Translated from the Hungarian by Paul Olchvary
(New York, NY: New Directions, 2013)
Every summer, my family and I embark on a week-long vacation to rural New Hampshire. There is a small “old world” style resort there, replete with century old cottages, tennis and golf, and a communal dining hall with a large bell, the ringing of which summons every guest in town to their three daily meals. You order Welsh Rarebit or Roast Butts of Beef for dinner, then stroll along the lake, ears searching for the trademark call of the loons that emerge at sunset. The appeal of such a place is not excitement, but the act of waiting for some little thing to happen somewhere: an interesting bird, the peculiar creek of a rocking chair, a kid on the golf course who comically whiffs. It is a form of suspended animation. Day-to-day routines dissolve in favor of understated moments of satisfaction. I return each year to re-convince myself, for one week, that time might be just an illusion, as meaningless and inconsequential as the pebbles of Har-Tru that scatter across the boundary lines of the tennis court.
Like my New Hampshire retreat, Ádám Bodor’s The Sinistra Zone thrives on the way it pulls me out of time. But rather than the laid-back easiness of New England in July, Bodor uses his timeless world as a grim backdrop against which a large cast of quirky and offbeat, yet inept and seemingly nihilistic, characters are enslaved by the absurd tasks that typify their daily lives. They fend off deadly, plague infected birds; suffer the loss of an entire ear only to absently remark, “Hmm. Damn it. I must have hit something”; they have sex while cross-country skiing through treacherous terrain; and ponder the nature of a supernatural umbrella that turns into a bat as it floats over the elusive, snow covered hills of Eastern Europe. They don’t eat Welsh Rarebit, but foraged mushrooms, scavenged roots, and gummy bear candies.
Ostensibly, the core figure around which these bizarre, loosely connected escapades swirl is Andrei Bodor, a “wayfarer” who ventures into the titular region to search for his estranged son. This family plot thread is a red herring, providing the faintest aroma of a traditional narrative arc. Instead, the novel bounces between the various odd-jobs Andrei performs—wild berry expert, corpse watchman, cement hauler—and, in particular, his sexual desire for a local woman. Without a structured plot to keep things moving, Andrei and I both lose all sense of chronology. When recounting his first day as corpse watchman—an esteemed position in the Sinistra valley for reasons that remain tantalizingly vague—Andrei reveals his displacement in time: “On that memorable day—I must have thought it was a Thursday—I had been keeping a lookout for Mustafa Mukkerman, the Turkish trucker.” Later in the chapter, Andrei meets up with a local friend, “and in the course of conversation it turned out that it wasn’t Thursday but, at most, Wednesday. So then, my first day of work in the Dobrin morgue probably fell on a Wednesday.” Andrei’s reflective detachment from the basic units of time is not unique in the Sinistra valley. The entire population is in a stupor.
Not only do the characters seem lost in time, but the novel itself seems approximate, or rather, loosely structured. The number of years over which events take place is never clear, and chapters often begin in a time and place totally disconnected from where the previous chapter left off. It backtracks, jumps forward, repeats entire scenes almost verbatim, weaves in and out of first- and third-person narration, and is eager to reveal the grisly deaths, still years away and irrelevant to the story, of its main characters. Although Coca Mavrodin, the authoritarian leader of the valley and all around hard-ass, remains an important figure throughout the entire novel, we are told of her eventual death very early on, in an off-hand manner, as though the years in between either don’t exist or are otherwise irrelevant. This intrusion of the future is jarring, and yet, the resulting prose is some of the book’s most beautiful:
[Coca] was caught unprepared by a freezing rain, and, motionless, like a sleeping moth, she froze into a crystalline mass under the ice. Later the wind tipped over this block of ice, which broke to pieces and melted, like that. In its place remained only a pile of rags that smelled of dead bugs and that was, yes, pinned all over with a colonel’s stars.
The essential joy of The Sinistra Zone is found in these moments. Unhinged from any semblance of chronology, these little passages and scenes burst off the page with their singularity, and ultimately function as the structural lynchpin that keeps the novel together. I followed along happily to the end not because I cared about Andrei’s son or his mistress, but because the bizarro-world nature of the Sinistra Valley leads to so many fascinating moments, where Bodor’s plainspoken prose, translated by Paul Olchváry, lingers over an image and I am able to enjoy the view, such as it is. In the untethered strangeness of this world, these moments are a reminder that unshackling the constraints of time can be a very satisfying feeling.
| | |
Cory Johnston is the Books Editor of The Literary Review.