The Joke’s on Us
In my first column here, I wrote about the theme of unhappy childhoods in contemporary Hungarian literature, focussing on three books: Szilárd Borbély’s The Dispossessed, Ferenc Barnás’ The Ninth, and György Dragomán’s The White King. Something, I said, all these books have in common is the more or less complete absence of humour in their approach to the subject. Let me develop that thought by looking at another recent Hungarian book, Róbert Milbacher’s The Virgin Mary’s Fiancé.
Humour, for me, is almost never absent from life. It’s absent mostly in art – in tragedy, in things we construct, our interpretations of life – but not usually from life itself. Humour is often dark, or bitter, but it’s almost always there. That’s why I love Catch 22 so much – Joseph Heller somehow manages to capture both the tragedy and the humour of life, often in the same sentence. Humour is not the denial of seriousness, of tragedy, or sadness, or loss; it’s a way of dealing with it.
Of course, some people just don’t have a sense of humour (Arthur Koestler apparently didn’t), but I think with contemporary Hungarian writers, it’s more often a conscious choice, and that’s why I was so glad, about two thirds of the way through Milbacher’s book, to find that it was really funny.
I had started reading the book because I was reviewing it for Hungarian Literature Online, an English-language website on Hungarian literature I co-edit. For some time, I didn’t know what to make of it – and the blurb on the book itself didn’t help at all. It told me that the writer had been a postman, a forestry worker, a herbalist, and was now teaching literature at the University of Pécs. Which, I suppose, is quite an odd career path, but the point of all that, as it later turned out (reading an interview with Milbacher) was to say that he knew what he was talking about. He was writing about a world he knew.
In many ways, this world is similar to those depicted by Szilárd and Barnás, and also to some extent great Hungarian writers of the previous generation, like Ádám Bodor and Miklós Mészöly, a world of eccentric characters in a small village sometime in late Communist Hungary, whose life somehow seems to carry on, day by day, skirting past dangerous taboos, both of the present and the past. The past hangs heavy in Milbacher’s village – the disused Jewish cemetery where the village’s unwanted newborns are secretly buried, and the present too: the Gypsy and non-Gypsy inhabitants are simply unsure about how to get on, how to live together; and what they can, and cannot do to, and with, each other.
There’s a lot of swearing in the book. The book’s narrator is one of the eccentric villagers, and I don’t know what the translators – when the book gets translated – will do with the profanities, but after a while, they’re very funny. They’re very direct, and honest, and lend the voice authenticity, as well as a faint air of ridiculousness. And it was when I suddenly recognised the ridiculous nature of that voice that I realised that Milbacher was kidding. Sort of. What he was writing about was serious, but he wasn’t taking his characters altogether seriously. Or at least, not more seriously than he had to, and that – for me – was the relief that had been lacking, the little extra something I had been looking for in Szilárd, in Dragomán, in Barnás. There are serious things to be said about rural life in Communist Hungary, but let’s not forget that whatever shortages there might have been behind the Iron Curtain, cynicism was never in short supply. Milbacher’s book, for me, therefore reflects a broader truth: humour is everywhere, even in the worst of life.
By Mark Baczoni