The book seems to be an ironic game in which the didactic function of literature is questioned. Yet the situation is more complicated than that: Zsófia Bán seems to inscribe her own ideological messages into the text. Her aim is obviously to teach, not merely to amuse and delight.
Zsófia Bán, who has been known so far as an essayist and a proponent of gender studies in Hungary, has come forward with her first volume of prose. Although the author is far more mature than most "beginners" as far as her education and conscientiousness (and age) are concerned, Evening School somehow has the atmosphere of a first volume. It is a collection of short prose pieces, written in a variety of voices, following a variety of poetic traditions, and thus not really giving the sense of a unified whole, except for the binding effect of the author's peculiar sense of humour.
Yet the title and the methods – the most peculiar method of the book being that questions are posed to the reader at the end and sometimes even in the midst of each text –, as well as the excellent illustrations (by Ágnes Eperjesi) eventually add up to create a larger whole worth thinking about. At first sight the idea of the book seems to be an ironic game in which the didactic function of literature, its imagined "use value" in society and the ideological dimensions of a textbook – its place in the power structure – are questioned. The grotesque tasks for the reader at the end of the chapters enhance the irony: "Write an essay with the title 'My Brother, the Sad Henchman'. Make sure to remain objective." Or: "Explain in your own words what 'inclination' means. Argue for or against it." Yet the situation is more complicated than that: Zsófia Bán does not completely deny these functions of literature. On the contrary, after the initial ironic twist, she seems to inscribe her own ideological messages into the text. Her aim is obviously to teach, not merely to amuse and delight.
Each piece begins with the name of a subject in a school curriculum: geography, history, chemistry, etc. Yet Zsófia Bán's actual curriculum is far more comprehensive and – in its own way – more ambitious than that: it is as if she were aiming to demonstrate that history can be rewritten from the point of view of the silenced and the oppressed. The research field of one of her characters, Jean-Pierre, is "deletion". Like him, Zsófia Bán seems to be interested in what has been left out of the stories. She tries to (re)construct the realm of things that are hidden behind an event, an image or a poetic oeuvre – whatever had been unwritten or deleted. Her interest is universal: in addition to Hungarian language and culture, she ventures into other languages and cultures – including those of the country of her birth, Brasil –, and weaves a patchwork of cultural history. Her anthropology concentrates on instincts transgressing (male) conventions; her ethics are clear and consistent: she is for the preservation of the dignity and the freedom of all living beings, down to Laika, the first animal ever sent into space.
That Bán's school is an evening school is significant. Those who study in evening schools are adults who have not successfully completed a matriculation exam, and this book seems to aim at preparing its readers for the exam they failed to take before. Bán's matriculation exam is not easy to pass – behaviour and diligence also count. And if we take into account the amount of cultural material amassed here, it seems more like a doctoral school. Those who cannot keep up with the dense intertextual material have the consolation that "not everybody has to understand everything".
We have long considered the didactic and the aesthetic functions of literature as if they were in opposition to each other. I tend to be less strict – and in any case, the aesthetic point of view is not unquestionable either. Some of these stories fit perfectly into the traditional canon, others hardly do – but is that important at all? If we accept other criteria besides the aesthetic one, the value of a book can only be assessed on the basis of the role it plays in cultural practice. Will this volume be extended into a series of textbooks? How many students will learn from it? Will it improve the world? Zsófia Bán has written a textbook that makes students work – whether it will last, we will see.
Read an excerpt
from the book on Eurozine
Bán Zsófia: Esti iskola
Budapest: Kalligram, 2007