Róbert Hász: Végvár (The Fortress) Novel, 250 pages (Hungary, 2001)
The novel takes place in the present, in the Balkans.
Its protagonist is Maxim Livius, a young reserve officer whose term of military service is coming to an end. His country is disintegrating, and there are unmistakable signs of decay in the army as well. Shortly before his discharge, Livius is detailed to a godforsaken border garrison in the mountains. On the rocky seacost stands a graceful fortress, surrounded by mountains perennially enveloped in rain clouds.
On his arrival, Livius feels anger and resentment, for his long-awaited discharge has been pushed far into the future. He makes some remarkable observations: In this garrison, nothing appears to be as it should; nothing proceeds as elsewhere in the army. The food is of superb quality; commands are largely ignored; within the fortress, the soldiers are not permitted to carry weapons; all are unshaven, sloppily dressed, and seem to sleep incessantly. Puzzled, Livius determines that the fortress and its inhabitants are completely cut off from the outside world. There is no television, no radio, no newspapers, not even radio contact with the base. Yet none of that appears to bother anyone. The soldiers show no interest at all in the affairs of the world. They live a comfortable life as though in a dream world. Each is concerned with his own past, which he continually relives, as though on a journey through time. At first, Livius pooh-poohs the whole business, but soon, memories attack him as well. He relives the years before his enlistment; scenes from his childhood flood his memory.
In parallel with the happenings in the fortress there unfolds a family and love story of the novel’s hero. Once, in the garden, the past comes alive for Livius. All those appear who were once important to him. In his thoughts he continually returns to this garden; from there, the paths of memory set out in all directions, to return at the end of the novel. Past and present become intertwined. Even the hero does not notice at times when the one world passes into the other. It is no longer a question of memory, but of the continual passing between two coexistent realities.
In the revival of the past there regularly appears to Livius the figure of the dead Marshal Tito, his burial, as well as suppositions about the whereabouts of his corpse. Even the television broadcasts of the time provide no clarity. In the fortress, no one can understand the cause of the situation. Some believe in a miracle, while others are of the opinion that extraterrestrial forces have been carrying out experiments. The obsessive colonel ascribes it all to the machinations of the hostile neighboring country. He is certain that the enemy is attacking with nerve gas, which would explain the hallucinations. Although he is entirely uncertain whether there is anyone at all on the other side of the border, the colonel orders a tunnel to be dug under the mountain to enable an attack against the enemy. The tunnel collapses; panic breaks out among the soldiers; and the colonel is shot.
Meanwhile, Livius now and again finds small slips of paper with messages, as though someone were trying to tell him something. He now suspects that there is someone in the fortress who knows more than the others, who holds the threads in his hand, and is possibly prepared to reveal something to him. On the basis of one such message, he discovers that the only one who could be informed about everything is the camp guard Sljoka. That man tells him then about his mission. When it was observed in the mausoleum in the capital city that the marshal’s corpse was keeping the past alive there, it was quietly removed to this remote fortress. The camp guard was given the job of watching over it. Sljoka knows all the secret doors, and the hidden cold rooms in which a large store of food has been hoarded.
He offers to Livius that from now on, the two of them should together guard the corpse, which resides in a glass coffin a wall of the fortress. Livius must choose. If he accepts the offer, then he will have chosen eternal refuge in this unreal place. If he rejects it, he must return to his decaying country, to the chaotic, warring outside world.
When Livius attempts to initiate his friends Pungarnik and Blinka into the solution of this conundrum, they both decline to get involved. By now, the colonel is dead; peace will soon return to the garrison; here one is well taken care of and can continue to dream. Why should they go out into the uncertain and threatening world? Livius, however, rejects this sort of peace, and the accompanying isolation from the real world and the constantly returning past that the dead Tito offers the soldiers do not interest him.
The events of the two different temporal planes find a synchronous conclusion: In the garden, the illusory family idyll dissolves, and the secret of the fortress is revealed.
In the last scene, Livius flees from the fortress, and as he is climbing down the steep cliff to the bay, the alternatives remain open: Does the last scene announce a new illusion, perhaps a sort of logical extension of the “real” past, or is it a vision of the fulfillment of a last wish before death?
Róbert Hász: “One cannot escape from one’s past or the tug of history…one can do so at most for a time, and then sooner or later, fate and the future gather one to themselves.”
Extracts from reviews:
“In this novel by Róbert Hász, the Balkans together with their culture and tragic awareness of life go symbolically to ruin, though without invoking the brutality of war. One can expect nothing. There is only waiting.” (élet és Irodalom)
“Hász’s The Fortress is certainly one of the best and most enjoyable novels of Hungarian postmodern literature.” (Uj könyvek)
“Róbert Hász’s novel strives for the universal language of world literature. It is about the life of an individual who feels himself totally lost in the Balkans of the present day." (Magyar Nemzet)
“The language of Robert Hász can be compared to that of Kafka, Borges, and Eco. With his masterful style, wealth of ideas, and sensitivity, Hász demands of his readers attention and recognition.” (Uj Könyvpiac)
Kritiken / Reviews:
Berliner Zeitung (DE)
Eure Infos (FR)
Financial Times (DE)
Frankfurter Rundschau (DE)
Freitag 11 (DE)
Hessischer Rundfunk (DE)
Il Riformista (IT)
Märkische Allgemeine (DE)
Sand am Meer (AT)
Stuttgarter Zeitung (DE)
Österreichischer Rundfunk (AT)
More works of this writer:
A Vénusz vonulása(Le passage de Vénus)
Diogenész kertje (Garden of Diogenes)
A szalmakutyák szigete (working title: "Island of the Strawdogs")
Júliával az út (working title: The way with Julia)
<-- Róbert Hász