By David Mehegan
What we have here is the voice of one trying to navigate, endure, rise above, and somehow pacify a tapestry of cruelty and grief, while it struggles to find the words and voice that will do the work.
Autobiographies of an Angel by Gábor Schein. Translated, from the Hungarian, by Ottilie Mulzet. Yale University Press. A Margellos World Republic of Letters Book. 214 pp. $26.
This little book seems not to be a novel in any common sense, although it is certainly a work of fiction. Since it is organized by chapters rather than lines, one would not call it poetry, although in the main it has the dreamlike, un-rulebound wordscape of a prosodic voice without need or intention to make matters clear, or even coherent. The reader therefore is advised to keep an open mind, try to notice themes and repetitions, don’t dwell on contradictions, and hang on for a short, wild ride.
As is so often the case, the publisher shows no idea what this book is about, even what exactly is going on, for the jacket rhetoric gives the briefest mentions of the two main characters and says the book is “told in the tradition of W.G. Sebald.” It’s actually nothing like the novels of Sebald, whose style was slow and deliberate, but limpid as distilled water. What we have here is the voice of one trying to navigate, endure, rise above, and somehow pacify a tapestry of cruelty and grief, while it struggles to find the words and voice that will do the work.
“It” rather than he or she because the narrator is, as suggested by the title, humane but not human. In her back-cover blurb, poet Rosanna Warren gives away an identity revealed only on the last page: the narrator is “the angel of ruin.” What that might mean – this spirit is not malicious or predatory — is only the last of the many puzzlements between the book’s first and last pages. It is amply clear from the beginning that although the two characters speak in the first person, and have earthly lives, they are inhabited and voiced more by a daemon than an angel, who uses their lives to weave for us a mesh of sadness both personal and historical. Daemon rather than angel because an angel (from the Greek angelos) is a heavenly messenger. Although Schein’s narrator is “sent out…at most once every two hundred years,” it is unclear by whom, although “they [italics added] make sure I don’t get mixed up in any important matters,” and seems not to have any specific mission or to carry any message. Gabriel this spirit is not; rather, a kind of aimless immortal who knows not where it came from or where it is going, something like Damiel and Cassiel, the lonely angels in Wim Wenders’s film Wings of Desire. But at least those two had the job of comforting the afflicted. Perhaps the mission of Schein’s “angel” is just to tell stories.
Stories it tells, while dispensing speculative relativistic axioms that suggest that we (addressed repeatedly as “dear reader”) might doubt the reliability of whatever we read. “Memory and imagination spring from one root,” the narrator says, “they are twins who often slip into identical garments, finding much pleasure in this play.” That is, what I remember and what I invent might get mixed up. A bit later, “Whoever wants to live would do well first to traverse the world, and if a choice must be made between birth and death, he should begin with death. In this way he will not be deceived by ruinous time….” Excuse me? Begin with death? And then what? Later still, “…How loquacious are the stories, the internal confusion of the world! And yet, if I think well upon it, I enjoyed this confusion; my own garb of Babel never lost its native hues. He who goes about in the garb of Babel should not be surprised that his ambiguities are not understood by the others.” Noted.
The main characters are two: Johann Klarfeld, born in Germany in 1723, and Berta Jόzsa, born in 1944 in Hungary. But remember that the daemon is posing as these two, which might account for how similar as personalities they seem. As a teenager, Johann goes off to seek his fortune. After a time as the student of Fröschlin, a barber/surgeon/apothecary/physician, he joins, as a surgeon, a German regiment in the 1740-1748 War of the Austrian Succession, serving in the Netherlands. Later he ends up on the French side – it’s not clear how – now around Brussels. After witnessing, participating in, and describing the various horrors of war, by 1747 he ends up in the Netherlands, in the Hague, as an assistant to an Italian painter, Signor del Filato. He falls in love with the painter’s blind daughter, Carlita. She seems to be a sweet thing, but then he spies her in a sort of bawdy street theater production, with three little black-robed devils and a notary who doubles as a priest, presiding over a rape pantomime involving Carlita (which one imagines accompanied by the black mass section of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique). He loses sight of her in the crowd, and in following days seeks her fruitlessly in the city. Then he receives a mysterious note inviting him to a certain house. He goes there, hoping to find Carlita. He doesn’t find her, but discovers a mysterious inner room (no people are in evidence in the house) with paintings on the walls depicting scenes of his own recent life, with Fröschlin, del Filato, Carlita, and himself. And then… Wait, are you getting all this?
Berta Jόzsa’s life begins amid the World War II deportation and murder of Hungarian Jews by the Germans, aided by fascist Hungarian allies. Reaching adolescence. she witnesses the horrors and civil strife around the Hungarian uprising of 1956, crushed by Russian tanks. The misery and coldness of her domestic life, overseen by cruel or indifferent parents (she is described as looking like a pig and once is locked into the farm’s pigsty as a punishment), serves as a counterpoint to public strife and brutality. Her life lacks the historical dramas and adventures of Klarfeld’s, and seems at the end to drift off into a stunned revelry.
The daemon returns to have the last word of the book, another inscrutable sally about the ambiguities of storytelling, reading, and time. “Nothing ever comes to an end,” the narrator intones, “neither does it cease, it only disappears.” That fairly describes the fates of Johann and Berta.
Notwithstanding the variety of characters in the novel, the fact that it has no dialogue makes it hard for the “dear reader” to realize them; they and their experiences all come out of the mouth of the narrator, who sometimes describes emotions, but not with much poignancy. All that happens, even the most lurid violence, seems somehow flat – perhaps not surprising in the voice of an immortal who tells the story of pain but suffers none itself. It has a sort of wistful, so-it-goes, “meh” voice. Adding to the flatness are the long stretches of straight text without paragraph breaks. In this perhaps the narrative does somewhat resemble Sebald’s books.
Gábor Schein is a novelist and poet, author of fifteen books, “a writer of fierce moral and aesthetic independence,” a biographical paragraph tells us, “whose subjects include trauma and survivorhood in central Europe and post-regime change Budapest.” Possibly the use of a detached voice of a superhuman observer is a way for a writer with a fierce moral sensibility to tell these stories without overwhelming himself or the reader. One wonders what if anything he has written about the increasingly repressive career of Viktor Orbán.
Unable to read Hungarian, I cannot assess the translation, but have a hunch that it was a challenge. We are told that “this translation is based on a revised version of the original Hungarian text with further structural edits,” whether by author or editor is not clear. The original was published in 2009. We can be grateful that Ottilie Mulzet provides extensive “Translator’s Notes,” which explain every historical reference as well as those to classic and modern Hungarian poets, novel, and films. I recommend that the reader take advantage of these notes chapter by chapter. They reduce the head-scratching.
David Mehegan is the former Book Editor of the Boston Globe. He can be reached at email@example.com.