A picture made up of pixel dots; a mosaic; a body made up of organs; a tangled ball of yarn—one could possibly find a number of similar metaphors for the structure of Pixel, Krisztina Tóth’s new volume of short stories: a big, organic whole constructed of numerous small parts that is hard to take stock of at first sight. The points of contact between the various parts of Pixel tend to multiply and proliferate, which gives the reader the feeling of obscurity, of ‘three-dimensionalness’, of getting lost in the text—impressions one typically has when reading bulky novels of several hundred pages, whereas here we are dealing with a 168-page volume of very short stories.
The volume is composed of thirty short stories or chapters, each of them bearing the title of a body part—a device Krisztina Tóth had already used in her first short-story collection, Barcode (2006 - see our review), in which all the stories had the word ‘line’ in their titles. There is a story about the ear, the head, the nape, even about birthmarks. The titles are not arbitrary; the body part in the title always runs through the whole story as a central motif: e.g. in the story about the ear the unpierced ear is incapable of receiving the gift—a pair of beautiful Indian earrings—of a potential lover, but it is also the primary sensory organ at work in the story in which a woman leading a solitary and bleak life cannot help overhearing the family rows of her neighbours.
In most of the stories, a usually banal event occurs which brings some past event into the limelight and makes the characters realize that they had based their lives on lies. In the story about the belly button, for example, the chubby cookies coming out of the oven remind a woman of her baby that she gave birth to when she was very young, a baby who turned out to have Down syndrome and was given to state custody. In the story of the neck, a middle-aged mother realizes in the fitting room of a department store of a Western country that when she was young, she had stolen a scarf designed to protect customers from lipstick marks, and wore it at a conference. The narrator of these stories reports the events, even tragic ones, in a matter-of-fact tone, always emphasizing the arbitrariness of fate. The stories, though they take place in various European settings (in France, in the Balkans, on the Turkish seaside, in Romania), always relate back to Hungary, to Budapest in one way or another. As for the time frame, we are definitely in the twentieth century all through, sometimes a bit after. The earliest story takes place during the time of the holocaust, the latest at the time when there are already cheap flights from Luton to Budapest. There is no strict time frame, however; the stories are practically interchangeable, they do not always follow chronological order: e.g. we learn about the antecedents of the incident on a Budapest bus in Chapter 18 only in Chapter 26. Yet there is some progress in time in the whole volume: the characters who turn up in several chapters tend to be progressively older.
It is a unique feature of Pixel that it features a great number of characters for such a slim volume. There are several threads which run independently of each other, but are sometimes interlocked, so that the protagonist of one story becomes a minor character or a casual acquaintance in someone else’s life. This technique is reminiscent of so called 'film chorals', a term used by film theorists since the 80s for movies in which, instead of one protagonist, the lives and perspectives of a number of characters add up to shape the film. About thirty characters are wandering around on the paths of Krisztina Tóth’s interlocking stories and fates. They represent various social layers, from Greek immigrants to poor Gypsy boys, from security guards with dog phobia to French teachers, successful architects and doctors. Some of the characters appear for the duration of one meeting or a love affair, others remain in the background or are only represented by an object in each other’s stories. For example, it is easy to see that the woman in Chapter 3 who seems to be blind is the wife of the architect who has brain tumor in Chapter 5, because they have identical wedding rings. Other points of contact are less obvious: it is the dog appearing in Chapter 14 that causes the dog phobia of the security guard in Chapter 27. Other relationships are so intricate that one must draw a chart to understand them—the last time I had to make as many notes about the relationships between the characters was when I read One Hundred Years of Solitude.
These intricate relationships might give an explanation for the title: from the perspective of these stories, a perspective that allows the narrator and the reader (but not the character) to embrace and comprehend several fates, suddenly all the correspondences and all the tiny details become visible, all too visible; everything that is too close, and is therefore imperceptible (too pixel-like) from the individual characters’ perspective can be seen from afar. Yet the real joy lies not in seeing the big picture, in acquiring the sharp image. The real joy is when, reading the individual chapters, we vaguely feel that this or that character, setting or object is familiar. That we have been there before. It is worth getting lost in this well-built labyrinth: Krisztina Tóth’s new volume is well-written, funny and smells of life.
Tóth Krisztina: Pixel
Budapest: Magvető, 2011
Review–6th August, 2011
Krisztina Tóth, who has been mainly known as an outstanding poet for more than two decades, has recently published her third book of prose, a collection of thirty short stories, each of them bearing the title of a body part.