10. 06. 2009. 12:58

Worlds that could have been

László Darvasi: Flower Eaters

A quick glance at recently published Hungarian prose suggests that the past continues to be the most popular subject in modern literature today. László Darvasi’s latest work seems no different. First impressions, however, are frequently misleading.

A quick glance at recently published Hungarian prose suggests that the past continues to be the most popular subject in modern literature today. From Endre Kukorelly’s compilation of past love affairs, One Thousand and 3, to Dear Unknown, István Kemény’s novel about sifting through family history, György Ferdinandy’s post-1956 tale of emigration in The American Refugee, or Noémi Szécsi’s Communist Monte Cristo, it appears that the present is an issue few works are willing to tackle. László Darvasi’s latest work seems no different: set in the 19th century, Flower Eaters details the lives and fortunes of four main characters living in the southern Hungarian city of Szeged.
 
First impressions, however, are frequently misleading; this, perhaps, is the most important lesson to be learned from reading this monumental novel. Logically, Flower Eaters can be defined as a historical novel built upon well-researched and familiar events such as Count István Széchenyi’s introduction of the steamboat in Hungary, the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, or the Great Flood of 1879. Similarly, Szeged is a city that truly exists, just as many of the buildings and streets mentioned in this novel can be seen even today. Yet, as Klára’s father, László Pelsoczy, mournfully declares, “I spun far too many yarns for them, those sirs with their waxed mustachios and riding crops for beating the servants, those ladies in their lace collars and all those gaggles of sniggering cousins. Said far too much about worlds that never existed, although they certainly could have.” (p. 13.) In fact, this dogged determination to reveal worlds and events that could have been is what really defines László Darvasi’s Flower Eaters, a creed that will almost certainly redefine how readers interpret the historical novel of the 21st century.
 
Of course, the realization that a particular sequence of events can never be fully understood or reconstructed is not new: like many other modern works, the structure of Flower Eaters is also rooted in modern literature’s concept concerning the difficulties of narration. Laid against the backdrop of an ever-changing terrain of the same events, Flower Eaters is broken into five sections bearing separate titles and devoted to recounting the lives of its main characters (Klára Pelsoczy, Gilagóg’s band of gypsies, Imre Szép, Ádám Pallagi and Péter Szép). Each section can almost be interpreted as a separate work, a short biography beginning with the character’s childhood and moving up through the events of his or her adult life. In fact, these sections could virtually be removed and read separately, or even shuffled around in various orders, thereby enriching the text with a variety of interpretations.
 
Unlike characters in most modern works, however, Darvasi’s characters are rarely frustrated by their inability to gain a thorough understanding of the events shaping their lives. In a kind of paradox, not seeing reality empowers them to see even more, for they are the ones who eat flowers, a subversive, secret activity that can result in near-death, intense joy, or a fleeting sense of total freedom. The symbol of flower eating—usually paired with verbs such as gobbling, devouring, wolfing down or savouring—represents the way each character participates in the alternate world of László Pelsoczy’s what could have been. After all, only the flower eaters can enter the world populated by mythical figures such as Mama Root, Mr. Leaf and Mr. Worm, or hear Néró Koszta’s unsettling music, played on Kosovo’s last blade of grass. In the end, Darvasi’s depiction of the alternate reality experienced by his characters strongly suggests that a narrative’s inability to reconstruct events demands the need to reinterpret history in order to make room for the outcasts, misfits and drunkards never included in traditional narration. After all, as Imre Szép shouts, “there’s no such thing as a book bearing the title Flower Eaters!” (p. 305)
 
Nowhere in the novel can the importance of history be felt so poignantly as in the depiction of Gilagóg and the gypsies, whose lack of their own history forever bars them from society. The gypsy leader Gilagóg heralds the mythical birth of Habred the Truth-Sayer—a baby who never grows and whose bones glow in the dark—as the beginning of a new age in their lives, a time in which the history of the gypsies will finally become known. Yet the only truth Habred ever utters is, “Give me money, give me money!” While Gilagóg claims to understand what Habred is really saying, for the most part Habred is kept hidden under a blanket. In the end, the true history of the gypsies is never revealed, while the squalor remains.
 
This example of what it means to live without a history provides a sharp contrast not only to the alternate reality pursued by characters such as Klára and Imre, but also to the very real events portrayed in Flower Eaters. Gilagóg’s failed attempts to reconstruct the gypsies’ past urges the reader to discover what has happened just as it introduces the possibility of what could have happened. Fortunately, László Darvasi’s depiction of the Revolution of 1848 is breathtakingly vital and succeeds in wresting well-known facts and details out of the history books and into the imaginations of his readers. On one level, the need to tell of worlds that could have been opens the narration to endless variations of plot as well as giving voice to those never born, as symbolized by Ádám Pallagi’s daughter, Grubby Madonna. When placed within the context of a historical novel that frequently mentions the tragic Battle of Mohács, the star-crossed Revolution of 1848 and Kosovo, the possibility of could have been resonates far into the future.
Man’s tragedy will be the inability to fill in the curves and lines of his one and only life, because he’ll constantly tear away from himself, mesmerized by the spell of the external world. And man will then wake up to the fact that he himself is the source of all change, while the life he began at his mother’s teat bears not even the slightest resemblance to the one he’ll be forced to relinquish some fine day. All the theatrical props and backdrops accompanying our lives have, until now, represented eternity: the past reached into the present, the present narrated the future. Our homes, tools and stories were no different from those we received from our fathers, nor any different from what we bequeathed our own brats. Now our lives are being rearranged scene by scene…Remember, Doctor, what Petofi wrote? Our past and our present are brothers, yet they still don’t know one another! These new forces will demand every bit of man, oh, yes, they’ll take his soul, his body, his strength, his talent, his courage, his cowardice, even his frailities! We’ll be swallowed up down to the very last man, just so we don’t stand in the way of progress! Nobody, on the other hand, will want our insanity! Our insanity will be our very last refuge… but what if I’m wrong, Doctor, what will happen if it’s our insanity they need the most?! If this new order demands nothing else of us, just our insanity?
    Doctor Schütz was silent for a long time, his face expressionless, yet turning deeper and deeper shades of red from the air he couldn’t seem to expel.
    Then that will be a truly horrible tragedy, he finally replied.
    Yes, what a tragedy, Kigl nodded, his face snow-white. (p. 296)     
At the same time, the structure László Darvasi chose for Flower Eaters could also be judged a weakness. The constant retelling and reordering of events results in an almost impossibly complex plot. Similarly, the way the details surrounding these events change can also lead to a great amount of confusion. Did Ádám Pallagi really die—if so, who killed him? Did László Pelsoczy’s steamboat really take Klára on wonderful journeys, or was it simply a rusting hulk that never set sail? What was the subject of Imre’s doomed lecture? As critic László Szilasi described it: “Like the legends Dr. Schütz describes as beginning the very moment they end, Flower Eaters obviously builds upon this great, tried-and-true technique in order to convince readers to start rereading the novel the moment they put it down. This technique is rendered effective by the many questions left open in the text, deliberate blank spaces that are filled and refilled with concrete details in a way that only serves to increase the reader’s uncertainty. In spite of this, the reader still feels the secret has been unmasked…The secrets are unmasked again and again, yet never lose the essence of their cryptic nature. This quality is what lures readers on, enticing them to reread the novel one more time.” 
 
Apparently, László Darvasi risks quite a bit by depending so heavily on the reader’s willingness to work through the 673 pages comprising this work, then start over and read it again. While the risk is obvious, Darvasi adroitly “covers his bets” by creating a style of language that is addictive to read. The language of Flower Eaters is often poetic, at other times lewd; at times it is sprinkled with words bearing the distinct flavor of the 19th century, yet it poses no difficulties for the modern reader. In other words, just as László Darvasi utilizes a sentence structure that rises and swells like the Tisza River frequently described in this work, he also creates a language that turns the distant, dreamy, often brutal world of the Flower Eaters brilliantly alive. At the same time, it is important to emphasize that Darvasi relies heavily on techniques common to traditional prose. First of all, a definite plot and story line do exist, even if they are sometimes difficult to unsnarl. Secondly, well-defined events, places and characters connect the lives of Darvasi’s fictional characters to a certain locale and place in history, following the tradition of the historical novel. Third, Darvasi successfully creates “real-life” characters whose emotions, thoughts and actions are mapped out in detail; the fact that most of the characters are connected by familial ties also adds the attraction of a family saga to this novel. In the end, these traditional techniques not only reward the reader’s continued attention, but also serve to contain and unite a prolific work of literature.   
 
Behind all this lies the Tisza, the backdrop that represents eternity for the characters of Flower Eaters. Engineers dig a new bed for the river, citing the need to create better sailing methods for a more modern time, just as László Darvasi alters the historical novel in order to ensure its place in 21st-century literature. As one of the characters predicted, what seemed eternal is wiped away: the Tisza rises and washes away all traces of the past and present, making room for a future that no longer believes in legends. Those who eat flowers barricade themselves away, hammering shutters and doors closed with a thousand-and-one nails so as to whisper in solitude “stories fallen out of other stories, worlds fallen out of other worlds.” (p. 63) Until now their stories went unheard: we can only hope the existence of a book entitled Flower Eaters means more will follow.
   
Maya J. LoBello
 
László Darvasi: Virágzabálók
Magveto, 2009
 
Previously on HLO
Flower Eaters: an excerpt
 

Tags: László Darvasi, László Darvasi: Flower Eaters