A HUNGARIAN NOVEL
Novel (Libri), 2011, 176 pages
Publication: 2011. 09. 26.
„A man cannot touch a woman and go unpunished.”
It is a windy, cold September night in 1936 when a well-off gentleman, unable to sleep, crosses the Franz Josef Bridge in Budapest, finding a twenty-something girl there stubbornly staring the river with grim thoughts in her head. They start talking, and finish the night in a shabby little hotel from where the older gentleman swiftly disappears before the break of dawn, going back to his wife and family, and leaving a note for the girl to arrange another rendez-vous for the following day. But what if these two already knew each other, from another one-night-stand one and a half year ago? And what if from that first encounter, a little boy was born, now living in the countryside with foster parents, his mother not being able to support him? And what if the elderly gentleman, finding his youthful vigor and lust for life reanimated by the girl younger than his adult daughters, is in fact the great Hungarian writer Zsigmond Móricz (1879-1942), the pride of the nation, the favourite of elegant salons and one of the brightest stars of literary life?
The stunning debut novel of Dávid Barna tells the story of this unconventional relationship, leading the reader through the different stages of a passionate and uneasy liaison with uncompromising frankness from their first – or second – night through their more-or-less established life together in the writer’s country house until the illness and death of the great man. Móricz introduces Kati to the world as his foster daughter, and after his separation from his second wife, a famous actress, takes her to his house officially as a housekeeper. He visits his illegitimate son regularly, and later brings him over too in order to ensure his education. But when Móricz falls ill and dies after some dreary and heart-rending days of agony, his family immediately throws Kati and her son out of the house, her only hope for survival being the little job her protector arranged for her some years before his passing.
Later she marries a lawyer and they open a little second hand bookshop in Budapest – but history doesn’t leave much place for domestic idylls in the 1940’s, and soon they find themselves printing illegal papers in the attic of the shop and saving Jewish children from the Budapest ghetto: among them, a young boy who is later to become the novel’s author’s father. It is because of this surprising twist that A Hungarian Novel is way more than just the imaginary portrait of a great writer and his last mistress and muse: it is also a confession of the young author, a second-generation Holocaust survivor and son of an assimilate Jewish family, moving to Israel after high school with his brother to reclaim his long-lost cultural and religious identity. If it wasn’t for Móricz’s mistress who saved his father, Dávid Barna wouldn’t be here with us today. It is because of this that he endevours to retrace the story of this extraordinary woman, who from a poor orphan girl first became a mistress, then from a mistress a muse, then from a muse – a hero.
Since the novel is more about private affairs and relations, and the life work of Móricz serves rather as a backdrop for the story, it is not necessary for the reader to be familiar with the writings of Zsigmond Móricz or his place in the history of Hungarian literature in order to enjoy this thin little masterpiece. Even more so that on the other hand, A Hungarian Novel gives a unique portrait of everyday life in the Hungary of the thirties and the fourties, with a vivid atmosphere and fast-paced dialogues worthy of the best film scripts.
Dávid Barna was born in 1982 in Budapest. After studying in Budapest, he left the country for Israel after high school. He graduated at the University of Tel Aviv, and currently lives in Jerusalem. A Hungarian Novel is his first book. Read more about the author