Review – 28th March, 2006

More than just love

Iván Sándor: Dear Liv 

Review–28th March, 2006


From Iván Sándor’s novel we can learn much about the real world and about the history of Eastern Europe (namely the events of 1956 and 1968, as well as the Budapest of recent times). We learn even more about the metatheses of the creatures in this world – their elective affinities about love and friendship, faith and unfaithfulness, honour and dishonour.

Iván Sándor’s Dear Liv, according to the author himself, is “a novel about love; although if it were only a novel about love, I would not have bothered to write it”. There is much more to this book besides the treatment of love. There is also passion, faith, unfaithfulness and resignation, all of which go hand in hand with love – not to mention melodrama, role-playing and masquerade, evoked by the pretensions that imbue feelings of love. Dear Liv is a theatrical novel as well, both literally and metaphorically. It is also a historical novel, relating the history of Eastern Europe during the second part of the twentieth century – from 1944 to the millennium. The author, who experienced the 1944 terror of the Arrow Cross regime as a child in Budapest, talks about his personal experiences in his forthright documentary fiction. Also, he is intrigued by the questions that the genre of the novel raises, discussing the topic in his essays. That is why both essays on the genre of the novel and novels with embedded essays are to be found in peaceful coexistence within Iván Sándor’s oeuvre.  

Evidently, Iván Sándor is an overtly conscious writer. In his novels, however, we cannot find any trace of the univocal, declarative voice of the omniscient author (his superiority both depressing and comical). Nor can we find any fixed hierarchy of values that the characters accept within the novel’s world. The main appeal of Iván Sándor’s novels lies in the cunning interplay between their pronounced neutrality and their unexpressed orientation towards values – all of which, in the end, add to the joy of reading. For example, in The Path in Sephoris, Iván Sándor’s previous novel which takes place during the decline of the Roman Empire, the reader can only guess which one of the three Jewish protagonists is closest to the author’s heart. However, the polyphonic structure, the constant rotation of the three voices, makes the values and credos represented by the three characters relative and equal in rank, at least from a structural point of view. In summary, it would be impossible to find any superior point of view or any philosophical synthesis in Iván Sándor’s previous works.  

The same can be said of Iván Sándor’s new novel, Dear Liv, in which the reader enters a colourful, richly structured world, the fruit of the author’s healthy relativist thinking. The spatial range of this world extends from Kecskemét to Budapest, Warsaw, Salzburg, Paris and Algiers; while its time range extends from 1944, through the 1956 Hungarian revolution and the 1968 crisis, to recent time. Dear Liv is a multi-layered, polyphonic composition with harmonies encompassing events and experiences of many decades, as well as rhetorically balanced voices that eventually make sense only in the context of the whole story. “…The diary of the polish writer [Gombrowicz], I told Liv, also played a role in all of it: it was the diary from which my mother smuggled a French excerpt into my father’s notes on the way home from Warsaw.”  

Dear Liv is a polyphonic novel also in the sense that it comprises various types of texts, mainly literary citations and allusions. Gábor’s diary entries on the 1956 Hungarian revolution and his letters from the Algerian emigration are good examples. Gábor’s diary may remind us of the chapter on 1956 in A Book of Memories by Péter Nádas – not only on account of the common topic, but also the similar nature of the process of remembering in the two books. Nevertheless, in Nádas’ book, written in 1986, towards the end of “soft communism”, the stress is on pronouncing the word revolution. Iván Sándor’s 2002 novel, written more than a decade after the Hungarian regime change, has a much more resigned tone. “…We were getting fresh news hour after hour. (…) Everything was constantly changing: those who fought, those who issued the commands. Radio Free Europe praised different people from day to day, urged us to fight against different enemies from hour to hour. Different people hung their different victims at different parts of the city.” The motif of theatre and of role-playing is another aspect the two novels share. This motif refers to the unavoidably false nature of the characters’ memories and confessions in Iván Sándor’s novel. They are unavoidably false, because, according to Sándor, “all the world is a stage.” 

The historical events that serve as a frame for the novel add credit and weight to the personal stories, opening a wide space for communication between the parallel, self-interpreting confessions of the narrator Zoltán, his girlfriend Liv, his theatrical director father, his widowed mother, the actor Gádor, the diary-writing Gábor and Gábor’s widowed wife. The most common form of self-interpretation in Iván Sándor’s novel is the repetitive, alternating motion of consciousness and memory, a motion which is always triggered by a recurring word, thought or gesture.  “…So it was mostly the external edge of my hand, the little finger and the ring finger that could touch her skin, I stroked her face on both sides, like she used to stroke mine, always adding: as I learned from my grandma.”  

From Iván Sándor’s novel we can learn much about the real world and about the history of Eastern Europe (namely the events of 1956 and 1968, as well as the Budapest of recent times). We learn even more about the metatheses of the creatures in this world – their elective affinities about love and friendship, faith and unfaithfulness, honour and dishonour. We may read the book as a document of the life of a generation in a particular city, but we may also read it as a very personal confession, a polyphonic confession of the different characters speaking in the book. For example, Hitlerei (the fascists) “were simply the last straw” for the father who commits suicide in 1944, tragically following the compulsive progress of his self-destructing personality. The spatial and temporal fullness of Iván Sándor’s novels underpins the elaborate self-interpretations of the characters, even if it results in a tone of indifference. When Zoltán crosses the border again, having last visited Hungary at the end of the sixties, he says the following words about his past, about the collective and personal paraphernalia of his past and, consequently, about himself, “I do not care about the Hegyeshalom checkpoint, nor do I care about myself or the fact that it was here that I was taken off the train thirty-five years ago…”  

However, Zoltán does not just float about mooning tragically or sneering cynically in the quasi-vacuum of his resignation. Instead, he creates and interprets his own world with a humble analytic rigour – even if, in the end, it becomes his downfall. Still, Zoltán’s downfall comes in handy for the reader, and it matters not whether the reader is already a fallen personality. All in all, everyone gains from Iván Sándor’s novel. It is a gripping and memorable book.
Sándor Bazsányi
Translated by Dóra Elekes
Sándor Iván: Drága Liv 
Bratislava: Kalligram, 2002

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