04 April 2011

Monday Book Review!

Monday Book Review is back!  Today's reviewed book differs from the rest: it's fiction.  Édes Anna by Kosztolányi Dezső is a famous Hungarian novel and one I read during my last few weeks in Budapest this summer.  I had a great desire to read in Hungarian, but since I could barely handle grocery shopping with ease, I had to compromise with a piece of Hungarian literature.  For those unfamiliar with Hungarian, I need to explain that names are written with the family name first and first name second.  The title of the book in English translations is Anna Édes by Desző Kosztolányi.  The one I read was published by New Directions and translated by George Szirtes

Kosztolányi was a writer and poet.  His earliest works were in the Nyugat (West) literary magazine in the early years after the magazine was founded in 1908.  Nyugat is considered one of the most influential literary magazines in Hungary's history.  He had also worked as a journalist for a Budapest daily and published books of poetry.  Kosztolányi is an important author in the 20th century and Anna Édes is his finishing work.  I had picked the book up on a whim at an English bookstore not too far from Szent István Baszilika on Hercegprimás utca.  When I mentioned to a Hungarian coworker that I was reading the book, she expressed her delight, but also lamented, "There is so much in Hungarian that does not translate.  It would be much more beautiful in Hungarian."  As a reader of German literature, I completely understand what she meant.  At the same time, I could only imagine the distance between English and Hungarian is greater than English and German.  The introduction by Szirtes is useful because he points out several aspects that don't translate.

The primary problem with the translation is that the forms of address are not preserved.  In Hungarian, there are several levels of deference.  Casual, formal, and higher formal (which is rather archaic in contemporary society) are all used in particular ways.  Many European languages have more formal pronouns, but Hungarian has several and they must be used properly.  It is a slight to have someone address you formally and then you address them informally, unless it is acknowledged that you are above the person addressing you.  This makes more sense when you start learning Hungarian, but I'm not going to go into a language lesson.  Szirtes points out that these pre-war forms of address have no translations in English but "denote subtle distinctions in civil society".  He tried to preserve this in the book with other methods, but I do think that the subtlety of the forms of address is needed.  I feel as though it's like a British comedy of manners, which requires some understanding of social structure and subversive behaviors in order for it to be funny.  He also addresses the Hungarian place names used in the book, which was hardly an issue for me, but for those who have no understanding of Hungarian, it's useful.

The novel begins in 1919, a pivotal year in Hungarian history.  After the Aster Revolution in 1918, Kun Béla declared Hungary the Hungarian Soviet Republic, which lasted from March to August 1919.  The opening chapter of the book is Béla escaping the country by plane and subsequently dropping a gold chain over Vérmező (Field of Blood).  The Vizy family is bourgeoisie and with the Bolsheviks losing power, there is a peculiar balance between Marxist values and a return to the old social order.  Everyone anticipates returning to their social rank, though the servants are beginning to act unruly.  The Vizys find this to be true of their maid Katica, who barely does work and spends her evenings with a sailor.  Mrs. Vizy is desperate to find a better maid and finds Anna through her uncle.  She is working with another family, but the Vizys manage to lure her in and hire her.  At first, Mrs. Vizy is a bundle of nerves; she's afraid of how dependent she is on Anna and carefully watches her to keep control.  Eventually, the Vizys grow comfortable with Anna's dependability and remarkable work ethic.  She becomes practically a slave for the Vizys as they keep control over her.  The heartless situation grows worse when Jancsi, the raggamuffin nephew, stays with them and seduces Anna on a whim.  Once conquered, she receives no special treatment from Jancsi and he ignores her.  The narration suggests that she aborted a baby as a result of that union, but it is not long after Jancsi leaves for a new job.  She later entertains a marriage proposal from a good man, a chimney sweep, but the Vizys guilt her into refusing him and remaining in their household.

Her slavery in the Vizy household continues, but the narrator of the book gives us no insight into Anna, nor do her actions clue the reader in.  She's a closed book, but one can see that she has been completely abused.  The Vizys have collectively dehumanized her, emotionally abused her into staying and not marrying, and, in the case of Jancsi, sexually abused her as well.  She merely serves their whims and they give no thought to her at all.  Then, Anna snaps.  Once evening after a dinner party, she enters the Vizys' bedroom and stabs both of them until they die.  After committing the murders, she merely washes herself and falls asleep.  The police come in the morning and discover the atrocity, which she does not deny doing.  She is then arrested and put up for trial.  She is forthcoming with her answers, but during the trial, witnesses testify to the Vizys' generosity and good treatment of the girl.  Only one person, Dr. Moviszter, stands up for Anna to declare that the Vizys dehumanized her.  The book ends with Anna's prison sentence of fifteen years.  But then a chapter follows in which life continues as normal.

The books is exceptionally dark and undoubtedly a pointed social commentary.  Dr. Moviszter's defense of Anna is the pinnacle of the whole book.  The judge declares that his assessment of the Vizys' behavior is not a fact––"Then these are only feelings, doctor, mere suspicions, such delicate shades of behaviour that this bench, faced by such a brutal and terrible crime, can hardly take into account.  Because on one side, we have facts: bloody facts.  And we too require facts."  The social pecking order comes clearly into view when Anna's actions needed defense.  She does not voice the abuse she received, perhaps she considered it part of her station, but the horrible deeds never come to light.  Regardless of the motive, she would have to pay for the crime, but the public view on the matter is clear from the beginning of the trial.  In a way, it is a mock trial that reestablishes the pre-war social order.  Her motives remain a mystery, even at the conclusion of the book.  Kosztolányi must have purposely made Anna unknowable to further the commentary.  The Vizys are supposed to be the important part of the puzzle, but in fact, they are not. Society does not know Anna and nor does the reader.  The author knows that such opaqueness is what drives the plot and makes the conclusion so compelling.  This book is a great piece of fiction, regardless of its origin, and takes what was a timely topic and made it a timeless piece on class distinctions.

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