Edina Szvoren: The Best Executioner in the Land, Magvető, 2016
All Szvoren’s characters are vibrating with sensitivity - they notice all the little things, they have heads full of thoughts and hearts heavy with feeling. – Edina Szvoren’s latest collection of short stories, The Best Executioner in the Land, published by Magvető, reviewed by Sara Zorandy.
While Edina Szvoren’s earlier collections of short stories, Pertu (2010) and Nincs És Ne Is Legyen (2012) seem to be self-therapy and very close to home, at times unbalanced and imprecise, The Best Executioner in the Land is full of a more all-encompassing tristesse. These stories too are heavily suggestive. In the title story, the death penalty “has been reinstated.” Where are we on the timeline? We are in Hungary, possibly in the near future (after all, Prime Minister Orbán has spoken of reinstating it). In the story of the choirmaster and his choir of boys, a simple, matter-of-fact sentence does it: “They say he was even in prison in the fifties.” Communism before the thaw, 1956; it leads us to wonder what happened in the choirmaster’s life. In another story, that of a daughter full of trepidation visiting her mother with her girlfriend for the first time, one senses a broken mother-daughter relationship and the extreme self-awareness of the protagonist.
All Szvoren’s characters are vibrating with sensitivity - they notice all the little things, they have heads full of thoughts and hearts heavy with feeling. There is the baker’s delivery driver going to a mine where children work, who has his elbow propped on the windowsill of the truck, “as if it hadn’t even crossed my mind that they could attack me with their short-handled picks.” Or the mother of the teenage daughter who knows she cannot do right by her: “There was something hurtful in how her love for my parents had grown behind my back, over my head.” There is the choirboy looking down at the self-important choirmaster who has fallen into a pit and, with the others, decides to leave him there; or the teenage girl who feels inadequate beside her friend, whose parents “dare say the name of sexual organs in public.”
Szvoren is all of them, credibly. The stories are deep with unspoken feelings, the water comes up to our chins. The childless woman on her and her husband’s neighbours, who have a little baby, as they are putting out the trash: “(…) mostly likeable children’s toys, but no good for the baby’s development, which the wife’s girlfriends, stuck in the countryside, flood them with year after year.”
In an interview in Litera, Szvoren mentions that from the beginning she often had difficulties trying to decide what to leave out. Compared to her earlier work, these new stories are crisp. A young woman on her dead brother: “There are no landmines around my little brother, only simple pain, on a human scale.” Everywhere else in the book the landmines are there, ready to go off and blow an entire life that was hidden under the surface right up, loudly and messily.