03. 06. 2010. 06:47

Urban myths and realities

Gergely Nagy: Angst: The handbook of the urban guerilla

Angst features a young cartoonist from Budapest and tracks his rapid rise, gradual burnout and ultimate disintegration. In the background of the events we read subtle observations and interpretations of the hidden life of present-day Budapest, its new and ever renewed character.

In his third novel, Gergely Nagy (1969) focuses on the unstoppable erosion of values we are experiencing today. The book features a young cartoonist from Budapest and tracks his rapid rise, gradual burnout and ultimate disintegration. Uncontrollable forces seem to drive the protagonist through a series of bad compromises to betrayal time after time both in art and private life, even to the verge of crime, and finally into total destruction. In the background of the events we read subtle observations and interpretations of the hidden life of present-day Budapest, a powerful and atmospheric representation of the jungle of the big city, its new and ever renewed character.
 
Gergely Nagy erects an authentic scenery rich in detail to illustrate this urban myth. In a chaotic space which threatens the identity of the individual we observe the accretion of the various architectural styles, the mingling of  different cultures, where the lifestyles of artists and business people merge into one another, and underground is blurred with pop. The unique logic of the business world which operates the metropolis (in the novel this is referred to as ‘the system’, with a mixture of disgust and pathos) is laid bare before our eyes. Pure social types can no longer exist under such a climate any more than principled behaviour – it breaks everything and everyone, the individual gives himself up and is debased to a servant, in bondage to the duty of money-making. This layer of the novel voices the most basic existential experience of an entire generation, the determining element of their identity.

The generation which came of age intellectually in the late 1980’s, early 90’s (today in their 30’s) were socialized in a free world and had no experience of state socialism and the aggressive way in which it had shaped people’s lives. They grew into a nascent, forming and storming market economy, into a chaotic set of circumstances which allowed for an independent lifestyle. Today, however, they are forced to experience a period when the new order, regulated by business, solidifies into a closed, tightly organized structure and shuts away not only the narrow fissures of unlawfulness where a little bit of money could formerly be made but also the way to realizing innovative ideas. The new system forces masses of young people to follow the lifestyle of their parents, to become integrated into the social order and create the high degree of control which dictatorship once exercised, where only the means of control are different. This is precisely the form of aggression the protagonist of Angst suffers. The world that is emerging around him eradicates his freedom step by step and shapes him into an obedient worker. His tragedy is precisely that he nevertheless remains unable to accept the agenda imposed upon his life, while breaking out is no option either, as there is nowhere to break out to. His self-image is destroyed, his personality disintegrates and he is overcome by mental disease.

Nagy has hit upon what might be the most important dramatic focus point of contemporary Hungary. Through individual lives and specific tragedies he presents a universally valid and unavoidable conflict. All the while he manages to steer clear of becoming journalistic, refraining from doling out great truths and justice. He shows and interprets what he sees and experiences but (most fortunately from an aesthetic point of view) falls short of ‘understanding’ everything. The narrator’s voice is made more nuanced by confusion, doubts and questions.

Angst is constructed of readable, clear, simple sentences. What makes the structure nevertheless exciting is the narrator’s essayistic presence. One in every two or three scenes runs into a line of thought valid in its own right, articulating the author’s life experience and pumping a huge wealth of knowledge into the book. These quasi-essays fit organically into the text – instead of protruding they seem to grow naturally out of the world of Angst, allowing us to glimpse into the development of the underground music world, the way in which work is organized within large multinational corporations (the author works as columnist for an economic journal), we are offered an account of the culture of public baths, an entertaining story about the Bekhtasi dervish Gül Baba and a critical analysis of the textual habits of the authors of metal magazines.
Previously on HLO
An excerpt from Angst
 
Nagy Gergely: Angst - A városi harcos kézikönyve
Budapest: Ulpius Ház, 2007

Tibor Szabó

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