Review – 14th May, 2008

Cobbled-together Hungary

Béla Fehér: Doc’s Asleep in Bethlehem

Review–14th May, 2008


Fehér’s novel contains all of the elements characteristic of Hungarian society and culture at the time of the regime change. What emerges is the often-mentioned image of a cobbled-together Hungary, complete with a motley, lurching collection of objects and people.

Anyone attempting to understand the transformations in Hungary over the past eighteen years by studying the literary works of the period is destined to meet with meager success, if he or she is interested in the upheaval of nearly geological proportions, the total reorganization and dissolution of the way of life of people in this country. In this transition, one of the most ground shaking periods in Hungarian history, social life was thrown into flux: the cast of characters and locations became scrambled, new forms appeared and took shape while old ones vanished. The vortex swallowed up old customs and thrust new ones to the surface. Well-established subcultures disintegrated, while hitherto unknown forces organized themselves into tight phalanxes. During the previous decades of repression, all vital cultural life seemed to have gone into hibernation – yet it was precisely this sense of immobility and petrification that made it possible to conceive of the period as a meaningful, cohesive whole. During socialism there was a peculiar dialogue between the dictatorial quasi-political culture and the quasi-literary culture, which historians now identify as the “Kádár era”. To mention the rigidity of this period is first and foremost to speak about the Communist ideologically driven understanding of history and identity, the practical and political consequences of which, formulated in a deliberately simplified and schematic way, was an attitude of complete quarantine and isolationism from Western influence. However, the fact that the literary field during socialism in fact bore the signs of classical modernism alerts us to an important paradox: while Communist social planning did indeed lead to numerous modernization efforts, in the realm of literature, the focus was on the continued development of a middle class consciousness already late in coming. This paradox is at the heart of the puzzle of cultural policy during socialism, a game whose pieces were constantly in motion, as party leadership fundamentally revised the written and unwritten rules over the course of years.
Of course, it is not literature’s role to supply a historical chronicle. Still, while recognizing and emphasizing this important maxim, we must face another fact: in fifty years, a reader of the literary works of this most crucial period in Hungarian history will find them at best only indirect help in understanding the era in which they were written. A number of these writings are based on autobiographical material, and are, one could say, the results of a sort of autobiographical fieldwork. The emergence of the cult of the “father-novel,” which can be traced from Péter Esterházy through Endre Kukorelly to Balázs Györe, is no coincidence. These works invite the reader onto journeys interior as well as exterior, and depict an entrapped, entangled personality. These novels describe the repressive nature of a tradition that stresses subservience to authority, and portrays the lives of sons living in the shadow of overbearing father figures, deprived of the possibility of independence. These stories describe the powerlessness afflicting the younger generation that prevents them from forging their own paths. At the same time, these works demonstrate how this attitude took root and became a tradition: the sons made a general strategic approach from the tactics they employed in the struggle for independence fought against their fathers, and later employed these tactics on their sons, creating the same obstacles for the next generation as they once experienced. In these works, the present is a stage for narratives once destined to be repressed and choked off; the location of the drama of the individual confronting the gaps in his self-understanding and reconstructing a narrative to retroactively put history right. In short, these works bring to life highly charged worlds of experience, and while this process – essentially our collective search for a mature, adult self – is often inspiring and perhaps unavoidable, it is also without a doubt unimaginably lengthy.
With the exception of Sándor Tar’s prose depictions of working class life and Lajos Parti Nagy’s pamphlet and parody writings (My Hero’s Square and The Angel of the Body, published under the pseudonym Jolán Sárbogárdi), the literature of Hungary offers no purchase on the world that surrounds these figures. Béla Fehér (1949), whose writings have appeared steadily and almost without critical comment since 1990, has written a unique body of work probing and re-working this entrenched mind-set. Fehér’s novel Alszik a doki Betlehemben (Doc’s Asleep in Bethlehem), contains all of the elements characteristic of Hungarian society and culture at the time of the regime change. Main characters include a father who works in a train station snack bar, his good-for-nothing son, a wife who allows herself to be seduced, and a sexually precocious daughter. The scene is set with peep show theaters and video rentals, populated with mobsters, collection agents and a newly-minted Indologist. Drugs are plentiful. In short, Fehér has brought together all the elements that appeared on the facades of deteriorating and demolished buildings, and surrounded the fragments of custom tailored lives. What emerges is the often-mentioned image of a cobbled-together Hungary, complete with a motley, lurching collection of objects and people.
Above all, the great strength of the novel lies in Fehér’s dexterous use of language to evoke the atmosphere of the era: structures hastily improvised and barely held together, the sense of demolition and decomposition, as well as the new backdrops raised hastily over the ruins. It is the characters’ use of language that summons forth and articulates their inner and outer realities, offering the reader access to all that is visible or can be made visible. Here language is first and foremost the object of depiction, not merely the means of accomplishing it. Although the “tale” itself is easy enough to follow, the reader soon ceases to pursue the strands of the plot, instead allowing himself to be swept away by the swift current of language, one in which the narrator’s voice is only one of many.
...everyone knows it’s no picnic hiding out in the john. Sure, you can get used to the smell, but not the dark. It’s like being locked up in solitary, except every other minute you hear the coins dropping in the little dish. Some guys don’t even ask for the change back from a fifty, or if they’re starting to dribble, sometimes not from a hundred either. I’m telling you, it’s a killer business, except for those goddamn backups. The stories I could tell you about those!
Fehér’s novel is filled with such bravura passages, voices speaking in true-to-life dialect that seems to express everything while simultaneously concealing the speaker’s face under a layer of linguistic compresses, adding ornamentation and flourish to the plaster surface of everyday speech. The arias of poverty that echo throughout the novel expose harsh realities and unsettle the reader while compelling him to smile wryly. After a certain point, however, the frequency at which the prose operates exhausts the reader, and he is left numb, anesthetized to its further effects. Without pauses or silences, the text feels crowded and congested; without changes in tempo, the rhythm of the sentences becomes monotonous. Fehér has an unfailing ear for a certain layer of language – which should not be conflated with the speech of the narrator – and is able to convey it fluently. Still, despite these minor reservations, the spirits that haunt the apartment buildings of the old era take shape and become materialized in Fehér’s novel, and this is indeed a profound achievement that should withstand the test of time.
Fehér Béla: Alszik a doki Betlehemben
Budapest: Kortárs, 2007

Lajos Jánossy

Subscribe to our mailing list