Review – 15th September, 2008

Gutted churches

Éva Berniczky: A Midwife and No Womb

Review–15th September, 2008


Éva Berniczky is Transcarpathia's long-awaited, yet still very fresh-voiced story-teller. Her description of her homeland brings to mind the very best of “magical realism”; like Latin America, Transcarpathia is also a region of intersecting cultures and religions. Poised on the border of Western and Eastern Christianity, this is a world in which Ukrainians, Ruthenians and Hungarians live side by side.

The obsessive book collector, Svietelski, lives with his former pupil and illiterate wife, Mokrinka, in the small town of Jóna in Transcarpathia, a region of Ukraine that used to belong to Hungary and has a large Hungarian population up to date. One day Svietelski discovers a peculiar, Russian text and resolves to unravel its secrets. This mysterious bundle of writings proves to be an old diary written by a woman named Alla, who recorded her experiences in the literary style of the journal Lityeraturnaya Gazeta and in a dialect bearing no resemblance to that spoken in Jóna. Eager to add a translated version of the diary to his collection, Svietelski invites a female author to translate Alla’s writings into Hungarian.

The author’s role thereby evolves into that of translator, for it is the process of translation that provides the underlying foundation to this novel’s vibrant portrayal of daily life in Jóna. While the diary’s melodramatic tone can sometimes seem to indicate an attempt at self-parody, Alla’s entries still provide the perfect complement to the main text, as the cryptic entries from Alla’s unearthed diary seamlessly fit into the backdrop of the author’s narration.  The gradual inclusion of the diary’s enigmatic, lush symbols into the main text further heightens this sense of cohesion. In fact, the novel’s daring and—at first glance—sometimes overly ornate sentence structure actually serves to condense the narration, resulting in a densely woven work of literature.
In Éva Berniczky’s novel, A Midwife and No Womb, the narrator’s task—in both a literal and a symbolic sense—is to translate, for in the process of translating Alla’s diary the author also succeeds in turning her own fate as well as that of her homeland, Transcarpathia, into a work of fiction. Born in 1962 in Berehove—the town with the largest Hungarian population and an important cultural centre—Éva Berniczky is this region’s long-awaited, yet still very fresh-voiced story-teller, and as such is perfectly capable of creating a credible portrait of the people, sights and sounds found in her homeland. Every object and person in this world has a story, a fact that adds depth to the plot while also forming its backbone.

It is therefore no wonder that Éva Berniczky’s description of her homeland brings to mind the very best of “magical realism”; like Latin America, Transcarpathia is also a region of intersecting cultures and religions. Poised on the border of Western and Eastern Christianity, this is a world in which Ukrainians, Ruthenians and Hungarians live side by side. At the same time, Berniczky’s usage of this genre is somehow much more down-to-earth: the church converted into a museum for atheism or the school superintendent who tipples in the outhouse are the very embodiment of the pettiness of a “selfish and inept reality". 
The different literary voices characteristic of Berniczky’s style can also be described as a combination of various poetic genres. In this lies the novel’s strength, as well as its greatest weakness. While certain characteristic expressions and stylistic elements sometimes surface in inappropriate places, it can also be argued that this kind of language is the most authentic means for portraying Transcarpathia in all its lonely complexity.
As if to suggest that emotions are far more important than events, the narration of this epic tale frequently follows a chain of poetic associations. Éva Berniczky, however, never fully renounces the telling of her story. When viewed from afar, this gradual, seemingly coincidental collection of destinies—which unwinds in a series of almost impressionistic images—results in an utterly precise stringing of plot elements. As Éva Berniczky’s female traffic manager puts it, these are the kinds of lives about which “there’s just no getting ’round,” a state that is just as true of the people living there as it is of those passing through.  Like coffee grounds, this sense of desolation inevitably lurks at the bottom of each character’s destiny, a condition they all—whether consciously or not—struggle to keep tucked out of sight.  In the end, this bleak, vegetative lifestyle is the only possible solution to the tense clash of opposites symbolized by the novel’s two central characters, Svietelski and his illiterate wife.

Similar to the way Mokrinka’s bodily fluids are the mainstay to her simple life, the Tisza River’s diabolically monotone—yet still threatening—ebb and flow can only nourish this desolate bleakness. Thus the author succeeds in twisting life’s usual symbols—life as a river, bodily fluids as a source of life—out of their normal interpretation. “I must write it all over again, otherwise everything is so hollow”, comments Alla. Perhaps this too is what drives the narrator to create a work filled with sparkling pictures, in contrast to so much empty desolation.
One of the most important questions raised by this novel is how to replace this emptiness with something more fulfilling, as symbolized by the image of the gutted church. The novel’s title, A Midwife and No Womb, is a direct reference to a tale about a midwife’s search for the child she abandoned at birth. At the same time, this title also summarizes the relationship between text and translator: upon arriving at Svietelski’s solitary home, the author assists in the rebirth of Alla’s diary while simultaneously feeling and expressing her utter sense of helplessness in the face of her own empty fate. 
A Midwife and No Womb is a significant work of literature. It is rare to make a comment like this in a review without wondering if such an opinion is perhaps too rash, and thereby destined to the realm of relativity, along with its subject. It is without doubt that in her portrayal of her homeland’s complex world, Éva Berniczky has utilized a level of style that is, by its very nature, uneven. Yet these bits of rough, broken land blend in to the text as a whole the same way close-up images melt into the landscape.

Berniczky Éva: Méhe nélkül a bába
Budapest: Magvető, 2007

Miklós Szentpály

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