Zsófia Bán’s first prose work, Night School, is being translated by Jim Tucker for upcoming publication in the US. It’s rather an unusual work, defined by its dark humour and subversive blurring of the boundaries between knowledge and fiction.
Night School is a fictional primary-school textbook, complete with images in the margins that the reader is invited to cut out and paste onto the back of the dust jacket, where appropriate spaces have been drawn for them. There are little tasks in text boxes at the end of each chapter, just like in a school textbook, and the narrative itself starts off in the tone one would expect from a Hungarian school textbook…and then comes the twist. The tone shifts and wanders from simple pre-school subjects to the darkest and most weighty adult concerns, bringing in history, identity, sexuality, and relationships. The movement is effortless, almost imperceptible, bearing you along in the inexorable current of the narration.
Bán started off as (and continues to be) an academic. She has taught at ELTE University in Budapest since the late 1980s; this is her first foray into fiction. It is no accident that she chose this slightly unusual form, which is a reflection of the crisis of doubt of someone who has spent most of their adult life teaching and eventually finds themselves wondering: what for? What is all this good for, and how much of it is getting through? The book questions the way we pass on knowledge. Is the knowledge you get in school really useful knowledge that will help you make your way through life? Or is it just knowledge you’re expected to know, because it’s easy to test – a simple measure of learning?
In a way, the author is teasing us, and cocking a snook at the school system that greeted her as a 12 year-old returning from an American school in Brazil to Communist Hungary (where her parents had been posted and where she had grown up) that was both closed and ideologically committed. The thinking, then, was limited, and the knowledge in the textbooks steeped in ideology. In this book, that school system has met its match – subversive and funny, by turns dark and sometimes a little shocking, it invites us to question as adults what we took for granted as children.
And it couldn’t be more timely – because in this part of the world, it seems that cultural wars in education are once more raging.
By Mark Baczoni