Congratulations on your first novel, and on such a resoundingly positive reception! How would you describe this book to someone who wasn’t Hungarian?
Thank you! I would say perhaps that this is a novel about our other personality, the one we didn’t choose when we made the decisions we made. This book tells a story about the people we will never become but almost did – as referred to by the title. Every decision is a necessary abdication; the same time we choose something, we lose something. The protagonist (or protagonists) of my book tries to recall his decisions from this point of view to understand how he became the person he finds himself to be in a moment at the beginning of the novel. His story is also a road trip, physically and mentally, back to his hometown, to his family, and to personal memories – deep in his mind. But his trip also tells us something about the history and the present state of Hungary. The personal and the social aspects draw close, as we watch the characters struggling with their everyday lives.
Many have described it as a coming-of-age novel, how do you feel about that categorisation?
I’m always a little bit sceptical about these kind of categories, while I know they are useful for allowing readers to know more or less what to expect when they open the book. I think my novel has in some parts the taste of a coming-of-age story, but the structure as a whole has more layers. Although one part is about a thirty-something main character in 2013 and 2017, there are also the polio-survivors from 1986, or the story of the pogrom in a small town in 1956, or the immigrant male nurse in the US in 1990. These together are important aspects of the novel alongside the protagonist’s own Bildungsroman.
Valuska writes that already in the first third of the novel, we can feel the anger of a generation, is it only anger?
Well it’s anger, desperation, dullness and longing at the same time. The first third of the novel is set in 2013 (with a short prologue from 1990), and that was a period of disillusionment for the young generation. This generation grew up with the promise that after long decades of different authoritarian regimes we could finally join the democratic world, the West, Europe, where we thought we had always belonged. Those who were kids in the ‘90s still remember the euphoria of the country’s opening to the West. But two decades later, they saw a lot of things revert. The West (now the EU or Brussels) became labelled as the enemy again, democratic institutions suddenly started to melt away, and people, especially young people, started to move to western countries again. The disillusionment became totally suffocating.
This is your first novel, and the intricate structure of the novel is an important factor of the novel, where did you start and was it always clear where you had to go next?
The hardest part was where to begin. For years I was looking for the perfect starting point and when I finally found something close enough, at once the whole structure became clear. Then it was much easier to continue. Of course I had to make a lot of changes and overrule myself from time to time, but the process had started and it never truly stopped until the end of the novel.
The story leaps about in time, including to a lung hospital full of iron lungs which, although not so long ago, already seems surreal, where did this idea spark from? Was it difficult to make that world normal for yourself as a writer?
I was looking for a narrator who could tell the story of the pogrom in 1956, thirty years later. It was a tricky question: how to insert a story from ‘56 into a chapter which takes place in ‘86, which is itself framed by chapters set in 2013. I felt I needed a narrator who was there in ‘56 but was somehow unintentionally part of the events, also who is present in ‘86 but somehow removed from everyday life. This narrator needed to be close to the events and at the same time removed. He needed to have a strong will to express himself, but be unable to do it alone. It’s a difficult but very exciting problem for a writer to solve. Out of the blue, I heard archive radio footage of a guy who became infected with polio disease when he was 8 or 10 years old in 1956 during the revolution, and because his family was involved in the fighting and they had to leave the country after the Soviet occupation, they abandoned him. It was impossible to bring him with them since he was already lying in an iron lung. The radio interview with him was made in the late ‘80s when he was still waiting for his family to return to the care home for polio survivors. OK, I said, that makes sense; during the revolution there was a wave of polio, and if you got infected, and ended up in an iron lung, your life had changed forever and you would spend the rest of it lying on your back. I started to research the history of the disease in the 1950s and I realised this was a very unique and largely forgotten story which was absolutely relevant for my work. I dug deep, but sometimes I needed a couple of days off from it to empty my head. At times I felt it hard to surround myself with so much pain.
You’ve been referred to as a Hungarian Franzen; how do you feel about that comparison?
Well, of course I’m very honoured. But it’s more or less a metaphorical comparison. There is a common idea in Hungarian literature about American prose, especially about the Great American Novel, that it always focuses on society. It’s always up to date, deep, current, critical and politically daring, while in the Hungarian novel tradition, it’s more typical to be abstract, philosophical or poetical than realist. Sometimes we think the Great American Novel is too near-earth, but lately when our reality became overwhelmingly important again in the last couple of years, and we see that besides the grandiose poetic structures, maybe it would be better to do something with the social and political context too, the project of the so-called realist great novel became interesting again. So when someone says Franzen today, he or she means the influence of the Great American Novel. But I do like Franzen’s work, so it’s still a compliment for me.
After Krasznahorkai, Nádas, Kertész, Esterházy, you could say there’s a question of ‘where to next?’ regarding the Hungarian novel, how do you see things?
Oh yeah. For many years I think these great authors – and others you didn’t mention like Spiró, Bodor, Konrád – made it very difficult for younger writers to succeed. I remember so many young writers who were unable to get rid of the Esterházy or Krasznahorkai influence. Their sentences were such pertinacious replicas of their master’s sentences, after a while they just gave up writing. For me it was different mostly because I was a poet first, and in poetry there was more space for new voices in the 2000s. Then later I started to write fiction, first short stories, then this novel, so somehow I arrived via a bypass. In the meantime, our relationship to everyday reality has changed radically. Writers are forced to find different approaches as a result of their political and social circumstances. Even I have changed a lot; in my 20s I was an apolitical, almost l’art pour l’art poet, and now I’m a realist novelist. Obviously the question ‘where to next?’ is still relevant, but as I see it, lately more and more young writers have been able to overcome the influence of the previous generations.
Is there another Hungarian author who you see challenging the novel?
Absolutely. The same month my novel came out was the release of Imre Bartók’s monumental, more than 600-page-long work: Jerikó épül (Jericho Building), and Réka Mán-Várhegyi’s first novel Mágneshegy (Magnetic Mountain). Both absolutely unique in their own ways. Also, in the last couple of years young writers like Benedek Totth, Mátyás Szöllősi, Zoltán Danyi and others have put down some remarkable novels.
What are you working on now?
My plan was to work on short story ideas I had to put aside while I was writing the novel, but instead I unexpectedly started to write poetry again. It’s great to do it though. My next book will be published this autumn; it’s going to be a collection of essays and literary criticism from the last five years. And at the same time, I’m researching for my next novel. So I wouldn’t say I’m in an idle period.
Read our English review by László Valuska of Those Who We Shall Never Be here.
Get a copy of the novel in Hungarian from Magvető here.