I really didn't know what to expect when I picked up Róbert Milbacher's Szűz Mária jegyese [The Virgin Mary's Fiancé], his first prose work. Milbacher, as the blurb informs us, has been a postman, a forestry worker and a herbalist – he now teaches literature in Pécs. An interesting combination, no doubt, and yet rather puzzling on the jacket flap of a prose debut.
'Why are you telling me this?' Was my first thought. Two possibilities came to mind: either the author was, ahem, somewhat eccentric and had trouble finding his calling in life, or he was showing off. He had delivered letters, chopped wood, dried thyme, rosemary and sage and then sat down and written a debut book published by Magvető. Was I meant to feel indulgently sorry for him, or green with envy?
As it turns out, neither. When I was translating our interview with him (available here), this question came up – and (somewhat disappointingly), he gave a perfectly reasonable, considered answer. He wrote all that about himself to let the reader know that he knows what he's talking about. That he has experienced the things, the people, the circumstances of their lives as he describes them.
Fair enough. I started reading the book with no real expectations, but very quickly it struck me that it was the latest in a line of books in recent contemporary Hungarian literature with a strong central theme: the misery and brutality of rural childhoods in the 60s and 70s. Its illustrious predecessors which came immediately to mind were Szilárd Borbély's Nincstelenek [The Dispossessed] and Ferenc Barnás' A Kilencedik [The Ninth], both of which were forceful testimony of the often senseless coarseness and brutality that such childhoods could involve.
With a small inward sigh, I read on. I settled into it: the prose was good – it was engaging. The characters were eccentric and everyday, while the narration was just profane, insightful, off-key and casually racist enough to keep you on your toes. The narrator, as the prologue sets out to make clear, is one of the characters that people the village in which the book is set: he is just as much one of the cast of characters as the people he describes, with all their habits, virtues, faults, and limitations.
The book is not a novel, but rather a collection of interlinked scenes from the life of an unnamed village, peopled with a rather peculiar cast of characters, both ethnic Hungarians and Gypsies, the ghost of the deported Jewish population hanging over them. There is much swearing and occasional fights; most of the action focuses on the village bar and the church. There is a good deal of bigotry and quite a lot of not-quite-socially acceptable attraction (both physical and emotional).
So far, so good. This, in itself, does not take us further than the theme of Borbély's or Barnás' works. But then something rather unexpected happened. I was sitting in a café, about two thirds of the way through the book, and I realised – quite suddenly – that not only was the swearing, the narration really funny, but so was the absurdity of some of the scenes. It dawned on me, as I burst out unexpectedly laughing, that this book does something the other two did not: it brings a sense of humour to the subject.
Now, most of what Borbély has to say, and indeed Barnás too, is not funny. It's far more tragic – especially in the case of Borbély. But the very similarity of the set-up and the very subtle difference in perception and tone are precisely what serve to set up a discreet black humour, based on the incongruity of the brutal nature of the scenes, the rough, raw nature of the characters, and the refined absurd humour of the situations. Just to give one example: one of the 'churchy' ladies in the village makes a nativity scene for the church out of caramelised sugar (something most people in the village only rarely, if ever, get to eat). She delicately sculpts the figures of Joseph, the Virgin Mary, and the various animals, and tenderly places the ensemble under the altar for all to see. Imagine her disappointment when a carelessly-placed candle melts Joseph's head. It's nothing compared to her outrage when one of the local boys – who's not all there – sneaks into the church and eats the holy family.
I have laughed out loud reading books in inappropriate places before, but only very rarely. I was happy to have the experience again, and indeed, something rather odd and wonderful happened – a very pretty girl at the next table, who until then had been engrossed in conversation with her friend, turned round and asked me just what on earth was so funny.
Well, I said, it's like this...