English-language readers have been enthusiastic about the excellent, albeit sinister, works of fiction by Hungarian writers like Nobel-Winner Imre Kertész, Best Translated Book Award Winner Attila Bartis, and the wonderful Péter Esterházy. We’ve been enthusiastic about being disturbed and moved, subjected to nightmare scenes and violent sex, and, ultimately, awed by the mastery these writers—and others—have over language, such mastery that it transcends the language itself and becomes apparent even in translation. Though by most accounts Ferenc Barnás is of the same dark mold, his novel, The Ninth, translated by Paul Olchváry, is a testament to the still-unplumbed depths of contemporary Hungarian literature, and a departure from the alienated fever dreams and horrors to which we’ve grown so accustomed to reading.
Set in Communist Hungary, Barnás’s novel is the story of a nine-year-old child, the ninth child of Hungarian Catholics eking out a miserable living in the small northern town of Pomáz. Bordering on the stream-of-conscious, The Ninth deals with life under the soft Communist rule of the late 1960’s, but from the point of view of a child with no basis for comparison. The picture we gain from our young narrator is uncomplicated by subtlety, politics, morality, and without the self-conscious morbidity and sexuality found in so many adult narrators. He’s an observer.
A lack of morbidity hardly means a lack of misery. Here, it’s unconscious, but this child is also disturbingly, accurately, affectless—too often in literature, we attribute too much to the too young. Our pathetic unnamed protagonist observes the realities of his own family’s survival, of his father’s obsessive small-time industry, his mother’s fervent religiosity, the difficulties of his siblings, and the cruelties and indignities of life in poverty: His mother and oldest siblings go to factory jobs early in the morning and return late at night; his father wakes the “Little Ones” early to do their part in preparing rosaries and other knickknacks for sale to churches; several of them suffer from some inability to speak or read well and some combination of headaches and faintness; and, of course, he’s preoccupied with having that eternal symbol of well-being, the full belly:
During the first break of the day I go to the john out in the schoolyard . . . That’s where I inspect my belly, too, but only if I’m alone. I pull up my shirt, let loose my muscles, and check to see how much my belly sticks out. In the morning it sticks out a lot.
But his lack of affect! This boy has urges—sometimes he steals—and he observes, but he never experiences anger, only a cold acceptance of his lot in life, of the kicks and shoves of his classmates:
. . . Molnár was waiting by the movie theatre. At first I thought he wanted to do the same thing, but I was wrong: he only beat me up . . . I didn’t really feel the blows, maybe because the whole time I was thinking I’d been through this before . . .
At nine years of age, Barnas’s character already knows about survival and necessity. When he and some of his brothers begin working as altar boys during local funerals, he notes, “The more people who die in our village, the better for us.” Though he’s reasonably well cared for, he’s poor and well-informed about the realities of life. His father is instructive and poverty itself teaches lessons that children can learn quickly. This book is not one that will make waves. It doesn’t startle or shock, doesn’t attack the reader or soothe him. This book is notable for the stunning restraint shown, the artfulness with which Barnás and Olchváry approached such a delicate task, the translation of child’s voice. And it’s notable, too, for its quiet success.