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Archive for the ‘Hungarian Literature’ Category

So finally I finished reading this book after a month 😊 I got distracted by tennis for a couple of weeks and didn’t read a word. Before and after that, I was tempted so many times by slim books. I am glad to report that I resisted all those temptations and I told myself that I’m not going to pick up another book till I finish this one, however long it takes. Today, when I finished reading the last page, I was very happy! György Spiró’sCaptivity‘ runs to around 860 pages and it is my first chunkster of the year. I’ve read just 13 chunksters in my whole life, including this one (for me, a chunkster is a book which has more than 800 pages), and so it is a big moment for me. This is also the first Hungarian book that I’ve ever read and so it is one more reason to smile 😊

The story told in the book goes like this. Uri is Jewish, and he lives in Rome at the beginning of the first millennium of the Common Era. He is a Roman citizen. But he is different from other Jewish people around him, because he reads a lot. He spends most of his days in the library. He knows three languages fluently – Greek, Latin and Aramaic – which is unusual for a Jewish person. He has read most of the Greek and Latin classics, and so his way of thinking is very different from the people around him. Sometimes with all the knowledge he has, he questions his own religion. One day his father tells him that he has to go to Jerusalem as part of the annual delegation. It is a huge honour to be chosen as part of that delegation. Uri doesn’t want to, because he loves lounging in the library with his beloved books, but he can’t say ‘No’. What happens during his travels, as Uri goes to Jerusalem, Judaea, Alexandria and other places, and how he is an eyewitness to the great historical happenings of his times, and how that changes his life forms the rest of the story.

Captivity‘ brings alive vividly that period of time at the beginning of the first millennium, when a lot of fascinating things happened. György Spiró has done a lot of research and the story feels real and authentic because of that. We learn a lot about the history of that period, which is fascinating. None of the Roman emperors come out as good – they all become crazy at some point, killing people indiscriminately. The scenes describing war and filled with killing were hard to read – particularly hard to read was the part about the ‘Bane in Alexandria’ which was very violent. My favourite parts were the quieter ones, for example, when Uri is reading a book to a group of illiterate women in the Judaean countryside, who listen to him reading and discuss the story while they are doing their work. György Spiró’s prose is spare and functional and does the job well. There are occasional doses of humour which makes us smile. The pace of the story is not even throughout, which is to be expected of a book of this size. In some places, the history overwhelms the story, and sometimes the Machiavellian machinations of the Roman emperors and politicians are a bit too much for our simple minds. But I’m glad I read through them, because it inspired me to read more on Roman history.

I enjoyed reading ‘Captivity‘. I’m glad and proud to have finished it 😊

I discovered György Spiró’s book through this article, which is about giant translated novels that make a mockery of subway reading 😊 I got many of the books mentioned in the article, but this is only the second one I’ve read. (The first one I read was Minae Mizumura’s ‘A True Novel’). I don’t know anyone else who has read György Spiró’s book (except for Hungarian readers who made it a bestseller). Wish more people read it and enjoy the experience.

Have you read György Spiró’sCaptivity‘? What do you think about it?

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I decided to read the second and third parts of Ágota Kristóf’s trilogy, ‘The Proof‘ and ‘The Third Lie‘, and write about them together. Just finished reading the third and final part. I read this for #ReadIndies hosted by Kaggsy from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. The English translations of these two books are published by Grove Press, an indie publisher based out of New York.

The second part ‘The Proof‘, continues the story from the first part. But Ágota Kristóf dispenses with Rule #2 : ‘No Names’, and gives names to all the characters. The places are still not named though. We see the events unfold from the point of view of one of the twins. New characters make an appearance in the story, as we follow the events of what happens in this small town after Hungary’s occupation by the Soviet Union after the Second World War. The story takes us to the 1956 rebellion in Hungary against Soviet occupation and goes beyond that too. Many of the new characters are interesting, and many of them show kindness, the pure kind of kindness towards unrelated people that human beings are capable of, during times of great difficulty. The weird stuff continues but it does not reach the heights of the first part, though some of them fill in the gaps which are there in the first part. The story ends in an unexpected surprise.

In the third part, ‘The Third Lie‘, Ágota Kristóf decides that she has had enough, and turns everything upside down. This part is filled with stunning revelations which makes us see the whole story in a new light, makes us question everything, makes us contemplate the nature of truth, and ask ourselves whether such a thing called truth exists. It is like reading a murder mystery which is narrated by the detective and looking at all the suspects and following false leads and reaching dead ends and discovering in the last page that the narrator is the murderer. Or it is like reading a book in which the main character has many amazing adventures and undergoes a lot of hardship and overcomes them in the end, and suddenly we discover that the whole story was a dream. This is the kind of stuff which happens in the third part. I’m still not sure about one or two details and I need to go back and review all the three parts together and see whether my understanding is correct.

I enjoyed reading Ágota Kristóf’s trilogy. My favourite was the first part, because of the narrative voice, the sometimes dark humour. I think the second part was a great sequel. The third part was a literary experiment, in my opinion. I don’t know whether Ágota Kristóf planned all the three novels together before she started writing them, or whether she wrote the first one initially and when it became successful beyond all expectations, she decided to write the sequels and wing it on the way and improvised the story. I somehow feel that she did the second thing, because there is a huge difference between the first novel and the next two. We can even read the first novel as a standalone book. But interestingly, the three books also read well together, and look like three parts of one book, though there is a big dividing line between the first part and the next two.

I’m sharing a couple of my favourite excerpts from the book.

Excerpt 1

Young Man : “I know what you’re talking about. I saw things like that with my own eyes, right here in this town.”

Old Man : “You must have been very young.”

Young Man : “I was no more than a child. But I forgot nothing.”

Old Man : “You will forget. Life is like that. Everything goes in time. Memories blur, pain diminishes. I remember my wife as one remembers a bird or a flower. She was the miracle of life in a world where everything seemed light, easy, and beautiful. At first I came here for her, now I come for Judith, the survivor. This night seem ridiculous to you, Lucas, but I’m in love with Judith. With her strength, her goodness, her kindness toward these children who aren’t hers.”

Young Man : “I don’t think it’s ridiculous.”

Old Man : “At my age?”

Young Man : “Age is irrelevant. The essential things matter. You love her and she loves you as well.”

Old Man : “She’s waiting for her husband to return.”

Young Man : “Many women are waiting for or mourning their husbands who are disappeared or dead. But you just said, “Pain diminishes memories blur.”

Old Man : “Diminish, blur, I said, not disappear.”

Excerpt 2

What we print in the newspaper completely contradicts reality. A hundred times a day we print the phrase “We are free,” but everywhere in the streets we see the soldiers of a foreign army, everyone knows that there are many political prisoners, trips abroad are forbidden, and even within the country we can’t go wherever we want. I know because I once tried to rejoin Sarah in the small town of K. I made it to the neighboring village, where I was arrested and sent back to the capital after a night of interrogation.

A hundred times a day we print “We live amidst abundance and happiness,” and at first I think this is true for other people, that Mother and I are miserable and unhappy only because of the “thing,” but Gaspar tells me we’re hardly an exception, that he himself as well as his wife and three children are living more miserably than ever before.

And when I go home from work early in the morning, when I cross paths with people who themselves are on their way to work, I see happiness nowhere, and even less abundance. When I ask why we print so many lies, Gaspar answers, “Whatever you do, don’t ask questions. Do your job and don’t think about anything else.”

Have you read Ágota Kristóf’s trilogy? What do you think about it?

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I was inspired by a friend to get Ágota Kristóf’sThe Notebook‘ and read it. For a long time, I thought that Ágota Kristóf was the European / Hungarian version of Agatha Christie 😊 Ágota Kristóf is a totally different author, of course, and very different from Agatha Christie. I read this for #ReadIndies hosted by Kaggsy from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. The English translation of ‘The Notebook’ that I read is published by Grove Press, an indie publisher based out of New York.

The story told in ‘The Notebook’ happens during the time of the Second World War. A mother takes her two young twin sons and leaves them at their grandmother’s place. The grandmother is a tough customer but the twins manage to handle the situation. The story is narrated by the twins together as they describe their life at their grandmother’s place, the people they meet, the new things they learn, the friends they make, how the war years pass, and the challenges they and their grandmother face together. In such a short book, Ágota Kristóf manages to squeeze in Hungarian small-town life during the war, Kristallnacht, the Holocaust, the relationship between the German soldiers and the Hungarian citizens, how the life of a gay person was at that time, the meaninglessness of war, the Russian liberation of Hungary and its not-so-nice aftermath. It is fascinating.

All this assumes a powerful significance, because Ágota Kristóf does a fascinating thing – she follows Rule #2 religiously and meticulously till the end. Rule #2 is ‘No Names’. There are no names in the book! None of the characters have names, none of the places or countries have names, none of the events have names! Nothing! Nada! It is amazing! I don’t know how Ágota Kristóf manages to pull this off, but she does! I still can’t stop marvelling at her ingenuity! It just shows how little a talented writer needs to tell a powerful story.

The other interesting thing about the book is the twin narrators’ voice. I have never read a book before in which two narrators speak in one unified voice. It is fascinating. The voice of the two twins is beautiful and charming. It had a simplicity, innocence and directness to it, that it made me smile throughout the book. The narrative voice was one of my favourite things about the book. The way the twins navigate every tricky situation in simple, direct ways is wonderful to read.

I’ve shared a couple of chapters from the book below, to give you a feel for the beautiful narrative voice. Hope you like them.

I loved the depiction of the relationship between the grandmother and the twins – how it starts and how it grows, and how the grandmother and the twins love each other, and how the grandmother’s love is old-fashioned, tough and gruff. It was my most favourite part of the book.

My review wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention this. There are some weird things which happen in the middle of the book. But like a nice, well-behaved kid, I’m going to sweep that below the carpet and not talk about it  But if you are planning to read the book, I thought I should warn you – there is some weird stuff out there.

The story ends in a kind of cliff-hanger. I can’t wait to read the second part, ‘The Proof‘, and find out what happened next. The second part was originally published two years after the first part. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for the original readers to wait for so long, to find out what happened next.

Have you read Ágota Kristóf’sThe Notebook‘? What do you think about it?

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