01. 10. 2012. 08:31

Danse macabre. Ádám Bodor: The Birds of Verhovina

The quality of Ádám Bodor's humour is akin to the hardly perceptible smile of a Buddhist—as it appears on the smeary face of Eastern Europe. And it can turn into the grimace of horror in any given moment.

Ádám Bodor’s novel has an elliptic structure that the reader must reconstruct in his or her imagination. But don’t worry: this is not an exercise in maths—it is our sensory capacity that is challenged by this book. Ádám Bodor has some extraordinary aesthetic capabilities, such as his extreme sensitivity to smells and sounds. The creation of this novel's world starts with vapours—clouds of odour and stench rise and fall continuously. The reader saturates these smells with his or her own notions of smell, and creates his own version of Verhovina. Those who are more susceptible to sounds, may elect to start with words, because Bodor’s famous toponymy, his extraordinary ability to invent names creates a wholly new world, in this novel as in all his previous works. The characters’ names, though impossible to identify as belonging to one nation or another, have a Balkanic and Eastern European flair—Anatol Korkodus, Nika Karanika, Edmund Pochoriles etc.—and are instrumental in drawing up a fictitious map. The noises, including that of silence, are described with a visionary power, and the bizarre figures unfolding from the exotic and telling names vivify the world described in the novel. And the tastes! The food and drink, sometime attractive, sometimes disgusting, that constitute the cuisine of the poor in Verhovina are described in great detail, adding to the totality of the aesthetic experience that is the common ground of creation and reception.

Smells, sounds, tastes, colours, forms and materials form a synesthetic relationship, and in our imagination the landscape, the people and the animals become real. Ádám Bodor’s extraordinary sensibility creates a half-familiar, half-unfamiliar world, and this half-familiarity creates tension: we feel and understand this world, but are not at home in it; or it may be the other way round: we feel at home in it in many ways, yet we don’t understand it—the degree of Unheimlichkeit depends on the reader. Most of the place names are fictitious, including that of the village of Yablonska Polyana, where the plot takes place, yet a real place name, Czernowitz (Paul Celan’s birthplace) is mentioned, and there are allusions to Lemberg. Ukraine, Bukovina, Transylvania: we must be somewhere in Eastern Europe. The name of Yablonska Polyana reminds the reader of Yasnaya Polyana, Leo Tolstoy’s estate, an emblematic place of late humanism. The Verhovina of the title is the name of the region where the river Yablonka flows, and which is rich in thermal springs, mountains, valleys and mineral ore. It could be a fairy garden.

Yet in spite of its natural treasures and beauty Yablonska Polyana is now a waste land. It is a mining region where the water is polluted, the fish and the bees are dying, the birds have flown away, and basically everyone is running away, because the place is doomed. Its thermal springs are used locally for doing the laundry and are taken away to faraway places by water trucks. By the end of the novel only a few dozen inhabitants remain in the village. Chapter by chapter, we are informed about the life of these people as well as those who die, commit suicide, break away, are killed or deported in the course of the novel.

The village used to be part of a network but has lost contact with it; the inhabitants also form a network that is breaking apart. Ádám Bodor does not invent characters; he invents configurations of certain existential visions and aspects of human nature in his characters. There are no moral visions, only tempers and fates. The inhabitants of the village represent various degrees of helplessness. The powers-that-be are invisible or we only see them from afar, though the fate of the village and its inhabitants—who in turn inform on each other—depends on their actions.

One thing is for sure: Yablonska Polyana is going to perish, or at least undergo a ‘change of regime’ of such scale that the new will have nothing to do with the old. These are "Variations on the last days", as the subtitle of the novel says. The book describes various shades, modes and segments of languishing, devastation and dying. Defencelessness is elementary, biological, natural and social—in other words, total. The various fates merely enact varieties of it. This is a danse macabre, and like the medieval dance of death, it has a morbidly comical, parodistic hue. Humour alternates with horror; the source of humour is not jokes, punchlines or witty remarks, but a sense of humour peculiar to Bodor that stems from the deepest depths of his vision, his Weltanschauung and private metaphysics that can hardly be illustrated with quotations. This is something to be felt, like the smells and the tastes. The quality of this humour is akin to the hardly perceptible smile of a Buddhist—as it appears on the smeary face of Eastern Europe. Which can turn into the grimace of horror in any given moment.

It is there everywhere between the lines, it has soaked into the images, it hovers around the characters; what’s more, it has penetrated their being. The characters are, without exception, somewhat funny, because all of them are clumsy and awkward like marionettes, or use their power in a ridiculous way. This incredible existential state of frailty and misery is mitigated and made bearable and readable by Ádám Bodor with the salt of humour and with unintended parody. He consoles by means of a certain, sometimes awkward gracefulness, balanced with horroristic humour.

The Birds of Verhovina is an extremely balanced and harmonious work; complex characters, images and scenes alternate in the novel, saturating this sad, distressed world with their ambivalence, complexity and metaphoric allusions—this world where there are no birds, where butterflies tend to be eaten and books are used for making fire. And let’s add: where no one speaks Hungarian. So this books somehow speaks in a foreign tongue. These ‘funny’, alienating effects continuously prevent the world from being engulfed by the pathos of misery.

And this Eastern European and Balkanic devastation is happening now—even the date 2011 figures in the novel. However, past, present and future are condensed in timelessness. “Actually, we are only waiting for time to pass.” “Tomorrow? Or the day after tomorrow? That is also today.” The novel structures the uncountable time of devastation, however, cyclical time does not give a damn about deaths and their causes, it does not treat death with distinction. No death on a large scale here. The past looms somewhere beyond consciousness; making it all conscious is the reader’s job.

Bodor Ádám: Verhovina madarai
Budapest: Magvető, 2011

Viktória Radics

Tags: Ádám Bodor