A first novel from excellent poet and author Krisztina Tóth is bound to live up to high expectations, with her two previous short story collections, Barcode (2006) and Pixel (2011) already hallmarks of her considerable storytelling skills. The continuity with her earlier prose work is happily, undeniably there, and it seems this author is pushing on and doing what she does best, expanding in scope to encompass a voluminous new format and exploit its possibilities in a formidable debut.
Revisiting the vantages of high-contrast Budapest nostalgia, the settings are meticulously authentic, bringing backround, depth, vocabulary and assorted curios to the unfolding storyline. Retro and nostalgia (both genuine and fabricated) is a very rewarding theme indeed, and Tóth is well in touch with the socio-historical realia of the communist state, acknowledging them so matter-of-factly they become integral to the story, rather than props that need to be circumnavigated. As the plot moves between decades and regimes, the third-person narrator offers no clarification or overview to put things in any sort of broader perspective. Instead, we dive headfirst into the murky depths of a neglected fish tank.
This is a story primarily about women, about specific Hungarian women, a fragmented but deeply connected family. It’s not that there aren’t men present throughout, and the omnipresent narrator is impartial enough to be considered genderless; but the protagonists are definitely a female lineup of mothers and daughters. Family matters are the main concern of these women: adoption, abortion, abandonment, balancing their careers (as working women under socialism) and duties, ethnicities, loyalties, maladies and shortcomings.
Beside home and family, the main institutional background is the hospital where Edit, a holocaust survivor, and her traumatized, mentally retarded sister Edu spend their working days. Edit’s adopted daughter, the abandoned Vera also starts her career here, where strict hierarchy and control ubiquitous in the totalitarian state system is amply present. While bodily ailing is treated here, the system itself exemplifies the inconsideracy and neglect that contribute to sustained misery.
There is a monumental and unglamorous social commentary in the unreported, off-propaganda everydays of getting by with what little can be had. There are many survivors in this milieu of 50s and 60s Budapest, and everyone seems to have their dark and secret story to lug around, with no hope of sharing it or working it out. It is life without glorification to say the least, and a perpetual scarcity of love and intimacy. Dysfunctional or not, these lives must carry on, leaving the emotional debris for the next generation to sort out, or not. The effort and ingenuity to make a living in working-class poverty is what drives the adults, while a child growing up in the squalor spanning thirty-odd years grows up determined to make more for herself. There are many ways of coping, but all involve compromise and submission.
A definite symbolism is present in the novel, some of it explicit (as with Gabi bácsi’s six empty chairs) and some less outspoken, as with the eponymous aquarium. These objects embody core components of the story that can’t be confronted by the characters directly, issues that are outside the comfort zones or perhaps even the conceivable scope of their dialogues and interactions. It’s like the exact opposite of an oral history: the loss, grief and tragedy that cannot be confronted in words, manifests and finds its way into the story.
These scars of war, poverty and deprivation affect several successive generations, in a cycle of emotional and material scarcity. True to the realities, there is little to redeem the bleakness, nothing in the way of effective solutions or empowerment. Though numerous and bright, even the glints of humour tend toward the grotesque. Happiness has a hard time in this retrofitted world, and the realization that the experience of generations doesn’t end with nostalgia but carries across to the readers (and writers) of the present is a haunting and valid culmination.
Tóth Krisztina: Akvárium
Budapest: Magvető, 2013