Review – 4th August, 2009

A child's eye view of socialist Hungary

Ferenc Barnás: The Ninth

Review–4th August, 2009


A stark depiction of life in a Hungarian village under communism as seen from the perspective of a young child, Ferenc Barnás’ novel The Ninth recounts the events of roughly a year in the life of a young boy and his family’s struggle to subsist by circumventing and exploiting the peculiarities of the socialist system as best they are able.

Originally published in 2006 by Magveto under the title A kilencedik, the novel was brought out by Northwestern University Press in 2009 in English translation by Paul Olchváry, in part with funding provided by PEN America. The Ninth offers a portrayal of the frustrations of an era in which mechanical adherence to the ceremonies ordained by the socialist state was paired with rampant corruption and abuse of power. Yet it does so from the perspective of a child, thereby avoiding dogmatic assessments and allowing for a depiction of poverty as neither politicized drama nor romance, but rather everyday experience.
Set in the small town of Pomáz just to the north of Budapest, The Ninth is a disjointed first-person narrative told by a nine-year old boy whose name we in fact never learn (only some of the nicknames, such as “weenie brain” and “little shit,” given by his family members and schoolmates). He is the ninth of eleven children (ten surviving) in a Catholic family struggling to eke out a living by selling rosaries and other devotional objects to churches. The story centers around the trials suffered by the narrator in his home life, where he is compelled to share the family’s meagre belongings (forced to crowd with his numerous siblings onto three single beds, pressed side by side, for instance), and at school, where as a child with a speech impediment he suffers the derision of several of his classmates. At home the narrator must endure almost daily beatings (referred to as the “Treatment”) by his father, while at school he must face the constant bullying of his peers.
There is little striking or unusual in the various episodes comprising the narrative. Striking, rather, is the ability of the author to evoke, with the blunt language of the narrative, the anxious uncertainty of a child who can do little more than observe. The peculiar brilliance of the novel lies in part in Barnás’ choice of narrative perspective. A boy nine years of age, the narrator can hardly reflect on the tribulations he endures or offer much in the way of assessments of the world around him. Rather he gives description with little perception of irony or contradiction, commenting for instance that one of the school bullies “only beat me up.” Similarly, to the extent that the narrative offers social or political commentary on life under the communist regime, it does so obliquely, through the casual observations of the narrator rather than through any explicit pronouncements. He notes that his mother and older siblings must leave early in the morning for their factory jobs and return only late in the evening, yet the family is still barely able to subsist, and even the “Little Ones” are compelled to do their part preparing rosaries and other devotional objects to sell to churches.
As a translator, Paul Olchváry deserves praise for his choice of novels. Too often translators allow themselves to be influenced by the canons of the source language, translating works the status of which is well established within the source language culture, but which may be of little interest to an English speaking audience. Severed from their original cultural context, the resulting translations often appear at best as quaint in the inevitably larger context of (global) English-language literature. Olchváry’s translations of works of a contemporary Hungarian novelist (he is currently working on a translation of Az élosködo, or The Parasite, another novel by Barnás) promise to be of far more immediate interest to an English-reading audience curious about the world – still clouded in the distortions of the Cold War – of Hungary under communism.
Ferenc Barnás: The Ninth
Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 2009
Translated by Paul Olchváry

Thomas Cooper


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