08. 09. 2010. 13:17

Women's novel, complete with hangman

Andrea Tompa: The Hangman's House

It is not the extraordinary events of an extraordinary age that make Andrea Tompa’s novel a really good piece of writing. No doubt it is easier to work with first-class material and the life of Kolozsvár (Cluj, Romania) before 1989 is excellent subject matter (while from almost every other point of view it was, of course, a disaster).

The complicated history of the family, woven through and through with tragic historical events, is equally exciting. In other words, an author could not go far wrong even if she wrote a simple chronicle of these times, since the period and the scene deserve attention for a number of reasons.
But Andrea Tompa does not take this easy exit. The book soon reveals why she is not satisfied just to register the memories of a young woman from the period against a backdrop of contemporary Kolozsvár. The Hangman’s House is more of an example how this already dense matter can settle in the bedrock of a perfectly formed novel of exceptional and poignant beauty. Only to be stirred up again and again, since the events of the time are not so distant either for the narrator or for the reader – they are memories of our shared world and of a destiny of which we also share so many details. Although this world is so familiar to reader and narrator alike, somehow at the same time we surpass ourselves, stepping beyond personal involvement, beyond recalling the past – just as the girl herself works on transforming the survival strategies and the dreariness into a work of art, handling the reality from the outside by subtle and cautious means, with care and gentleness just the way one handles a starved and abandoned kitten.
The age described was far from gentle and caring. "The one-eyed executioner" and the regime he maintained were not the only things the population of Romania suffered from – people were harsh on each other, too. Oppression, poverty and hopelessness took their toll on relationships – husbands and wives, parents and children would be seen destroying each other: "For man is an executioner and the body is his house." In one of the families the mother abandons her husband and children for the sake of the Party, another family is destroyed by the father’s alcoholism.
At one level The Hangman’s House is a women’s novel – a book for mothers and daughters, since men usually fail in their quality as men and human beings. ”'Men' remain something contingent, unreliable and accidental." The girl’s father, Janó, also fails to fulfil his duties as father or husband and leaves his ex-wife with all the responsibility for bringing up their children. It is women who stay upright. "There were no men. They had all gone away or died. […] It had all started with so many Eves – they gave rise to men." Women often surpass men in strength and perseverance but through a stroke of subtlety even during all of this they do not lose their feminine grace. They put their make-up on amidst the raging revolution, get upset if they find a ladder in their stockings and make every effort to have chic clothes made even despite their poverty.
A particularly traumatic and cruel scene in the novel is the description of the secret abortion of Juci, the elder one of the girls. Since legal contraception is practically unavailable and abortion is prohibited, unwanted pregnancies are interrupted by various make-shift methods and clandestine medical assistance of dubious value. It is clearly not in everyday life alone that women have to shoulder the responsibilities that men neglect: they have to answer in front of the law as well. "It is only sinful mothers, lewd mothers, greedy mothers who do not want to become mothers and get left alone with their horrific burden because according to 1966/770 fathers do not exist and are therefore not liable to punishment, either." Juci has her operation on the fourth floor of a block of flats, and the product is placed in the rubbish bin of the housing estate where garbage is not very frequently collected. The novel’s protagonist is "the girl" – an autonomous and ambitious student with a passion for literature who wins school Olympics and makes friends with poets. It is she who relates the whole story, referring to herself in the third person singular and thus creating a complex web of relationships between author, narrator and protagonist. The autobiographic character of the novel is clear but the alienating effect of the role play is definitely an advantage. The book still steers clear of being an indictment or a journal and remains instead a highly intense and atmospheric text written with some humour and a great deal of ironic distance. 
The diction works in the same direction, meaning the text’s polyphony and very consciously shaped poetics. Every paragraph consists of one very long sentence, interrupted sometimes with italicized passages and sometimes with sentences in Romanian. There are also a number of words and phrases using the special vocabulary of the dialect of a particular region or a specific community – these introduce the reader to a world and its language game, while at the same time also signalling distance and estrangement.
I find the game Tompa plays highly appealing, and think her use of language was a good choice, as it smoothes the way for narration and reception alike. It is distanced but only just enough to give us a perspective from which to see things and thus gain a better and more complex understanding. And to allow a closeness so the reader does not remain untouched – amid the whirl of sweeping clauses we are initiated into a world which could not be narrated in any other fashion. If we stay too close, it would be impossible to write about the lack of perspective, the anxiety, the humiliation, the poverty, the hopelessness, the small everyday tragedies, the daily, grotesque drama of life in a dictatorship.

However, the story does not start in the 1980’s – the trials and tribulations of the family take us back to the beginning of the last century. The story of the grandparents and their documents is a typical piece of the Eastern European absurd. The grandfather tries to explain to a Romanian official that "he only has the 1941 Hungarian translation of the 1919 Romanian translation of the Hungarian original from 1909" – we are always faced with translations of translations, while the original has long been lost. Life or history itself seems to work through alienating effects – with a post-modernist prose poetics one might say, but instead of remaining on the level of rhetoric this has a serious existential stake.
Finally, a few words about the title. I must admit, I did not like it at first – it sounded somewhat sensationalist and the associations were with chainsaw horror movies. As I read on, however, the metaphors around the executioner grew organically into the tissue of the novel and subtly unfolded through images like the executioner as dictator, the executioner of Kolozsvár or ourselves as executioners. To put it simply – the title was a risky lob which the novel saved elegantly, as all the others, one after the other. And this is only a first novel by Andrea Tompa. We look forward to the rest.
Sarolta Deczki
Tompa Andrea: A hóhér háza
Bratislava: Kalligram, 2010

Tags: Andrea Tompa