This is Romanian/Hungarian author Attila Bartis’ first book to be translated into English and it’s nothing less than a tour de force; an extremely well written, powerful and bleak novel set in the period from the failed 1956 Revolution through the post-Communist era - though not necessarily in that order.
Meet the Weer Family - probably the most dysfunctional family that ever existed. There is the narrator - the writer Andor, his crazed, shut-in mother Rebeka, the absent father, who fled the Communist regime the first chance he got, and Andor’s twin sister Judit, a serious classical musician who also took off, leaving Andor to live with his mother. Andor’s mother, Rebeka, was once a well known stage actress but due to historical circumstances, her career comes to an end, and little by little she begins her downward spiral. She becomes a shut-in, never leaving the house and has a hold over her son Andor which is both complete and, well, let’s say...Oedipal. Her stranglehold over her son is brutal, tyrannical, and their interaction with one another will most definitely make the reader very uncomfortable at times. Although Andor can no longer take her tyrannical ways and wants nothing more to get the hell out of there and live his life, he’s afraid to leave her alone (shades of Norman Bates here). Their life together is reduced to pure hatred, lies, appeasement and occasionally very violent outbursts.
Andor has a girlfriend - of sorts - Eszter, a troubled young woman who is recovering from uterine cancer. Her past is just as bleak and it is revealed to us as the novel progresses through its non-linear narrative. It is love at first sight and Eszter is a nurturing soul, trying her best to understand Andor and his troubled life. Eszter is the one thing in Andor’s life that is something of a light at the end of a long, dark tunnel but he just can’t shake his mother’s grip and let go to allow himself to get closer to her. It is Eszter who helps him land a publishing deal for his book and the publishing company’s editor turns out to be a much older woman with whom Andor also plays out his Oedipal fantasies (very disturbing and weird). The sexual content (even with Ezster) is sometimes brutal and violent and we follow Andor as he quickly spirals further downward. And one other thing to note: his editor is somehow connected to his family in a very disturbing way. Despite his bad decisions and inner troubles, Andor feels it’s time to bring Eszter home to mother, to finally make his break from her, but will things go as he plans? You have to read this incredibly psychologically rich novel to find out.
I thought this novel was absolutely brilliant - deep, psychological, full of historical allusions, the bleakness of Eastern European life under Communist rule, and a psychological portrait of those living under such rule. The politics is clear throughout the novel but it is pushed so far in the background you only get a real sense of it through their living conditions, Budapest’s street people, and how “deals” are made in order for one to advance - even just a little - in life. I can’t recommend this novel highly enough but be forewarned that if you’re one who cannot take the pummeling of a dark, nihilistic worldview, then its best avoided. But I wouldn’t avoid it. Novels like this aren’t written that often and one simply has to experience it. I know I’m eagerly awaiting further translations of this brilliant author. Highly, highly recommended.