László Márton's new novelette was published as part of a new series by Jelenkor Publishers entitled Útravaló (for the journey). This new series, in which Jelenkor publish their new and old books in a pocket-book format, is designed to supply readers with short, entertaining, yet substantial reading material for the road. The format as well as the timing of the edition (the beginning of the summer) made me hope for easy summer reading, an unusual ”Márton Light”. And indeed, the book does make for easy reading, though the narrative twists and the multiple fictional layers so characteristic of Márton's books are by no means absent.
The story of the novelette – if one is to speak of a story at all in a book in which hardly anything happens – is one particular day in the life of a Hungarian playwright at the beginning of the 90s in a small provincial town in which the nameless playwright attends the rehearsal of his social drama on the small stage of the local theatre, then pops in at the rehearsal of an operetta to be shown on the big stage. In the afternoon he takes a walk with the director of his own drama, an alcoholic who has seen better days, and finally pays a visit to the director of the operetta, who is terminally ill. The playwright's wandering in the town (which is a composite of several provincial Hungarian towns) gives the author occasion to introduce and mock some characteristic figures of Hungary prominent after the change of regime and to paint a delightful picture of the Hungarian provinces, Hungarian society and Hungarian theatre. Though Márton calls his readers' attention to the vanity of any attempt to identify the characters, claiming that he preferred to follow the ”laws of a writer's imagination” rather than give a true-to-life picture of reality, he also notes that if the reader perceives similarities with real people, these similarities ”necessarily follow from the characteristics of Hungarian public life”. And if we are to take this as a value judgment, then the narrator's irony seems the less funny for it.
The sequence of the narrative is determined by the narrator (who is not identical with the author), who is explicitly there throughout, proclaiming and stressing his omnipotence. The narrative, which seems to borrow the fluff and frivolity and the narrative logic of operettas – the title of the novel echoes the title of Hervé's famous Mam'zelle Nitouche –, is strikingly different from Márton's usual baroque technique, yet strangely enough the author has managed to harmonize the two styles. The style of this book shows another facet of Márton's prose: here, his usual ”narrative arbitrariness” follows the pattern of pulp novels and operetta librettos. The narrator's comments to the reader, his remarks concerning the process of writing, stressing the fictional character of the story, the deliberate misinformation, as well as the mythological allusions all imitate the loose texture of operetta librettos. Moreover, since the story takes place in a theatrical environment, the Platonic imitation of an imitation might also be a narrative stake of the representation of this genre.
As a self-mirroring figure, the critical interpretation of the nameless playwright's social drama – a ”text within a text”, ”theatre within a theatre” – also finds a place in this book. The drama is about the events happening around a tenement house in Budapest that is discussed by the narrator as a symbol of Hungarian society and the European community – ironically, of course. The conscious over-interpretation, the substitution of the function of the critic for the function of the author/narrator and the alternating measure of distance all tempt the reader to recognize the figure of self-mirroring – the irony of irony – in the text. These ambiguities and uncertainties, as well as the potential over-interpretation of these techniques by the readers, may make this witty and refreshing narrative an acrid piece of social criticism for some readers.
In an interview held by Litera last year (and published in a shortened version in HLO), László Márton mentioned that he regarded his 2006 novel Minerva's Hiding Place as the last piece of a particular creative stage. Touch me not, Flore! is obviously not the beginning of a new stage, but rather a delightful story written by a writer liberated from some oppressing weight. One for the road.
Péter Rácz I.
Márton László: Ne bánts, Virág!
Pécs: Jelenkor, 2007