Translated from the Polish by Stephanie Kraft
(Philadelphia, PA: Paul Dry Books, 2016)
“Only a man who is suffocating knows what an open window is,” Istvan Terey, a Hungarian poet serving as a diplomat in India, tells his Australian lover Margit Ward, an ophthalmologist who works among the poor. The couple’s affair is a central plot line of Stone Tablets, but the book’s true grappling is with something more complex and far-reaching than the future of their relationship. Increasingly, the subject of their heated conversations is the future of Hungary, Hungary’s relationship with the world, and Istvan’s relationship to home. As Margit longs for Istvan to join her in Australia, imagining it to be the perfect staging ground not only for their relationship but also for his true literary quality, the book becomes a prism through which Wojciech Zukrowski asks: Which loyalties define us? Which aspects of our identity can we leave behind and still be ourselves?
Stephanie Kraft’s English translation is the first rendering of this book in the language in which Istvan and Margit communicate. When she meets him at a mutual friend’s wedding, Margit prefers to replace his first name with something familiar: ““Ist-van,” she said, pronouncing it with an English inflection, like a polite little girl learning a lesson. “Couldn’t I change it to Terry? I had a dog by that name.” His quick assent to be called whatever she likes sets up a dynamic that challenges Istvan’s convictions and land him in hot water with his colleagues at the Hungarian consulate.
Stone Tablets, one of Wojciech Zukrowski’s more than forty books, was first published in Polish in 1966. Its arrival into the hands of English readers was complicated by the fact that both its original printings and early translation into Czech faced censors. Kraft writes of its first Polish edition that, “a new print run was delayed due to political pressure from Hungary, whose leaders resented the novel’s sympathetic depiction of the revolt of 1956.” This past October, Hungarians commemorated the sixtieth anniversary of the revolution. Contemplating the staggering half century – and all of the geopolitical upheaval – that occurred before this novel wound its way into what is currently the world’s lingua franca, it is not surprising that the book feels like a relic of a very particular moment in time and space.
Zukrowski’s mammoth, sprawling novel is an intense portrayal of a man experiencing violent upheaval and seismic change in his homeland from the other side of the world. Amidst lush scenes in crowded New Delhi streets and rural Indian villages, the book chronicles Terey’s struggle to understand the 1956 Hungarian Revolution from thousands of miles away. He is a husband and father whose family remains in Budapest where the uprising is taking place, an idealistic poet who hopes for a more just regime, and a cultural attaché who must navigate the treacherous politics of his embassy, led by bellicose ambassador Kalman Bajcsy who wants to preserve his position at all costs. Bajcsy watches which way the winds will blow while Terey seems to be searching for a more stable port for all storms, if such an ideological lighthouse exists.
But the uprising becomes a crucible in which Terey measures the limits of his connection with Margit. While he worries about whether Budapest will burn, he sees her as someone who has an entire continent as her birthright, one that has never seen a threat on its soil, a place she imagines they can both live happily ever after. Their love affair is Terey’s main preoccupation when he is not following what little information he can get from Hungary, but it is far from the novel’s only plot. There’s also the travails of Ram Kanval, a painter who desperately seeks Terey’s patronage to go to Europe where his art can be appreciated, the scheming of the well-connected lawyer Chandra whose business card reads “philanthrophist,” and the mysterious return from the dead of an heir to a large fortune.
All of this is presented in gorgeous scene, with the landscape almost a character itself: “Twilight fell quickly; the sky turned green. The odors of open sewers and garlicky sweat and the cloying sweet fragrances of hair oils gusted in through the car windows.”
From furtive conversations with colleagues at the embassy where he works in New Delhi, news cables, diplomatic releases, letters from a journalist friend at home in Budapest where the power struggle unfolds, headlines, and a devastating news reel shown at the cinema, Terey clings to the ideal that “I can’t work without having faith that there is some sense in what I’m doing.” On reading a letter from his estranged and embattled family in Budapest, “he felt as if he were reaching for an apple someone else had gnawed from the other side.” The love between Istvan and his wife is, we gather, stale, and yet what she as well as his best friend Bela experience during the uprising brings a troubling realization about his new lover:
A sudden pain pierced him, for he was certain that Margit would never understand all that Bela’s letter conveyed, and what it meant to him. Though she loved and was loved, she would not be one of them.
Ultimately, this is a deeply satisfying and provocative exploration of both a specific era in history and the universal, timeless paradox of free will.
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Cynthia-Marie Marmo O’Brien writes and edits in New York. Her nonfiction on faith, depression and the imagination from the Bellevue Literary Review was a notable selection in Best American Essays 2011. She has contributed to America: The National Catholic Review, Killing the Buddha, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Narratively, Real Pants, The Rumpus, and Words Without Borders: Dispatches, among other publications. A graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program, she has taught writing in the United States and Europe. Find more from her at her website or @CMMOB on Twitter.