.
The narrative is told in a linear way, but it is heavily laden with excursions – some of them short, sketchy pieces, others nearly as long and complex as short stories – that illustrate particular examples of the thesis that life is a plot against us by others. The plotters, of course, are also plotted against – when a character appears in the kid's life, we usually learn about their future, which is, without exception, a downfall. Háy mercilessly tears all illusions to pieces: the life of people who make their appearance in the novel differ only in degree. Neither wealth nor status nor family can guarantee happiness. On his scale, those who are rich, beautiful or have a relatively successful professional or relatively happy family life, score perhaps ten out of a hundred, as opposed to the kid who scores zero or, at most, one. Háy has no illusions about human relationships: a mother's selflessness camouflages the worst kind of selfishness, a friend's pity for a fallen pal is actually joy at having fared better. All these unnamed lives are described as a series of events – births, deaths, illnesses, marriages, etc. – that are dealt out randomly from a relatively small pack of cards, causing the characters to abandon all hope they may have had for a better fate. Happiness is always short and illusory, even for those who are relatively successful and manage to evade major tragedies.
It is only the love a father feels for his son that stands out in this general hopelessness and despair; yet again, this feeling is not love for a particular human being, but rather the hope that the father invests in a kid – the hope that if life continues in one generation after another, then perhaps the promise inherent in the birth of a new child may be fulfilled, against all odds. Yet, and this is signalled in the title of the novel, as well as in the choice that the main character is simply called ”the kid” until the very end, this promise is at the same time a determination. Throughout, ”the kid” remains ”the kid”, someone whose fate is decided by others (parents, villagers, neighbours, relatives and a long line of ancestors whose lot was determined right from the beginning); someone who has no hope of breaking out of this determination; and someone in whom trust is placed, though that trust proves to be a burden rather than genuine help. The kid is always reminded of the abyss that separates his desires from reality, an abyss that cannot be bridged and can only be shielded from the eye by the huge plastic can in which the kid keeps his cheap wine and that he, symbolically, always puts in front of himself on the table between himself and his wife.
The cruellest moment in the book is in a footnote on the penultimate page. Long after the story is over and the kid becomes a permanent resident in an asylum, somebody from the village meets the kid's ex-wife in the underground. Her new husband or boyfriend seems familiar to the villager. ”There is no reason to feel pity for anybody, and even much less to think that somebody got ahead by damaging others' fate – the girl said and got out with her companion.” And here's the footnote: ”Before the closing doors separated them, the guy from the village said, 'I have seen you somewhere, wasn't it at the kid's place?' I didn't answer. He will doubtless forget about it.” Thus, the wife's new boyfriend is none other than the narrator himself. The ”kid's” humiliation and exploitation becomes complete with this gesture: his friend, a resident of Budapest, either by destiny or by choice, has not only stolen his wife and son, but also the story of his life. This final twist sheds a strange light on the author's involvement in the story. Behind the impassive language and the ruthless analysis of people's motivations, there are actually strong emotions – those of someone whose life story is at points very similar to that of the kid, but who managed to avoid his fate and become an established writer, in no small degree due to his writings about fellow villagers. The author's ambiguous feelings towards his craft are clearly present in this concluding footnote.

Háy János: A gyerek
Budapest: Palatinus, 2007

Ágnes Orzóy

Tags: János Háy