In October last year, I wrote a #RivetingReview for this website of Alessandro Baricco’s The Young Bride in which I admired the novel’s constantly shifting perspective; something I dubbed a ‘fuel-injected free indirect style’.
In the European Union Prize For Literature-winning Seeing People Off, Slovak playwright, poet and novelist Jana Beňová attempts a similar trick, but, in my opinion, with less success.
Seeing People Off focusses on ‘the quartet’ – two couples living in and around contemporary Bratislava. Adopting a range of points of view, Beňová describes their lives as they write, have affairs, come together each day at a café, take summer trips, reflect on their childhoods, and, importantly, age. Sometimes we are in third person; sometimes a character narrates specific incidents; occasionally, we catch a glimpse of the author herself. However, while Baricco’s approach results in a kind of literary cubism, in which the multiple angles combine to create a striking new entity, Beňová’s efforts make her characters for the most part disappointingly faceless. Whether it is Elza describing her affair with an actor, or the omniscient narrator commenting on this affair, both Elza and her beau feel flat. Flattened, it feels to me, by the switching point of view, which is not matched by any variation in style.
This is not to say that there aren’t some stand-out moments in this novel. Beňová, and her translator, Janet Livingstone, render Petržalka – a vast, socialist-era suburb of Bratislava – in vivid terms:
In Petržalka apartments, all the walls play music and talk. […] Time stands still. Radios are tuned to the same station for years. And when Elza meets a ‘strange boy’ on her way home, danger arrives suddenly; she says good bye, but chillingly, …the stranger still managed to bite her on the neck.
While these incidents are intriguing and take place against a powerfully described backdrop, the people who experience them still feel vague to me. I cannot distinguish between Elza and Rebeka, between Ian and Elfmann. (It is revealing that I had to check back to see who had her neck bitten.)
Perhaps, though, Beňová is taking an active literary decision here. In the briefest of chapters towards the end of the book, she states that she has written under ‘various pseudonyms’ and lists the novel’s characters. But what I was always called she says, is Play, Spot! – like a dog, or a jukebox. By writing via a rotating ‘jukebox selection’ of characters, or under the generic name for a generic hound, is Beňová in fact ‘seeing herself off’?
The following chapter – which, significantly, bears the book’s title – provides a counterpoint to this reading. In startlingly moving scenes, Ian’s mother retreats into dementia, losing her language, her ability to eat, and finally refusing to wear her false teeth. But as ‘Mama’ loses her humanity, her personality seems more clearly drawn, to the point where she becomes the book’s most memorable character. In ‘seeing her off’, Beňová engraves her on the reader’s consciousness.
The living characters, on the other hand, slip away, leaving little mark. And perhaps this is Beňová’s intention. As the book closes, Under the apartment door a very small and fast dog slides in unseen, accompanied by wordless pinging sounds. It is as if the text, the author and her characters simply evanesce …
By West Camel
Seeing People Off
Written by Jana Beňová
Translated by Janet Livingstone
Published by Two Dollar Radio (2017)
West Camel is a writer, reviewer and editor. He edited Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2015, and is currently working for new press Orenda Books. www.westcamel.net.
Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of STONE UPON STONE by Wiesław Myśliwski
Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of A TREATISE ON SHELLING BEANS by Wiesław Myśliwski
Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of THE YOUNG BRIDE by Alessandro Baricco
Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of VILLA TRISTE by Patrick Modiano
Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of THE BROTHER by Rein Raud
Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of ISTANBUL ISTANBUL by Burhan Sönmez
Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of CRÉ NA CILLE by Máirtin Ó Cadhain