Sándor Bazsányi: A formal exercise

How can one, in spite of all the doubts and technical obstacles, tell the story of someone growing up in Budapest and its surroundings during the 60s and the 70s? How can one create a classically structured story with the help of modern and even postmodern techniques?

Although, in a sense, Fairy Vale is a classical bildungsroman, it has nothing to do with sentimentality or naivety. Endre Kukorelly’s novel is an ironical piece of work. The author knows very well that in recent times both the natural cosiness of the naïve soul and man’s basically sentimental longing for idyll has been in danger. Telling us about the difficulties of growing up, a special moment of beauty is present in the very title of the book: the chance meeting of the natural-naïve (Fairy Vale) and the arty-sentimental (Riddles on the Heart of Man) on the dissecting table of the ironic mind.

However, in spite of this special moment of beauty, it would be impossible to deny that Fairy Vale is an overtly, almost disturbingly over-interpreted snake of a text. And I do not mean the difficulties of reading, though I could do so. To me, the desire for the possibility of classical storytelling, the difficulties of fulfilling this wish and Kukorelly’s obsessed desire for finding a suitable genre are much more important. How can one, in spite of all the doubts and technical obstacles, tell the story of someone growing up in Budapest and its surroundings during the 60s and the 70s? How can one create a classically structured story with the help of modern and even postmodern techniques? Fairy Vale, with its various sorts of texts made into a novel, tells us about both the author’s determination and weakness. The novel’s main value lays in the fact that Kukorelly does not aim to duck, obscure or romanticise the difficulties of the genre, rather, he maintains a questioning attitude. This questioning quality, furthermore, raises further and further questions. While the sentimental soul, mourning the death of epic wholeness, could find partial consolation in the form of the modern novel (Flaubert), for the ironic mind it is the very form, the form of the traditional novel that becomes totally uninhabitable (Musil). This new loose, open form, of course, makes the novel more difficult to read, requiring a creative effort from the reader. It is hard work, but it is worth it, so let us begin.

Fairy Vale is an amazing document of the soul incapable of fully growing up and forced into a mature role. Kukorelly, unlike most of us, was able to preserve the childhood experience of the material nature of language. In spite of his maturity, he can still be surprised by a word, amused by a turn of phrase or distracted by an epithet. He can still play with language. Care for language. On the other hand, he can force himself on language: ‘The place where I am, the people in tracksuits, the exhaust gas of motor vans, all the various invariables: I am the one who makes them up, I am the one who forms them, and I am the one who’s had enough of them.’ Kukorelly’s world is a closed, self-contained, autonomous world; similar to that of the child who constantly changes the rules of the game while playing. But what happens when the freedom of childhood is over, when the obligations of full maturity come into view? When, for example, a male reaches military age?

Military service, not unlike language, is based on certain rules; it does not require from us to ask what it essentially means, nor does it require from us to revolt against it; it only requires from us to submit to it. In a sense, the whole institution of obligatory military service is for teaching us how to forget about our maturity-induced existential questions and doubts. So that, the arch-primitivism of childhood over, we can dissolve in a mature neo-primitivism, a matter-of-factness which takes over the place of the pointlessly complex personality.

‘I follow the one before me (…) I do what the others do. They do what I do. I do not have any buttons on my shirt. // Nor do the others…’ And if, in a sense, everyone is alike, ‘the same body’, ‘the same red heart muscle’, than there is no point in taking each other seriously, in mistaking this essential sameness for some kind of difference to be fought against. There are differences, of course, but these are strictly practical ones. Let me refer to the most frequent, almost monotonously repeated motif of the book: you cannot ‘suck off’ everyone, but there is no point in overvaluing this fact. Besides the motif of giving oral pleasure, what does Kukorelly’s book tell us about the most personal sentiments and values of maturity, such as love, marriage and family?

‘Get married and you will regret it; do not get married and you will regret it; get married or do not get married, you will regret both; either you get married or you don’t, you will regret both.’ The existential dilemma of the nineteenth-century Danish philosopher, Kierkegaard, dissipates in a rather functional way in Kukorelly’s highbrow neo-primitivism. ‘I did not decide not to marry. I would almost like to think I wanted to, though it did not happen. Maybe I just did not feel like making formal faces.’ And: ‘This book is not meant to be about C, this book is meant to be about family happiness. About whether there is such a thing as f. h. There is not.’ Family or family happiness is like military service. It is a place where one has to play a certain game according to certain rules. The book reflects the childish attitude of the grown-up man who is not mature enough to cope with certain things, such as family happiness. For family happiness (or unhappiness) is a game for two or more players, a game in which players not only play their roles, but also constantly try to maintain the dialogue with one another. The inarticulate arch-primitivism of the child is replaced by the articulate neo-primitivism of the grown-up. Remembering his childhood, the grown-up man fills in the void of family happiness by writing a novel about it, thus recreating the missing continuity between the child character and the grown-up author. So, in spite of all the in-built difficulties and peculiarities of style, the story is complete, the novel is finished.

The title of the chapter on family happiness is No (Nem), and it is followed by the last chapter titled Don’t (Ne). Denial intensifies into prohibition. Moreover, intensification of meaning goes along with simplification of form. Kukorelly’s Fairy Vale is an overtly simple and intense formal exercise in the shape of a lengthy novel. Like military service. And it is not just an empty show, like most of what we call family happiness.

Sándor Bazsányi

Translated by Dóra Elekes