Because language is like night-time. Moist,
an indecipherable series of grunts. Pure dread, and
inchoate visceral shrieking. It is inhuman.
from “On the wings of freedom“
The Dispossessed, Szilárd Borbély’s first novel (translated by Ottilie Mulzet), was published in Hungary in 2013, just a year before he took his own life. Its reception was exalted, the scope of its success overwhelming and somewhat unexpected. Until then, Borbély had been primarily known as a poet, whose voice stood starkly apart from the literary mainstream’s travesties, veneration of subjectivity, and l’art pour l’art games with language. Instead, Borbély reached back to Baroque liturgical forms, motives of Hasidic folklore, and he crafted a depersonalised voice so as to hone in on the roots of the self: the stuttering of fear, grief, hope. In other words, he fused the interpersonal and the formalised with barely articulate and verbal intimacy. The relationship between language and the body was at the heart of this fusion: he wrote about the physicality of speech, the sequence of aging that connects birth and death, about the immediacy of sensory life and the brutality of this immediacy.
This poetic voice was not simply an aesthetic choice for him. Rather, it stemmed from a realisation that the world is fundamentally different from “the language we live by” and that much of it “cannot even be expressed as questions, or formulated as problems.” For him, the world existed in a rawness that defied legal and moral constructs, be they about human rights or divine redemption. It defied the very rules of language. Crime—raw and immediate—is only arbitrarily linked to punishment, and only when it is too late. Law alone could never prevent the killer from entering the room. Imre Kertész—the Holocaust survivor novelist who won Hungary’s only Nobel in literature—saw no reason not to expect that you can be shot anytime, anywhere. Similarly, Borbély was acutely aware of how thin the coat of law was and how in vain it existed in the face of brutality, especially after the house-break that led to his mother’s homicide.
For Borbély, operations of reason, theological or scientific explanations of this raw reality span a web of meaning around humans that occluded the world’s immediacy and arbitrariness. The cosmology of reason undergirds our every utterance. Through our shared language, we are all vulnerable, subject to this distortion:
Language is cruelest of all. It is inhuman.
Nothing but the interplay of signs and grammar’s
sterile order. Not a single person owns the language
that he speaks, but in speaking, merely receives it as a
loan. In doing so, the body is first visited
and then seized by the Voice, that ruthless
God, just as Amor seized Psyche.
“The Emblem of Voices“
Borbély’s poetry, then, was a radical attempt to rescue language—and thereby the self—in order to expose the world in a less mediated form. He found that form in pre-Enlightenment modalities: subordination to fate, the acceptance of brutality, and an indulgence of the carnivalesque. Formal elements like repetition, ritualistic redundancy, fables, psalms, or lamentations orchestrate the outbursts of fear, love, violence, and forgiveness in his poems. The Dispossessed is a novel that grew out of this poetic preoccupation and its language bears the marks of it.
The book is a window onto a childhood spent in rural deprivation, poverty that maims people physically, morally, and emotionally. Barely understood historic events brew under the surface of this village community, bubbling up in the form of abrupt violence whenever an excuse is needed: it might suddenly matter that your grandfather was a class enemy if someone is about to beat you up. A mere twenty years after World War II, amidst forced collectivisation and a complete ideological turnaround from irredentist nationalism to state socialism, life in the village was stretched to the limits. People had to put up with local histories of perpetration, shaken up class relations, and growing economic deprivation. The narrator’s family is cast out: the father might be Jewish, the maternal grandfather a Hitler-supporting war veteran. Both sides were landowner kulaks and the whole family seems to have Romanian and Ruthenian origins. The mother shields herself by differentiating herself from the “peasants,” the father is broken while he tries to prove otherwise.
Although time and place are explicit in The Dispossessed—a remote corner of north-eastern Hungary, close to the Romanian and the Ukrainian border, late 1960s—, the nameless child-narrator and his staccato prose maintain a perspective that sets the novel apart from sociography or realism. From where he looks at it, the social dimension of the village (and the world) is a given; it is a condition that requires adaptation and needs to be withstood. He describes everyday scenes, burials, domestic chores, but his descriptions lack the distance necessary for romanticism, didacticism, or the instrumentalisation of literature for social agitation. Instead, description appears as a by-product of the child’s effort to at once escape inwards and navigate the world around him; it is difficult to distinguish between descriptions of his mother beating him from sketches of the landscape, the description of his drunk father’s smell from the image of a hungry cat, its body shaken by convulsions, throwing up a frog.
The narrator surveys his world as if he were looking at a Brueghel painting: the text is composed of a sequence of snapshots, separate from one another, yet linked associatively through motifs. Each of these fragments are frozen moments, or habitual scenes with a repetition that renders time irrelevant. The mother appears pregnant with the third child, who is born and dies a year later. In a subsequent scene, she is remembered as pregnant again. The father struggles at work, stays away for longer periods of time, but it is difficult to say how many such periods there are until he is finally cast out of the village.
The snapshots that build up the novel are crowded with relatives and villagers. They repeat self-same acts of walking, killing animals, wetting the bed. They gradually amount to a story, but the text lacks a real narrative arc. The episodes, connected by the thread of motifs, show an escalation of the tension between the community and the family, until the father is dispossessed of his inheritance by his siblings. With that, and the death of the third child, the family no longer has a purpose in that village. They leave. Their departure forms a closure, the only de facto event in the novel.
This technique, the accumulation of glimpses, the repetitive yet sensual panorama of small details, links The Dispossessed with Borbély’s poetry, especially to sequences of his collection Death Magnificent. The child’s disposition, his being thrown into a world from which he is isolated, yet which forces itself brutally onto him, evokes his poetic stance as well. At points, this kinship feels so strong that the novel appears a lyrical, rather than an epic, work. The power of its language lies in the way the boy’s voice is at once credibly child-like and heavy with adult knowledge. He blends laconic statements with minute details of sensory observations, describing beauty and horror with an even voice. “Everything got better after the death of the Little One. Our father hasn’t been living with us for two years. But it’s good. (…) We were always in the street like horse shit, us, too. We slipped out across the garden, out to the fields. We went through the open country.” Occasionally, his prose is littered with quotes from rabbis or elderly family members. These often appear as distinct, encased elements that elucidate the context for the reader but remain incomprehensible for the boy himself.
The English translation omits the subtitle: Has the Messiyah left yet? This refers to the ultimate outcast of The Dispossessed, the halfwit Gypsy, whom the villagers mockingly call Messiyah for his innocence. He provides the ultimate, tragicomic contrast to the brutality of the village. Messiyah shows up to clean the faeces from people’s outhouses. Waiting for him is at once a vulgar pun of the village and a transparent allegory for their expectations of redemption. The other figure with messianic overtones is the narrator’s baby brother, who dies when barely a year old, before learning to speak. “He left our midst just as he’d come. Almost imperceptibly. We believed that he would be our Messiah. We only ever spoke about him or to him, because he couldn’t speak yet. And since he couldn’t speak, it was as if afterward there was no need to speak about him.” Messiyah and the Little One are both innocent in their impaired or absent speech. Through their figure, redemption seems inextricably linked to silence and solitude.
The only comparable thing to messianic figures who carry the promise of salvation or at least detachment in the narrator’s world are the prime numbers to which he compulsively returns. He cherishes how they “can only be divided by themselves. And by one.” He finds them between people: the thirteen months the Little One lives, the twenty-three years that divide him and his mother; the numbers connect periods of solitude to one another. Dispossession, seen from this angle has a twofold character: it elevates the pain and anxiety that comes with the outcast status, yet it is the sole instrument to turn this separation into something productive. The boy escapes into contemplation, the family flees the village and a glimmer of a better life appears. Deprivation comes dangerously close to freedom in these moments.
Messiyah’s speech is impaired, the Little One is silent, as are the prime numbers. Language falls short of connecting people. Yet, neither is it really one’s own. The absence of words seldom brings consolation either; silence is almost always haunted in The Dispossessed. In this, Borbély’s poetry and prose share a common ground: they reveal the depersonalisation and exposure that remains after trauma by breaking their loaned language to the point that the inchoate starts to bleed through. In The Dispossessed, Borbély’s poetry is moulded into prose. It seems that the task stays the same: to lay bare the inarticulate self as it is thrown into the violent mould of the world—and to uphold the captured encounter without commentary. The Dispossessed is a novel that comes incredibly close to being poetry; but it doesn’t abandon its own genre. Its reverberations are profound.
I count five steps. Now is the time to cry out. Before
they throw themselves on me. Then in the stillness, there are no sounds.
from “Fragment VIII”
Diána Vonnák is an Editor-at-Large (Hungary) at Asymptote. She is a social anthropologist researching how the war reshapes cultural politics in Ukraine. She has written reviews for Hungarian Literature Online and Visegrad Insight and a number of Budapest-based publications, and is currently working on a collection of short stories in Hungarian.
You can find Szilárd Borbély’s books in English here:
The Dispossessed by Szilárd Borbély, translated by Ottilie Mulzet, Harper Perennial, 2016.
Berlin-Hamlet, poems by Szilárd Borbély, translated by Ottilie Mulzet, NYRB, 2016.
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