The Broken Things are the most Important: A Review of Edina Szvoren's New Short Story Collection Verseim (My Poems)
When Edina Szvoren burst upon the collective literary consciousness eight years ago with a book entitled Pertu (Intimacy), she quickly came to be counted among the most promising young writers of narrative fiction. Since then she has published three further volumes of short prose, thereby establishing herself as one of Hungary's most talented short story writers. Her texts are always somewhat dark and oppressive, exploring as they do the outermost reaches of the human psyche, and at times even going far beyond them into the realm of the absurd. Her sentences are characterised by both leanness and perplexity, for she wishes to reveal to us all our most terrifying weaknesses and deeply-repressed desires.
Her newest volume, Verseim (My Poems) is likewise a collection of tragic stories set in a narrative atmosphere of suffocating oppression. Tension – so characteristic of this book – is hinted at even in the contrast between the title of the work and the very unpoetical short stories we find ourselves confronted with; only gradually do we perceive the invisible poems lurking between the lines. In these stories – as one of the characters puts it – "violence is in the air." Hardly have we turned the first page when we stumble across such terms as: kill, blind, crush underfoot, flog an orphan, slit the dogs' throats. In this world, it seems, nothing is more natural than doing wrong. The reader, meanwhile, only gradually comes to realise that the oppressive, choking atmosphere of these stories does not arise (or not merely) from descriptions of violence, but from some deeper lack: The characters do not reflect upon their misdeeds, and there are no pangs of remorse. "Forget it, I won't kill today" shrugs one of Szvoren's pitiless characters after a long day.
One story concerns the extermination of bats, while in the second a group of children are hauling a human body. In the third a mother banishes her son to the airing cupboard, and the fourth tells of a researcher who commits sodomy. We observe in their outcomes the broad gamut of wrongdoing, even when these deeds are presented as banal, everyday occurrences. The thought which continually nags the reader is that this may indeed be quite true.
The shocking, overwhelming effect of these texts is not merely down to the frequency of tragic events, but also their unexplained nature. These stories, with their lean, suffocating terseness, always ensure that we are drawn back in through some yearning sense of absence. Unspoken facts and feelings, disseminated secrets and hints of past trauma all conspire to keep us in a state of permanent suspense. What drives this prose, what continually urges it on, is the desire we feel to delve into these secrets, to uncover the reasons behind this choked, eerie atmosphere, at once so strange and so familiar, which seems to pervade everything. If many of these stories are unpleasant, then what is it about this world that inexorably grips us, drawing us in?
Szvoren's stories overlap on several occasions, and there are recurrent motifs beyond the simple fact that violence may erupt at any moment. The most striking is that in every story things keep falling apart, with unfortunate events and their unpleasant consequences continually befalling her characters: The coffee machine, faucet, water-gauge and side-panel all break, while on other occasions a character inadvertently grasps a cactus, a child gets a finger caught in a door, and a driver is involved in a car crash. These unpleasant events have analogous effects on objects and human bodies: As a rule, damage, injury or illness result.
"I can say that there is something in my life for which both these statements are true: The most broken things are the important ones, and the most important things are broken."
The high point of the collection, and the point where this particular motif reaches its zenith, is the short story entitled 'Áruházi Blues' (Department Store Blues.) The main character works at the returns desk; the collection point, in other words, for broken things. The story ostensibly begins with a series of minor events related to the interminable rhythm of working days: Complaints arrive, records have to be kept, and both colleagues and customer complaints replace one another at regular intervals. These rather humdrum circumstances are enlivened only by the sexual fantasies of the central character. As the story progresses, however, the department store begins to transform, until by degrees it more closely resembles a hospital. The smell of disinfectant spreads, and visitors arrive "in well- and ill-intentioned queues" to loiter before the desk. Descending through linguistic strata, the story at last reaches an entirely different, surreal plane, where the queues are suddenly suffused with knowledge of sickness and fear of death.
"Breakdown is always gradual, while recovery is sudden, abrupt and rare."
The absurd is not, in other words, entirely alien to these stories, and this also helps to heighten the reader's discomfort. The story of a lesbian couple raising a diabetic child swerves bizarrely into psycho-thriller territory when it transpires that one of them is missing a body part, it just isn't clear precisely which part. Children are dragging a body through the streets, but for reasons which never become clear. A woman's colleague unexpectedly fails to turn up for work one morning, but nobody shows the slightest concern. Another character becomes obsessed with a female teacher's physics videos, without having the slightest clue why.
In the Verseim stories it rather strikes us as peculiar if one of her characters is not afflicted by some form of mental or physical disability. Long-ago accidents and illnesses, deceased family members and abortions add to the list of tribulations which, though often cloaked in mystery, make up these characters' everyday lives. These stories are all narrated in the first person, but even so there is a complete absence of any sort of emotional reflection; silence and secrecy reign supreme, and this holds even for parent-child relationships. Indeed, the tension this generates itself forms a recurrent motif which stitches this volume together. In Edina Szvoren's short stories, chest-constricting remoteness, strangled emotion, a lack of understanding and a collective sense of shame bind families together.
"Searchingly he asked me: Since when have you been writing poems? I could see he'd started calculating. My father had otherwise given little sign that my shame and his shame were one and the same."
The title notwithstanding, there is precious little lyricism in Verseim: these dense texts have no wish to be poems. Still, with their concise, secretive language these stories do indeed carry within them something invisible, some ineffable strength expressed between the lines, just as in a well-written book of poetry.
This review was originally published at Könyvesblog.
Edina Szvoren: Verseim, Magvető, 2018.