Hungry in Hungary

Theme:  Eastern Europe

Ferenc Barnas’
novel, The Ninth, resides in misery.  The kind of misery that only a large, stridently Catholic family living in Communist Budapest in 1968 can fathom.  What saves the reader from enduring the same misery and oppression is the sweet and wise voice of the nine year old narrator, a hapless victim of the double barreled gun of Communism and Catholicism.  Having been born into a family of eleven children(one died-perhaps he knew better), he is the ninth, one of the Little Ones as categorized by the family.  Nine of the children live at home, one being married, and these nine children starve and work their way through a joyless childhood without the knowledge to know that a better, or at least, different world exists.  Their father, shunned by the Communists because of his faith, becomes a microcosm of the Communist system-stealing their monthly state food supplement to buy supplies for their devotional rosary business, having the nine children sleep on three beds and forcing his wife to sell her engagement ring to buy food for the family while she goes hungry.

And there’s lots of hunger, yearning for food, thinking about food, throughout this novel.   And we’re talking food as sustenance on many levels–from the burning pit of starvation to the moral crumbs that serve as short palliative respites for the abuse and the cruelty the people in this novel must endure.  The father is in the midst of building a big house that will have an indoor bathroom and a single bed for each person.  In order to get the money to fund this house, the children all work in the evening making rosaries and devotional items.  After a typical dinner of toast and many cups of tea, they sit down to meet the rosary quota expected by the father.  Our narrator’s miserable life isn’t limited to the home-front, no, he also has trouble speaking and writing which makes school another place that is a challenging and unrewarding.  He has a friend, Donalics and he likes the teacher, Miss Vera.  Our narrator is so abused, that he can’t even understand hatred or anger when he feels it:

My problem is that as soon as I hear Papa’s voice my belly gets all knotted up.  Even until I wrote him a letter it was like this, but since then, it’s been worse.  I have no idea how doing it occurred to me at all and how I even dared to do it, but I did.  That day I finished my homework fast, and then asked Donalics for a blank sheet of paper, since my notebook was full.  And the I wrote down everything I wanted to.  I wrote:  Please don’t call my big sister fat.  And:  Give the child benefits to Mama, because at the village council office that’s supposed to come to us.  And also:  Please don’t whip the backs of my big brothers and sisters with a belt.  Then I folded the sheet and, after getting home, stuck it under Papa’s pillow.

When he called me out to the kitchen the next evening and said, “I want a word with you, son,” I thought I was really going to get it.  But I didn’t.  Papa had me sit down on his and began talking as quietly as can be.  All I can remember are snippets, like, “You can’t yet understand this, son,” and  “Don’t dare do such a thing again, son,” and “If you don’t tell anyone else, I won’t give you a whipping right this instant.”

Escaping the obvious metaphorical relationship between the father and Communism is impossible.  And although it may seem that this novel, because of it’s honesty and brutality, would be difficult for the reader to survive, Barnas subtly and bravely delivers a nine year with a speech impediment and enough innocence to keep us reading and wondering how he remain a child with a modicum of goodness. The church does offer a reprieve to our nine year old by letting him serve at funerals where he begins to earn pocket money.  Though, temptation does make its way into the story through an object.  Miss Vera’s unguarded black purse.  We see our narrator walking right into this evil temptation, but Barnas makes us feel so sympathetic we have to understand ho one could easily fall prey to such temptation.  Especially after Donalics hangs himself during the summer break.  Right after our narrator steals for the first time from Miss Vera’s purse, Barnas stays in first person but switches to a stream-of-consciousness that let’s deeper into our narrator’s head and how he feels about his life:

BLESSED IS THE FRUIT OF YOUR WOMB, GODDAMNIT FUCKING HELL/i’m on the way/ miss vera spoke to me, i obeyed others, too, i only hope they won’t make me talk/i threw my village council pullover in the trash bin by the market sqaure, where mr. pista was found last week, we couldn’t serve at his funeral/ little zsusi and her brother would surely have been happy to have us there, they attend school number one, where kerepesi went before joingin us, one time we met up in front of the butcher’s, right after seeing the lady/ a plastic bag in her hand/ she seemed older than mama, it hit me right away what she was up to, so we have something in common, that’s what i was thinking while standing in line’ she was wearing a yellow raincoat, i couldn’t get a better look/ my father can suck in his gut, too, from the closet i saw what it’s really like when he pulls the belt out of his pants, not once have we been able to check mama on this score, nanny’s different, while cuddling she lets us look, she can’t imagine we’d be thinking anything bad:  before i step into the butcher’s i hear miss vera’s voice/ you’re feeling sick, little la, go one home and lie down!/ i was sitting there on the bench and would probably have stayed put if szabo hadn’t given my arm a shake/ didn’t you hear what miss vera said? snapped szabo and kicked my shoe, the one with the money in it:  i get in line, there are four people ahead of me, and as the butcher man tends to them i practice inside my head what i am to say/ the ten-forint bill is in my hand, so i stole three dead people out of miss vera’s handbag/

It’s difficult to make a nine year narrator compelling, much less substantive enough to express complexity and strength of voice.  Precisely why Barnas is one of Hungary’s premier writers, though this is only his third novel, the first translated into English.  Semi-autobiographical and forthright, The Ninth is a potent combination of sorrow and black humor that takes of off-guard.  If you’re looking to not just read a Hungarian author, but one the conveys the hardship of Hungary’s past, Barnas is your man, if you can take it.

The Ninth
Ferenc Barnas
Translated from the Hungarian by Paul Olchvary(sublime translation)
Northwestern University Press
159 pages
ISBN: 9780810126022

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