András Nyerges: Voltomiglan (Not in front of the Child!) Novel, 152 pages (Hungary, 2002)
The novel takes place in Budapest during and shortly after the Second World War. The protagonist is the five-year-old Andriska, who observes and comments on the events and mysterious adult world from his own “below the radar” point of view. His ideas about the adult world are largely shaped by his grandmother.
The dramatic tension arises from the fact that the family is Jewish on the mother’s side and Catholic on the father’s. Most tellingly, Grandma Irene is a rabidly anti-Semitic Catholic. The child is afraid of his forceful grandmother, and seeks the protection of his parents. Andriska does not understand his Grandmother’s deeply rooted prejudices, and why she so hates his other set of grandparents. Irene cannot forgive her son for having married a Jew, and when his father-in-law, a highly respected scholar, dies, she throws at him, “Well, have they finally buried the old Kike”?
The eternal family strife causes lasting damage to the child’s psyche. The quarreling between his otherwise good-natured and enlightened father and the latter’s own mother—in defending his wife, Andriska’s mother—distresses and paralyzes the child, who wishes to be loved by all his family.
The author has given the reader a veritable encyclopedia of the darkest period of the Second World War. Details impress themselves upon the child that at first glance seem unimportant, but which have deeply disturbing significance for Andriska when he recalls them later.
While war rages on the streets above, the children are at play in the subterranean bomb shelter. As soon as things quiet down a bit, the men go out in search of food.
After the Germans have been driven from Budapest, the Russians take over command in the city. Now Andriska’s parents must accommodate themselves to the Russians and the new political reality. There is a great lack of all the basic necessities of life. Like many families, so too must Andriska’s family trade their valuables for food. Thus the smallest everyday things acquire fateful significance, while both public and private life runs its inexorable course.
Narrow-minded national ideology, high-sounding slogans, and commands interweave themselves in the daily life of the city, poisoning interpersonal relationships.
In the midst of his ruthless examination of this family, the author touches on the sensitive historical trauma of anti-Semitism. The hateful grandmother would like to see her daughter-in-law confined to the ghetto. In addition to the deeply rooted hatred of Jews, which has become completely habitual, she also evidences a degree of natural maternal instinct. And thus the character of the grandmother is not one of a total villain.
Toward the end of the novel the story takes a surprising twist. It turns out that the ancestral lines of the two families are practically interchangeable. The wife’s Jewish ancestors were Christian Saxons, while there were Jews among the husband’s Catholic forebears.
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The novel is autobiographical, but largely fictional as well, for in preserving the family’s documented origins, the author raises his protagonists to the sphere of epic.
András Nyerges: “Here in the Carpathian basin, no one has the right to consider himself a member of a superior race. Our genealogies are interchangeable.”
From the Reviews:
“Nyerges’s novel is autobiographical, and it belongs in the first rank of contemporary Hungarian prose. Not in Front of the Child! is a masterpiece” (György Timár in “Napút”).
“Nyerges does not stylize events, but narrates them plainly. With masterful discordance and irony he remains within chronological constraints. A masterful history!” (György Dalos in “Élet és Irodalom”).
In Not in Front of the Child! Nyerges places true novelistic characters on the stage. With his sensual presentation of the great trauma of the twentieth century he has created great literature” (Dezsö Kovács in “Argumentum”).
“If Schiller’s hypothesis about the possibility of aesthetic education is valid and Ricoeur is correct that one can send an entire nation to a psychiatrist, I recommend to everyone this shocking, beautiful book” (György Vári in “Figyelö”).
Kritiken / Reviews:
Neue Zürcher Zeitung (CH)
More works of this writer:
A barátságszédelgö (Working Title: The Friendship Swindler)
<-- András Nyerges