Alive or dead, it really doesn’t matter
Translated from the Hungarian
by Imre Goldstein
Archipelago Books: 292 pp., $15
“Tranquility” is a moving, emotionally complex, subtle, shocking novel -- and the inadequacy of these words of praise might be overcome by considering imagery, such as the narrator’s “remembering how I crawled, like a creeper, upon the back of that woman. Like a slug on the wound of a decaying fruit tree.” Or this: “You live only as long as you can lie into the mug of anybody, and without batting an eye. And when you can’t anymore, well, it’s time to get hold of that razor blade.” Or this: "[The narrator’s mother’s] nakedness was like that of the dead, in whom only the corpse washer and God take any delight.”
The first of Attila Bartis’ books to be made available in English, “Tranquility” may come as no revelation to those who have followed the incredible explosion of literary greatness coming out of modern Hungary: Peter Esterhazy, Peter Nadas, Imre Kertesz, Zsuzsa Bank. Each of these writers may seem like an individual voice speaking into a solitary silence, but the effect is of a startling chorus and of a sustaining vision of how to survive in a world that is increasingly hostile to the individual imagination.
Andor Weer, the narrator of “Tranquility,” is a writer of short stories entangled with his aging, controlling mother who is terrified by the thought of being cremated (she has been told that her corpse will sit up in the oven). Once a leading actress on the Budapest stage, she has been reduced to playing bit parts as a punishment for being unable to lure her violinist daughter back to Hungary from the West.
Spanning the declining years of the Communist regime, Bartis’ novel presents a form of narration that twines a record of Andor’s day-to-day life as a writer with what are surely snippets, both long and short, of stories echoing his own mastery of the short story (by which Bartis first rose to prominence in Hungary) in a novel that moves effortlessly through all levels of a truly damaged society attempting to recover from communist devastation.
Bartis comes close to exemplifying Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s wonderfully provocative comment that one has to be a little bit dead to be really funny. Bartis fractures any sense we have as to whether the characters -- the narrator, his sister Judit, his girlfriends, his mother and father -- are actually alive or dead. And it doesn’t matter, for even the minor characters imprint themselves thoroughly upon one’s memory.
Bartis creates an atmosphere of believability in this novel without forsaking the use of irony. Early in the story, for instance, Andor reads a short story to a provincial audience about a homicidal priest who kills off his congregation with poisoned communion wafers. After the reading, the priest in the village invites Andor to supper. “I’ve got a pretty good ceremonial wine, if you’ve got the courage,” he tells him. During the course of the evening, the priest reveals himself to be one of those rare members of the clergy -- a priest who actually does believe in God -- and, next morning, as Andor leaves on a train, the priest gives him a book as a gift.
It isn’t a copy of Augustine’s “Confessions” or some such but is something else entirely, which isn’t revealed for another 30 pages. What that book is won’t be identified here -- no plot spoiler for readers -- so get the book as soon as you can.