We’re into the home stretch now . . . Through next Friday we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.
Tranquility by Attila Bartis, translated from the Hungarian by Imre Goldstein. (Romania/Hungary1, Archipelago)
There’s something amazing going on in Hungarian literature. For such a “small” language to have three books on our long list (this one plus the Imre Kertesz book and Metropole) the is pretty remarkable, and in addition there have been a slew of recently published (or reissued) Hungarian books, including works by Gyorgy Konrad, Peter Nadas, Peter Esterhazy, and my personal favorite, Sunflower by Gyula Krudy.
And it’s not like these are a bunch of random books—all of the above titles are high quality, unique, well-crafted works of literary fiction. Especially Tranquility.
Plot summaries rarely do a book justice, but in short, this novel is about Andor Weer, a thirty-six-year-old writer who lives with his mother (a formerly gorgeous stage actress) who hasn’t left the house in fifteen years. She’s bitter, a bit deranged, and pretty aggressive, especially towards Andor’s girlfriends. The two of them are trapped in a incredibly wicked Oedipal mess. On top of this, Andor’s sister Judit defected from Hungary to pursue her music career (this defection brought about the downfall of Rebeka’s stage career), leading their mother to literally bury an casket with all of Judit’s things in the cemetery.
In short, this is a dark, twisted book, and one that’s incredibly gripping and very well written and well translated. (No surprise—Imre Goldstein’s one of the best.) Told is a looping, achronological fashion, the horrors of Andor’s life are revealed bit by bit with a hint of dark humor and a sense that the world (at least for Andor) is total shit.
There’s a sample down by Tim Wilkinson available here, but this paragraph should provide a pretty good sense of the tone and style:
When the woman suggested cremation, I did waver for a moment because I remembered my mother’s hysterical poses, “Look, that’s how they sit up, all of them,” she would say, holding on to the chair by her bedside and showing me how corpses sat up in the oven; a few months earlier she had seen a documentary on the subject and since then she would mention it almost every morning, and I’d say to her, don’t worry Mother, you won’t be cremated, and be careful you’ll spill your tea; but in a few days she’d start all over again, that cremation was ungodly, and I knew she was afraid there would be no resurrection for cremated people, and that was really something, considering she had never in her damned life had anything to do with God. Lately she had demanded I swear she wouldn’t wind up in a crematorium; she forbade me to burn her, to which I replied that I’d swear to nothing and since, luckily, she was still ambulatory, she should go to the notary’s office and get a paper saying it was forbidden to burn her; that shut her up, because for fifteen years she’d been too scared to leave the apartment.
I love reading the way reviews have described the outpouring of horrors in this book—here’s a short sample:
There are certainly other writers who employ nonstop misery (Elfriede Jelinek comes to mind), but I think there’s a particular brand of humorless brutality to Bartis’s that sets it apart. For one thing, its ceaseless ferocity gives it a power, even a certain beauty. It’s not written to shock, or merely for the sake of writing in this manner. To many people (and artists especially) the world is a filthy fucking shithole and there’s no reason to cover that up with devices commonly used to take the sting out of this sort of writing. It perhaps takes a certain type of reader to enjoy an endless stream of pessimism and sourness, but for that type of reader Bartis’s novel is very rewarding. [Scott Bryan Wilson in Quarterly Conversation
“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.” [Tom McGonigle in the L.A. Times
And maybe Brian Evenson puts it best in his blurb:
Reading like the bastard child of Thomas Bernhard and Elfriede Jelinek, Tranquility is political and personal suffering distilled perfectly and transformed into dark, viscid beauty. It is among the most haunted, most honest, and most human novels I have ever read.
I know I’m making this sound really dark, but amid all of the horrific imagery and overall pessimism is a truly beautiful, accomplished book. One that I think will be read for years to come, and the promising start to Bartis’s career in English translation.
(If you read this and want more Bartis, his short story Engelhard, or the Story of Photography is available online.)
1 Again with the footnotes and the disputable country of origin. One of the things that can be frustrating as a fan of international fiction is the overall lack of info about foreign authors. For example, Attila Bartis doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. So I’m relying entirely on the Archipelago author bio here. (Which includes the word “maverick”!)
Anyway, Attila Bartis was born in Romania, but currently lives in Budapest. His first novel came out in 1995, and he’s published at least one other book—a collection of short stories. He’s also been awarded the Tibor Dery Prize and the Sandor Marai Prize (for Tranquility).
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