Tranquility. By Attila Bartis. Translated from the Hungarian by Imre Goldstein. Archipelago Books. $15.
The first work by Hungarian postmodernist novelist Attila Bartis to be translated into English, Tranquility is a book about almost everything except tranquility. A dark psychological tale set in a nation with which most Americans have virtually no familiarity, it traces deterioration both microcosmically, through the stories of interrelated individual lives, and macrocosmically, as Hungary emerges over a 15-year period from its time as a Soviet satellite to become an independent state.
This 2001 book, Bartis’ third novel, packs a considerable punch in Imre Goldstein’s translation. The story is multifaceted and complex. The protagonist, Andor Weér, is a writer whose twin sister, Judit, a concert violinist, has defected to the West during an international competition. To put pressure on the family to get the sister to return to Hungary, the authorities deny Andor’s mother, Rebeka – who has been a major theater star – any future leading roles, demoting her to a bit player. But instead of trying to reach out to her daughter, Rebeka turns inward, declaring her daughter effectively dead. Rebeka retreats to her apartment, which she shares with Andor, who has a clearly Oedipal relationship with her but also has a genuine concern about leaving her alone. Even with Andor’s attempted support – which starts to assume bizarre forms, such as his writing letters to Rebeka that purportedly come from his sister – Rebeka slides further into isolation and insanity. And things are not quite right with Andor, either. He meets a beautiful woman named Eszter and the two fall in love – but although Eszter seems nurturing and caring, she also seems to have no past. Andor finds himself unsure whether to reach for his own happiness with Eszter and, if so, how – by bringing Eszter to meet his mother, or by keeping the two women apart?
For her part, the mysterious Eszter wants to meet Rebeka even though Andor assures her that when Rebeka is not playing a part, “she is exactly like me.” Eszter knows that – she has done some research – but wants a meeting anyway. She also wants sex in a way that Andor, his Oedipal relationship overhanging everything, has difficulty providing: Eszter “undid the belt of her robe and in fact that was the first time I saw her completely naked, when the black and white silk slipped off her shoulders. I wanted to escape but she sat on me the way God sat on the ruins of Nineveh.” The lapses into Biblical references are surely intentional – both Eszter (Esther) and Judit (Judith) are Biblical names. The stylistic flourishes are part of the developing psychodrama, too: “Now is the time I should let down roots, I thought, like oaks do, she thought, more like cedars that live longer, I thought, I love you, she thought, be quiet, I thought, I only thought, she thought, that’d be the end of you, I thought, I don’t care, she thought, can’t go on living like this, I thought, that’s the way I want to live, she thought, be quiet, I thought, I won’t be quiet, she thought, I’ll get her a live-in nurse, I thought, then you’d never see me again, she thought, I know, I thought, I was only thinking, I thought,” and on and on thusly for many more lines.
There is violence as well as sex in Tranquility (“considering how fond you are of human traits, you can hit pretty hard”), and there is exploration of the brutality of Hungarian officialdom: “He didn’t ask many questions, deflowering had been his weakness for many years; he liked it best if during the act fists pummeled his face, which he would not resist.” Eventually there is a violent confrontation between Rebeka and Eszter, but it resolves nothing; nor is there any certainty about which of them Andor loves, or in what way – the closest Andor comes to self-awareness is his statement to a doctor, “The essence of love is obsession.” But all his relationships are obsessive, and none seems truly to represent love. Certainly none leads to tranquility, and none to freedom, the linchpin of both the personal story here and the societal one. Tranquility is a bleak book filled with bleak characters and leading inevitably to a bleak ending; resignation to a world of bleakness is, it seems, all the tranquility one can expect in Bartis’ constrained world.