Narration Against Story, Hope Against Misery in Contemporary Hungarian Novels. Edit Zsadányi - PDF

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Narration Against Story, Hope Against Misery in Contemporary Hungarian Novels Edit Zsadányi Abstract In my paper, I would like to call attention to the rhetorical power inherent in the act of narration,

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Narration Against Story, Hope Against Misery in Contemporary Hungarian Novels Edit Zsadányi Abstract In my paper, I would like to call attention to the rhetorical power inherent in the act of narration, which is able to suggest hope even when the story itself represents hopeless situation. I will argue that some rhetorical effects can counteract the represented desperate way of life of the fictional characters. Following Jonathan Culler and Susan S. Lanser, I will address the rhetorical function of the discrepancies between story and narration, and will illustrate in Hungarian novels that certain rhetorical devices offer the perspective of optimism in the otherwise depressing story. I will refer to novels from contemporary Hungarian literature, such as László Krasznahorkai s Satantango, Ference Barnás The Ninth and György Dragomán s The White King. They are usually considered as pessimistic works. For instance, Ferenc Barnás s novel, The Ninth is the story of a nine-year-old boy in communist Hungary, who lives with his family in deep poverty on the margin of society. The Ninth is a narrow-minded, first person narration, but since the adult reader s presence is always presupposed as an inbuilt narrative perspective, another view is added as a supplement. The reader is also enclosed in this world and can feel for himself the merciless, dictatorial, one-perspective and one-storyline narration of the single-party system. Where is the hope in this chronicle of hopeless poverty? I will illustrate in my paper, that it is found in the narration of the habitual present, which implies that there must be a listener who is interested in this daily routine of suppression. The hope lies in the presupposed figure of the reader. I will conclude that the novels suggest a dynamic and contradictory notion of hope and not a ready-made ever existing one: hope is a constant struggle for creating and opening up new perspectives. Key Words: Literature as hope, storytelling, narration, present tense narration, focalization, contemporary Hungarian literature, deconstruction, reader, novel, fiction. ***** 1. Rhetoric of Narrating the Communist Past In my paper, I wish to call attention to the rhetorical power inherent in the act of narration. I argue that the storytelling activity can suggest hope even when the story itself represents hopeless situation. Some rhetorical effects can counteract the represented desperate way of life of the fictional characters. I will address the rhetorical function of the discrepancies between story and narration, and will 2 Hope: Narration Against Story: Hope Against Misery illustrate in Hungarian novels that certain rhetorical devices offer the perspective of optimism in the otherwise depressing story. Jonathan Culler claims that in certain deconstructive narrative situation, the storytelling activity does not support but counteracts the claims represented in the story. 1 In a different context referring to feminist narratology, Susan Lanser also stresses the importance of narrative-rhetorical devices versus the narrated events in conveying important information for the reader. She suggests that considering the interplay between story and narration in certain libertarian eighteenth-century novels allows us to recognize a latent lesbian plot embedded in the dominant heterosexual story. By attending the form of the novels rather than the events, she argues for a saphic plot that is located in the tangents of the eighteenth-century domestic novels and not in their central subjects. 2 Applying the above theoretical arguments by Jonathan Culler and Susan Lanser, I will refer to novels from contemporary Hungarian literature, such as László Krasznahorkai s Satantango, Ference Barnás The Ninth and György Dragomán s The White King. They are usually considered as pessimistic works. I wish to illustrate here that despite the depressing elements in the story, the narrative techniques (the sentence structure, the habitual present and the rhythm of the prose) suggest promising perspective for the reader. In recent years, one of the most prominent tendencies in contemporary Hungarian literature has been to attempt to process the experiences of the Hungarian socialist dictatorship. Unlike Hungarian politics, literature decided to face the legacy of the communist past in an effort to help process the dark memories and mixed impressions of a traumatic and embarrassing past, allowing their readers, whether young or old, first or second generation to process their experiences and move forward. However, in order to do so, postmodern narratives of the historical past not only have to do away with the concept of the strong and coherent narrative subject, but also the idea of human memory as constant and immutable, and instead acknowledge and highlight the fallibility of memories. Such novels focus not only on the evocation of the past but the role of the narrator in actualizing that past, 3 warning us that we have inherited, internalized and continue to follow certain patterns of thinking as a result of growing up in an oppressive environment. However, at the same time, these novels also engage their readers as active participants and emphasize that we are capable of detecting and critically approaching these patterns. László Krasznahorkai s Satantango 4 is about a depressing situation when people live and work in an isolated agricultural village during communist times. There is not much perspective in their life, and yet this situation is represented in beautiful rhythmical prose style, often compared to baroque-style religious rhetoric Edit Zsadányi with complex, hierarchical sentence-structure. Krasznahorkai represents high and low sphere of life in dynamical and contradictory ways. Through this prose fiction, we can better understand the sublime component of hopeless East-European ways of life during the communism. Therefore the baroque rhetorical elements carry the perspective and the hope, which the story of the novel cannot provide. 2. Ferenc Barnás s novel, The Ninth The Ninth 5 is the story of a nine-year-old boy in communist Hungary, who lives with his family in deep poverty on the margin of society. The Ninth is a narrow-minded, first person narration, but since the adult reader s presence is always presupposed as an inbuilt narrative perspective, another view is added as a supplement. The reader is also enclosed in this world and can feel for himself the merciless, dictatorial, one-perspective and one-storyline narration of the singleparty system. The hero is the ninth child of a Catholic family who lives in deep poverty on the margin of society. They do not have enough basic furniture such as beds, chairs and a table. They always dream about moving to a new house. There is never enough food and clothes. The father practices several forms of dictatorial behaviour within the family despite the fact that he himself lives under the pressure of the communist political system. Poverty and lack of personal freedom are closely connected to each other. Poverty itself creates dictatorial situation since it places strong limitations on life chances. In such a situation in which children suffer from several levels of oppression: the father, the cruel realities of poverty and the political system there is not much space for more psychologically complex dimensions such as dreams, fantasy, or creativity, in other words there is not much chance for hope. At four-thirty, when Papa leaves for work, I wake up. Papa still works for the state railway, but now he's at station headquarters in Rákoskeresztúr, where not long ago he accepted the post of watchman alongside his regular job. He's got to learn new trades, because once we're busy building the Big House, we really can't be spending all our time at home making devotional objects to sell to churches. Mama wakes up around five. I know this because she then goes right out to the street and asks someone for the exact time. She always does this when she's on morning shift. The first time the church up in Budapest organized a benefit drive for our family we didn't get a clock, and she can't be late for work at the pen factory in Szentendre. She was hired there not long ago for two shifts. With her having kids all the 3 4 Hope: Narration Against Story: Hope Against Misery time, Mama never got a trade, which is why she's got to screw ballpoint pens together all day long. While she's getting ready I pretend to be asleep like the others. My head is under the pillow and my brother Teeter's foot is right by my face; I push it away, as at other times. Then I try getting back to sleep, but it doesn't work.6 Where is the hope in this chronicle of hopeless poverty? It is found in the rhetoric, in the narration of the habitual present, which implies that there must be a listener who is interested in this daily routine of suppression. The hope lies in the presupposed figure of the reader. The habitual present is a rare time for fictional narration, present is usually used in the continuous form as giving account on something that is happening in front of our eyes. The writer here has a certain chronicler attitude, which presupposes that there is a listener; there is someone who is interested in this story. Instead of the mother fictional figure, the novel gives us, readers the role to listen to this child s talk, so that the character can avoid hospitalization. In a way, we are offered the position of the mother, in other words, the responsibility of being the figure whose attention can motivate and stimulate the child s struggle for life. That is why I claim, that the responsibility for the children of (any dictatorship), in other words the hope for survival is placed to the reader by the rhetorical effects of the habitual present. 3. György Dragomán s The White King In György Dragomán s novel The White King (A fehér király) (2005), the narrative adopts a childlike perspective, but it is important to consider the infantile viewpoint not only as a perspective through which we arrive at a particular image of the dictatorship, but also as the subject of representation and one of the characteristic products of a dictatorship. In other words, we are offered a perspective that can potentially highlight one of the lesser known characteristics of dictatorships, the infantilization of their subjects. Considering that Dragomán s book has been translated into over thirty different languages, we may conclude that in his effort to present the everyday reality of the Hungarian communist dictatorship through a child s eyes, he managed to create a language and perspective that made these characteristically Eastern-European experiences available to a vast international readership. In The White King, the protagonist, a boy called Dzsátá accepts the Hungarian dictatorship as natural and given due to having no point of reference or comparison that would allow him to question the operation and mechanisms of the dictatorial system 7. The novel gives us several detailed and graphic scenes of how the child protagonist is physically or emotionally abused by teachers, coaches, workers, Edit Zsadányi adults and stronger children, who are all suffering from violence and oppression and vent their frustrations on a lower, weaker group. Every slap from the coach, every kick, instance of corporal punishment and torture is painstakingly described by our young narrator with relentless accuracy, and the readers are not allowed to close their eyes or turn away. We are forced to see and imagine the blood-stained bodies as the text becomes a growing pile of episodes with strong visual elements, not a child s tale but an account of everyday life in a merciless dictatorship as seen from the lowest ranks. In the course of reading, we learn that the father was deported for signing a protest petition, and the modus operandi of the system keeps the mother and her son in a state of complete uncertainty and despair as to the father s situation. Similarly to the Ninth, and unlike many other contemporary Hungarian novels where several viewpoints are presented in alternation, Dragomán s novel is very consistent in maintaining a single childlike narrator and viewpoint by using a homogeneous overarching narrative style consisting of paragraph-long sentences. The excerpt below was cut out of a long sentence in The White King, and is part of a sequence where the mother seeks the help of her father-in-law in bringing her husband home from deportation, and as we shall see, separating this part from its original place in a several-page paragraph almost feels like a violation of the integrity of the text. [ and then when she spoke again, she spoke quietly, but in that sharp, dry voice that she uses when she is really angry, and she said that okay, well excuse her, and the comrade secretary would do well to care about his son s life instead of his credit, and then, once mom said it, she fell silent, and for a moment there was a big silence again, so I finally took out the armor and the lead soldier, and I opened the armor, and I tried it onto the unpainted Swiss guard with no halberd, but the armor was too big, you couldn t put it on at all, and then mom spoke again outside, she said that yes, that s what it was about, what the hell did my grandpa think it would have been about between them, of course it was about that, and I just stared at the lead soldier, Feri sold it to me because it wasn t poured well and the upper half was flattened, I thought that it wouldn t show anyway under the armor, and I knew that it would be no good to me like this otherwise, and in the meantime the phone table creaked again, mom must have leaned on it, and said that grandpa should stop lying to her, she knew very well that he still had connections, he was the party secretary long enough for people to owe him a few 5 6 Hope: Narration Against Story: Hope Against Misery favors, and he should suggest someone who could help, and then mom was silent for a bit, then suddenly she took a deep breath, she slurped it up like water, and she said very loudly into the phone, she said to grandpa that she wouldn t wait. 8 The excerpt above presents us with a series of parallel events, both external and internal, which unfold in succession as perceived by the child, who is listening to his mother trying to seek help from her father-in-law on the phone. Dzsátá and his mother are still waiting for the father to return home, but after months of receiving no news, the mother and her son continue to live in uncertainty and every event in the novel builds on the shaky foundation of the father s absence. In the excerpt, the child s thoughts run parallel to the mother s telephone conversation, and it is important to note that instead of telling the reader what has been said and then reflecting on it, Dzsátá presents us with verbatim quotes and independent thoughts in an alternation of external and internal voices. The use of free reported speech allows Dzsátá to replicate his mother s exact speech style and record what is being said as he hears it rather than paraphrasing his mother s words or commenting on them: she said to grandpa that she wouldn t wait, did he understand, she wouldn t wait, and right now, did he understand, right now. However, the child s recording of the telephone conversation is constantly interrupted by Dzsátá s own thoughts in free reported speech, and through these occasionally appearing thoughts, we can trace how Dzsátá gradually withdraws from the event and escapes to his own world of lead soldiers and toys. To survive an unbearable situation, he boards another train of thought and so we see two stories unfold, one where the mother lists her grievances to her father-in-law and then tries to persuade him to use his party secretary status to help his son, and the other story revolving around the lead soldier Dzsátá got from his classmate and how he is trying to fit an armor of sheet-tin he found at the scrap yard over the lead soldier, hoping the armor would hide the lead soldier s faulty design. As the telephone conversation unfolds between the mother and her fatherin-law, Dzsátá carefully records his mother s words, but even though he is only hearing half of the conversation, he does not try to guess what the father-in-law might be telling the mother, nor do we find out how much he actually understands of the conversation and the oppressive system behind it. All Dzsátá knows is that the grandparents blame his mother for the father s signing of the protest petition and his consequent deportation, and the reader is left guessing what the comrade secretary might be telling the mother about this. However, the adult reader is likely to glean more information than the child from segments such as the following lines: and said that grandpa should stop lying to her, she knew very Edit Zsadányi well that he still had connections, he was the party secretary long enough for people to owe him a few favors. This short segment is a glimpse into the operation of the Hungarian political system that works or fails to work based on mutual favors, and when the father-in-law dodges the mother s request for help, we can only guess that the father-in-law might be afraid of sharing the father s fate. As we see the dictatorship infiltrating the private family circle and affecting the relationship between the father, the mother, and the father-in-law, even those readers who have no such personal experiences are shown a clear example of how relationship dynamics change under an oppressive system. It is important to emphasize that despite the child s act of turning away from the mother s telephone conversation, Dzsátá continues to record all he hears like a diligent annalist, and I would argue that the child s documentation of events around him can be considered an optimistic, future-oriented act. As the child records his perceptions of an era and his strategies of survival in repeating what he hears, he and the novel end up preserving the words of others for a future fictive archive, and this documentation and archival can be seen as turning towards the future with a certain sense of optimism that someone might eventually become interested in these archived events. Such long sentences with the many end s can be interpreted that they serve as refuge: they ensnare the readers and keep them in a trance while the child tries to postpone the loneliness of going to sleep by telling us more and more stories. Conclusion In the analyzed novels, the reader is offered the position of the mother, in other words, the responsibility of being the figure whose attention can motivate and stimulate the child s struggle for life. The responsibility for the children of (any dictatorship), the hope for survival is placed to the reader by the rhetorical effects of the habitual present and by the chronicler attitude of the child narrators. This responsibility carries an orientation for the future, in other words, hope. Therefore, the novels suggest a dynamic and contradictory notion of hope and not a ready-made and ever existing one: hope is a constant struggle for creating and opening up new perspectives. The child narrators have created motherly reader figures, for whose attention it is worthwhile to move always forward. Hope, then, is not an imagined positive, future state, it is not a purpose but the ability to preserve the inside drive to avoid hospitalization and depression. Hope is an abstract notion of the mother, whose attention inspires us to move always ahead. Pages 4-7 are translated by Éva Misits. 7 8 Hope: Narration Against Story: Hope Against Misery Notes 1 Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), Susan S Lanser, Novel Sapphic Subjects: The Sexual History of Form, Novel: A Forum o
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