To be, or not to be?

Hamlet’s enduring question is one that Szilárd Borbély, acclaimed Hungarian poet, verse-playwright, librettist, essayist, literary critic, short-story writer, and, finally, novelist, answered sadly in the negative, through his suicide in 2014, at the age of fifty.

Loss of life, voluntary or otherwise, permeates Borbély’s writing, evoking a preemptive grief for what must pass away—often violently and suddenly. Yet framing the loss and stitched inextricably through it is all the gusty, aching richness of life lived in spite of its inevitable transience; the animating spirit of its time, for good or ill. This same “epoch-making” quality that author Péter Nádas identifies in Borbély’s poetry was embraced in Borbély’s fiction by the Hungarian public upon the sensational publication of The Dispossessed (2013), Borbély’s first and only novel, which topped the country’s best-books-of-the-year lists and prompted widespread conversation by ruthlessly stripping the mask of collective nostalgia from the brutal face of intractable poverty in rural villages.

The last major work published in Borbély’s lifetime, The Dispossessed presents a memory play filled with disjunct scenes of the author’s early childhood in the 1960s in the remote border-village of Túrricse, scenes so scantly fictionalized they might as readily be called memoir. Through the eyes of a small boy, the middle of three children, those scenes reveal a squalid, terrifying life in a close-minded community rife with physical disfigurement and sickness; sunk in prejudice and despair; dominated by cruelty, molestation, violence, and the immanence of death, especially the death of innocent young creatures.

Beaten continually by both their parents, the boy and his elder sister most dread their mother’s moments of suicidal desperation, when the children have to cling to her bodily to keep her from hanging herself in the attic or hurling herself down the well. Their mother, in turn, lives in terror of losing her youngest, an infant boy called the Little One, to any witless accident, as when she catches her kids playing “the cosmonaut game” with plastic bags over their heads, including the baby’s, turning the Little One’s lips “a purplish blue.” Their father’s constant frustration, driving him to drink, is being denied work by the communist collective, ostensibly for past mistakes on the job, actually because unshakeable old gossip deems him the bastard son of a Jew who lived across the road from his well-to-do parents’ house until the murderous roundups during the Second World War. The narrator’s mother sees the fundamental conviction behind the crushing social conformity that makes her husband embarrass himself by drinking every night with men who despise him; it is both her nemesis and her singular hope, and as readers throughout Hungary recognized, it remains almost as pervasively true today as it was fifty years ago:

No one who is born here ever wishes to go anywhere else. No one ever thinks it’s possible to live somewhere else. To raise a family somewhere else. To build a house somewhere else. Far away from the river, where you wouldn’t have to be afraid of the floods every spring. That’s how peasants think.

“But we are not peasants,” the children’s mother insists. “We’re going to leave here.”

Their mother’s view is diametrically opposed by that of their father’s sister, the children’s vibrant Aunt Máli, the most piquant character in the book. Barefoot, dwarfish, two-toothed, and vulgar beyond compare, Máli is a gleeful fixture at funerals, important social occasions where everyone scrutinizes every detail for faults. Untainted by the Jewish question clouding her brother’s fortunes, Máli is a thoroughgoing thing of the village, drowning her secret pains like a bagful of kittens in a river of manic laughter and alcohol.

Appalling as the systemic abuse and dirt-poor conditions are for the family, Borbély freely admits in interviews that they didn’t even have it the worst in the village. That distinction goes to the dark-skinned Roma consigned to dwelling at the far end of Gypsy Row, close to the narrator’s meager home. When outhouses need mucking, the village men disdainfully summon the gentlest of Gypsies, a man named Messiyah, by asking in front of the local tavern, “Has Messiyah left yet?” As rendered in English, the title The Dispossessed refers mainly to the fallen class status of the family, who come from former landowners or “kulaks” on both sides; in Hungarian, Borbély’s title Nincstelenek: Már elment a Mesijás? pointedly pairs the idea of penniless “have-nots” with the critical question of the departure of one whose name deliberately echoes the Messiah. Here, Borbély suggests, is a place even salvation might turn its back on.

Borbély often approaches such moral challenges in mythic or religious guise, particularly in relation to Jewish matters. Here the reflexive hatred of Jews, who loom disproportionately large in the local imagination, even (or especially) in the virtual absence of any Jewish population, turns out to mean more than mere anti-Semitism, lumping together as the villagers do under the catchall word “Jew” anyone with any ambition or means to escape the village’s constraints. In such subconscious manner is the Other-as-Jew regarded as an existential threat to the community, and so roundly cursed at every turn (even using the outhouse is sarcastically called “going to pay the Jew”). Yet it is in a like manner that the children’s mother fights to keep her tenuous dream, her reason to endure, alive:

“Why are we different?” I ask.
“Because we are not from here,” says my mother.
“So does that mean we, too, are Jews?” my sister asks.
“That we will be,” answers my mother.

Both in characters and lack of predictable shape, The Dispossessed owes a fair amount to Chekhov. (Hypochondriac Aunt Máli wears black as if she’s a much older woman; when asked what she’s mourning, she blithely snaps, “My wretched whore life.”) More surprisingly it nods to Vonnegut, too: from the outset, the boy, fascinated with prime numbers, marks each and every encounter with a prime, whether in ages, dates, or quantities, by noting that the number “can’t be divided, only by itself, and one.” So it goes. Yearning for the indivisible is what braces the child; math helps when all else hurts. But another autobiographical novel that The Dispossessed perhaps most echoes in terms of grinding poverty and insurmountable prejudice is The Color of Smoke (1975), Menyhért Lakatos’s bildungsroman of a teenage Roma boy in early 1940s Hungary. Where Lakatos, however, uses earthy adolescent sex and humor to leaven a creeping sense of frailty and doom, Borbély takes a poet’s more lyrical tack, no less raw in language or color, but far lighter in touch, accumulating featherweight scenes to arrive at what Borbély calls, in his phenomenal poetry collection Berlin•Hamlet (also translated by award-winner Ottilie Mulzet), “the non-existent terminus” where art and life meet in transit through time.

In so doing, for all its heartbreak, The Dispossessed avoids the ultimate grimness of later life: in 2000, at Christmastime, Borbély’s aged parents were assaulted by burglars in a home invasion, his mother beaten to death and his father knocked senseless, the assailants never brought to justice. Borbély cast his response to that horrible event in poetry, in Halotti pompa: Szekvenciák (Splendors of Death: Sequences), then cast his mind back further in prose to the shared suffering of those formative years. A trial and a testament, The Dispossessed is also a filial portrait of love and perseverance in the midst of despond, a candlelight faithfully tended against the infinite darkness without.

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The Dispossessed
By Szilárd Borbély
Translated by Ottilie Mulzet
Reviewed by Jason Newport
304 pages, paperback
ISBN: 9780062364081
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