Ágota Bozai: Tranzit Glória (To err is divine) Novel, 310 pages (Hungary, 1998)
The novel is set in present-day Hungary. But the story could take place anywhere in Western Europe as well.
Anna Kuncz, a widow, is a secondary-school teacher in a small city on Lake Balaton. Her retirement is not long off. Before the nation’s transition to a market economy, she was able to round out her modest teaching salary by moving into the garage during the summer months and renting her flat to East and West German families who could meet only in Hungary. With the reunification of the two Germanies, this source of income disappeared and the number of foreign tourists on Lake Balaton fast dwindled. Although more recently Anna was able to earn her much-needed extra income by dishwashing and baking pastries at a restaurant in the summer months, poverty would surely have been her lot from retirement on.
Her husband died in the 1956 revolution. Anna lives alone. Usually she spends her evenings reading at home. Her only child, a son, lives in America and visits Hungary rarely.
One night after her bath Anna discovers a peculiar, palpable light around her head. A halo. The sort seen on the illustrations of saints. She has no idea what has happened to her. The phenomenon is odd in no small part because the aging teacher has been an atheist for as long as she can remember. Never did she attend church, and she knows even the Bible only as a literary work; and that merely to the extent that the curriculum in her own school days required it. When she studied at college and began her teaching career in the socialist era, one could garner career-building Brownie points by embarrassing some theologian with questions such as, “Did the Virgin Mary menstruate after the Immaculate Conception?”
As the halo disturbs not only her sleep but her psyche, Anna tries freeing herself of it in the most diverse of ways. She fears that once others notice her nimbus, first they’ll ridicule her as an ‘atheist saint’, and later loathe and envy her. However, after a while she realises that the halo is in fact visible only to those who committed not even the paltriest sin in the past six months, which is not even to speak of mortal sins. In other words, only speechless babies and animals, innocent as they are, can see the ring of light around the teacher’s head.
Having considered the matter carefully, Anna keeps her halo a secret. Even when it turns out she is capable of miracles. The sick who touch her are cured, and she herself is suddenly able to speak several foreign languages.
These incredible events well-nigh turn life topsy-turvy in this small city. It is the chief physician, also a member of the city council, who discovers the link between the teacher and the ‘mass suicide’ of fish, which leap straight out of the lake; between the teacher and the sudden healing of the seriously ill; between the teacher and the curative spring which for years has been searched for but not yet found. The physician lets the mayor in on his secret.
Their plans are big indeed: they establish an international health resort. To do so, however, they must adopt cunning machinations to compel Anna to cooperate. In consequence of the miracles the teacher performs, ‘therapeutic tourism’ picks up, virtually showering the city with gold.
The city elders manage to keep the teacher, who is behind the miracles, after all, secret from the public. Only the highest-paying foreign patients may have contact with her. Tourists stream into the city from all corners of the globe. In the new health resort, the blind see again, the paralyzed walk anew, and skin diseases vanish; and all of this is officially ascribed to the newly discovered curative spring.
The teacher, who at the behest of the chief physician retires from teaching, now works as an assistant at the health resort; until, that is, her immediate superior, who isn’t the least bit aware of Anna’s gifts, fires her without notice because her loud singing in some foreign tongue has disturbed the patients’ calm.
After Anna then fails to turn up at her workplace for several days, the city faces a major scandal: patients complain in droves about the sudden cessation of the promised miracle-cures. In the effort to save what can be saved, the city dismisses Anna’s immediate supervisor, so as to let things be as they were before.
Though well aware that she has been exploited, Anna is averse to profiting from her situation. For some time her greatest fear has been that her life will lose purpose if she is neither genuinely needed nor missed by others. Since her husband’s death, she has lived in self-imposed celibacy.
Now, however, she has reached the age where she is no longer a woman in the full sense of the word. Nor does she have a job anymore. The zeal with which she pursues her good deeds is in part a matter of self-justification – to justify before herself, that is, that she is ‘still good for something’ – and, moreover, serves to conceal her subconscious fear of death.
Toward the end of the novel the teacher vanishes without a trace. The city expropriates her small estate, with the money-grubbing chief physician getting his share as well.
The story of the mistakenly bestowed halo, and the ensuing actions of people on earth, is presented as a ‘heavenly chronicle’, or surveillance report, in the form of 11 richly detailed chapters, or ‘entries’. The author’s style is marked by subtle irony.
With „To err is divine“, Ágota Bozai has fashioned a distorting mirror to neo-capitalistic societies.
Says the author, “I chose a female teacher of sixty or so as my Messiah because in Hungary these days only moneyless public employees, such as teachers in state schools, can allow themselves the luxury of bothering about others’ problems. Further, as the protagonist is a woman, and thus more limited in the range of her actions than a male character might be, she can not be an out-and-out, ‘complete’ Messiah, as it were, but one with necessarily limited impact. Life itself inspired me to
write the novel. Money plays the single key role in the lives of ninety-nine percent of those who inhabit the small city on Lake Balaton where I live. Most menfolk here would send their wives to brothels if offered enough. They’re disposed to all manner of lesser and greater depravity in exchange for a bit of profit.”
Kritiken / Reviews:
Christian Science Monitor (US)
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (DE)
Hamburger Abendblatt (DE)
Neue Zürcher Zeitung (CH)
Washington Post (US)
Wilhelmshavener Zeitung (DE)
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