Narrative’s Redemptions—Narrative’s Contaminations

Ottilie Mulzet on Gábor Schein

I first met the poet and writer Gábor Schein in 2005, when he came to Prague to read from his just-published novel Lazarus. I knew that Schein was a good friend of Szilárd Borbély and had already observed that they conducted a kind of poetic dialogue in which intertextual references appeared in each poet’s work referring to the other’s. And yet Lazarus happened to come into my life at a strange moment, when I was trying to cope with the news of my birth mother’s death, having occurred on the other side of the world and conveyed to me via a newspaper obituary. Her silence and refusal to speak to me had stood in my life like a monumental cliff which always loomed above me, one which I never could imagine ascending. I was immediately taken by the theme of the father’s obdurate silence in Lazarus, his refusal to communicate on any matter of importance to the son, the wall of non-words as a barrier behind which there may have been nothing even to discover. I told myself that in translating this book, I would come the closest I could possibly come to the secret of this father’s silence, and in so doing perhaps discover the secret of my own mother’s silence.

Lazarus, as I was soon to realize, was preceded by an equally important volume by Schein (both are referred to in Hungarian as a kisregény, or novella, although both, in English, fall into the range of a short novel), The Book of Mordechai. Both fall squarely into a genre with the specific designation in Hungarian of “father-novels,” (although The Book of Mordechai goes back in memory-time as far as the small boy’s great-great-grandfather). Many of these “father-novels” (aparegény) appeared in the decades leading up to the millennium (and continue to this day). Not only were they justifiably seen as instances of a writer coming to terms with the father of his own clan (they were and are predominantly written by men), but with the entire “patriarchal” structure of the era of János Kádár, Hungary’s last communist ruler (1956–1989)—an era that began with the brutal suppression of the 1956 uprising and ended with the coda of Hungary’s “soft” communism and the subsequent “change of regime.” Implied by extension in these works, however, was a reckoning with all of postwar Hungary. Not only that, but they imply a reckoning with the years of World War II and the vexed question of where one’s own family stood on the scale that saw indigenous Fascist perpetrators on one end and mass graves on the other.

On one level, these “father-novels” can be interpreted as an extended footnote, and even as kind of a love letter to Kafka’s letter to his own father, one playing out in a different language and, in some respects, a dissimilar culture. This literary “footnote” (a term which does not at all begin to do justice to the depth and complexity of these works) forms in and of itself a part of the continuum of German-Hungarian cultural transmission, a chapter of its own in the history of European literary influences. Such influence can be detected to this day (with some interpreting it as a kind of literary gold-digging; this, it must be noted, is deeply unfortunate and misguided).

Some of the more important examples of these “father-novels” would include Péter Esterhazy’s Celestial Harmonies (translated into English by Judith Sollosy), Péter Nádas’s The End of a Family Novel, or Endre Kukorelly’s Fairy Vale, or Riddles of the Heart of Man. Nádas’s novel was published in an English translation by Imre Goldstein, receiving a rather disappointing reception in that language—belying the book’s importance and artistry (and the fact that in every other language he is translated into, Nádas is revered). An excerpt from Kukorelly’s Fairy Vale, translated by Tim Wilkinson, can be read here and was also excerpted, I believe, in an issue of the sadly now defunct Hungarian Quarterly (the online archive of which, covering a vast range of literature and topics concerning post-war Hungary, has also mysteriously vanished into thin air). 

Of course, what draws Schein’s project into Nádas’s range is the personal origin of both writers in the background of Budapest’s Jewish community. Hence, any treatment of family history would necessarily bring to the forefront the undeniable fact of Hungary’s deep complicity in the Holocaust before and after the actual Nazi occupation in 1944. For Schein, this question is necessarily entwined with the formulation of a narrative: the creation and the fragmentation—or more accurately the real fragmentation and subsequent recreation—of the actual course of lives cut short by totalitarian murder.

In The Book of Mordechai, at least three different narrative strands are intertwined, as if expressing a temporal simultaneity. The narrative voice moves imperceptibly from the biblical story of Esther and Mordechai to the story of P., the grandson of Hungarian Holocaust survivors still within Hungary. His story inevitably involves the story of his grandparents, even his great-grandparents, and the inexorable moral compromises of their survival. The biblical narrative of Esther’s attempt to save her own people from destruction runs alongside fragments of twentieth-century memory, randomly placed like stones on a Jewish grave, or even more disturbingly, fragments of prose-stone on the grave of a family narrative beyond reconstruction. In contrast to the relation of the family, the story of Esther is given unity, even coming to a relatively happy conclusion in that the Jews of Shushan escape destruction—yet Schein subjects Esther’s narrative to fragmentation and imperfect interpretation. The little boy struggles to decipher the passages in Hebrew that his grandmother insists on reading with him; she clearly feels the importance of inserting him into a larger, more significant narrative with these reading sessions. In Adam Z. Levy’s eloquent translation, we read:

Nearing the end of the book, reading and writing became an oppressive, almost unbearable suffering to P. As though all he had read, like a terrible vision, had been born of his imagination, and now there he stood among the horrible, faceless figures, shouting to them, but no voice would come out of his throat, starting toward them, but his legs would not move, and in the fortress Shushan, the Jews killed a total of 500 men, Parshandatha, Dalphon, Aspatha, Poratha, Adalia, Aridatha, Parmashta, Arisai, and Vazaha, the ten sons of Hammedatha among them, but they did not lay their hands on the spoil. (p. 130)

Another important figure in the book belonging simultaneously to memory, legend, and (possibly) reality, is Leopold Blumenfeld, who, the narrator tells us, translated the Book of Esther into Hungarian. (He is also something of a holy man.) Blumenfeld, instead of sermons, utters enigmatic parables on the New Year, providing no explanation, adding only: “My dear brothers and sisters, this was word for word the truth.” The truth of P.’s own family, as conveyed for the most part through the eyes of the little boy, is splintered and highly fragmentary. As expressed by the critic György Vári: “Only the ruins of the house have remained, we must build from shards; only interpretation can supplant what is missing.” At the same time, the juxtaposition of the narratives of Esther, the small boy P., Leopold Blumenfeld and his parables, and the disjointed fragments of family history create a kind of vertigo, in which a presumed hierarchy of narrative—from the purely biblical, or mythical, through the half-remembered lived experience of the ancestors, to a kind of documentary fiction (the excerpts from the reports of the Nazi officers)—is upended. It is almost as if the Book of Esther were hovering too close to the edge of the lived experience of the family, and the fragments of memories from the camps floating too close in dangerous proximity to the realm of myth. (And yet, the story of Esther is a clear parable for not only the family’s history, but that of the Jews in Europe in the twentieth century.) The passages relating the story of Esther are written in eloquent biblical language (beautifully rendered by Adam Z. Levy), and yet it is the juxtaposition that provides a necessary jolt:

. . . Esther was also taken to the king’s palace and pleased the eunuch; he took a liking to her and quickly provided her with cosmetics and rations as well as with the seven maids due to her from the king’s palace.
The camp where the family ended up was situated on the border of a small city named Mistelbach, not far from Vienna. Together with Strasshof, it was officially part of Mauthausen . . . (p. 22)

In no way does this undermine the memory-work that forms a significant part of the volume, but rather it points to a potential “contamination of narrative”—alongside its possibilities of redemption—for Schein is an author who is exquisitely aware of the moral implications of telling a story.

In Lazarus (translated by myself and included in the same volume with The Book of Mordechai), the narrative is repeatedly interspersed with lacunae, almost as if provoked by the more direct confrontation with the father and his plethora of missing details and unanswered questions. These lacunae are variously mentioned as places of silence, fire, a grave where the narrator and his father will be able to rest together. Narrative itself, for the author, is formed out of the residuum of mute and disintegrating bodies:

“But your body is for me a narrative; who knows perhaps the only one which I am able to tell; the only one which I am forced to tell. So that this book will not only be your grave, but at the same time, the place of your birth; a body which I shall give to you in place of another; a body which you shall inevitably detest. You shall be born and shall die; you will live and at the same time not live, in this same book.” (p. 167-8)

Narrative, a place of rebirth, will yet itself be consumed as a burnt offering: “ . . . and the fire incinerates the table, inscribing the stories into oblivion, from which nothing readable remains” (p. 231). In Lazarus, there is no “closure” to speak of in terms of the author’s encounter with his father—in addition, the son writes of the father’s gastronomical illnesses against his prohibition—but the book ends on a moment of tranquility, brought about, perhaps, by the fact that a life has nonetheless been recounted, when so many others vanished in the flames, and that if the father could not be confronted when still alive, the son still “lived the questions” of their fraught connection on the page. Kafka’s letter to his father was never sent. In this sense, whether or not the father reads the letter is much less important than the act of its written testimony.

Schein, in addition to being a novelist, is well known and highly regarded as both a poet and dramatist in his native Hungary. Some of these documentary tendencies mentioned above emerge in his poetic work as well—he has become one of the most important chroniclers of life in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary which, no matter what side of the spectrum you stand on, has indisputably seen enormous changes in that nation—cultural, economic, political, and demographic. Schein doesn’t chronicle specific events so much as the intangible and indecipherable signs that constitute the oxygen of any given epoch which we continue to breathe in, as it sustains or alternately poisons us, with at best a partial, fleeting awareness. Perhaps one of his greatest poetic gifts to his readers is his uncanny ability to untangle how this amniotic fluid seeps into the individual psyche, into interpersonal relationships. As he writes in Covering:

A summer’s night, thick showers. The sky lights up
above the Country of Phantoms. There are no streets: there is direction.
Like a scarecrow’s sleeves, the windshield-wiper, swinging
back and forth wildly. Two people are in the car, they don’t talk
to each other, the woman drives. In front is the headlights’ uncertain
narrow passage, all around night’s draperies, drenched
and thickly-woven. Sight was never keen enough for this
bird-barren place . . .

Schein’s poems create an urban topography of a kind of fear and barely surfacing anxiety which seeps up into everyday life from the half-buried knowledge of the repressions of previous regimes:

The tram gets stuck on an octagonal square.
The passengers scream and bang the doors.
No help in sight. They’re slowly overgrown by
the tracery of the centuries, small anthozoa.
(From Invisible War, trans. Erika Mihálycsa)

Schein’s authorial voice has made peace with its own penetrating intuitions, which refuse to be buried beneath the usual façade of comforting self-deceptions: “Life here was never anything else / than the art of the too-slow massacre” (from Beyond the Cordons). A strong sense of inevitable disillusionment struggles with a yet more stubborn compulsion to keep on creating narrative. Schein’s novelistic career certainly began with this exploration of the history of his own family, scarred by genocide, rendering an aesthetically charged testimony of the second-generation survivor. His poetic testimony, among many other things, is a logical continuation of this project in that it invites us to examine the aftermath of the end of one of Europe’s great totalitarianisms: to witness the feel—“on our own skin” (to borrow the central European idiom)—of that post-totalitarian, post-Berlin Wall euphoria, now—or so it would appear—that it is morphing into something a good deal less felicitous.