Reading Zsuzsanna Rakovszky’s realistic short stories about the recent past and present of this country (there is little difference, we seem to have congealed into stagnation), I keep being reminded of a simile by Danilo Kiš, where he says that banality is like a plastic bottle.
True, Kiš hated banality, consequently did not become a realistic author. Rakovszky, for her part, approaches the present time, banality, stagnation and all, with a typical female sense of reality and tact, and even finds the right authorial register. Her treatment is gentle and ironic, complete with the mildly acrid Hungarian irony, a womanish understanding and a cultured, nuanced critique and a patience which, however, more than once becomes boring. What she shows is the wretched and miserable life of an almost-proletarian Hungarian middle class, a grey-green belt stricken with squalor in every area including the heart and the soul, the intellect, living standards and the quality of life – all, in fact.
The cover illustration by József Pintér is excellent, as usual, while in the textual world, everything is so familiar. Rakovszky’s short stories confirm something that we already know. That this is a land where what usually comes to pass is the worst possible option, where ‘nothing ever works out’, where ‘things turn out as bad as they can’, where we miss our chances and do all we can to spoil our own lives, under the pressure of an ‘eternal fear and poverty’, where everything is going forever downhill and our lives ‘hover in the narrow band between the barely tolerable and the unbearable’. I quote the phrases from Rakovszky’s various short stories, in first person plural for simplicity’s sake. There are exceptions. However, the political transition has not altered this ‘system’ which has gone so desperately bad. As to why not – we seem unable even to ask the question.
Zsuzsa Rakovszky’s realistic genre pictures are spot-on, truly life-like and well-written. A funeral with the inevitable wreaths, bouncing a ball in the courtyard of the tenement block, the all-night café, a stool under a large female behind, a canteen with thin, watery soup, an over-crowded old people’s home with mean old people, the usual Christmas and New Year, ‘faith, hope’ and, above all, ‘love’, expressed in financial terms; a hospital ward with the air of a crypt, an excursion to the ‘hills’ with a view, alcohol-consumption, suffocating children’s rooms; quarrelsome, aggressive widows and exhausted mothers, children bred to adapt unquestioningly, divorced women struggling desperately against aging or giving up and sharing their bed with their utility bills, hopelessly lonely or malicious women, irritated husbands, confused, hysterical men. The characters are realistic and convincing inside and out, as well as in their relationships. Reading "The Unknown Factor" I was all but led to believe that the model was identical with the woman downstairs in my own block living in the one-time concierge’s apartment; while after reading "Maya’s Veil" one morning, the same evening I heard the same high-flying spiritual balderdash from a teacher in her thirties. I recognised the streets sunken in neon light, the haberdasher’s shop, the Congregation of Faith and the Chakra people, not to mention Hungarian hospitals and the old people’s homes which are more like geriatric wards, the crowded flats and the shabby interiors preserving relics of a bourgeois past; the horribly unending struggle for a sheer living or the disastrous relationships. The urban pigeons. The pink-purple skies.
Conflicts here in this very concrete space-time get smeared into confusion or they drive people out of their minds. Nothing will come out of nothing. All decisions are the wrong decision. People torture each other, lovers even more than others, but are there still lovers in this place? No, there are not, only projections and the collapses of projections. Good intention and the need for solidarity have been punctured or degraded into stubborn ideological stupidity, good people come out badly.
Intellectual hunger turns sectarian, money-grabbing and idiotic. The only points of orientation are those offered by charlatans in the forms of obsessions and vulgar notions of God. Friendship easily slips into the heavy ecstasy of shared degradation and deterioration. The home is always depressing. New homes are even more so, pregnant with new life games. Fathers, mothers and teachers use blackmail, dragging children down by the arm, sewing the seeds of hatred. ‘Oh my God, I prayed to myself, why can’t something different happen, for once, from what we predicted from the antecedents? Could something different happen, only just once, by accident? But no, it does not.’ The repetitive compulsion is so strong as if an entire country was in need of classic psycho-analysis. Sadly, platitudes turn out to be true and they triumph.
That particular ’something different’ appears only as an (authentic) metaphysical knack which is impossible to record or an illusion or a banal and kitsch fantasy. The changes that do take place are all negative and worsen the situation. The description of the slow destruction of the beautiful Lola is so evocative and truthful that each of us can think of someone who has gone through the same. Which one of us has not visited an ailing friend? Or been inside a ward where the number has worn off the door? Which one of us has not wanted to help someone at long last? Or themselves? Who has not lost someone through cancer?
I think there is only one thing wrong here – redundancy. Rakovszky’s stories are over-written, stuffed full of unnecessary information and needless pages (e.g. the blatantly untrue diary in "The Unknown Factor" or the repetitions in "Maya’s Veil"). They are not tight enough, and thus the reader comes to feel glutted or nauseous – feelings which in themselves are topics of several of the short stories. One feels overcome with Hungarian reality. There is no way out. Rakovszky certainly finds no break-out point and thus the reader also ‘plops back into the depths’, as the closing sentence of the book says. Only in the title story do I find the truly authentic metaphysical knack, the metaphysics of error one might call it, described in a way which is a revelation. The other possible example is Dream (although the therapist’s journal is again too long and not sufficiently inventive), its greenish glow appears on the front cover. This is the colour of mould here, of a long-term rotting process.
The stories in Rakovszky’s new book have an ounce more of explanation, of patience and understanding than one would like. The subtle line between understanding and saying no is a hard one to define in real life, too. These delicate boundaries separate from each other humane tolerance, critical rejection, distancing and cruelty. It feels good to see our miseries and stupidities, black on white, mould green. But there is no spirit in the plastic bottle, nor does the writer have the grasp with which to flatten it. The title itself sounds like the old chanson, ‘the fading light of your cigarette’. The spirit of the grotesque which whirls out of the title story (the best in the volume) like a ghost is more powerful than the story itself.
Rakovszky Zsuzsa: A Hold a hetedik házban
Budapest: Magvető, 2009