Zsófia Bán
Many were amazed by the Hungarian author Zsófia Bán’s debut novel Night School, which was published in 2007 when she was almost fifty years old. With its bold form and mischievous use of language, this Reader for Adults – to quote the book’s subtitle – was clothed in the guise of an encyclopedic textbook, divided into broad subjects such as chemistry, French, history, geography, gym, and recess. With a teaching position at the University of Budapest, the American studies scholar harks back in her work to well-known characters and stories of literary and cultural history, such as Goethe’s Elective Affinities, Gustave Flaubert’s travels, Frida Kahlo’s paintings, and Edouard Manet’s painting “Olympia.” And yet her stories are characterized by unexpected twists and turns, as when Olympia forces the painter to re-do her portrait, Flaubert has a falling out with his travel guide and best friend, and the plot of Elective Affinities unfolds on a tennis court in the present-day. In her novels, time and space are re-arranged into new combinations; they appear to obey aleatory rules, and yet are organized by a mind with a philosophical bent. As the daughter of Holocaust survivor’s, Bán allows mere glimpses of the underlying, dark center of gravity residing beneath the work’s playful exterior; these glimpses show an absence of the unspeakable and of the unspoken, both of which will always rise to the surface. In a typical passage, Flaubert’s friend says, “Is what happened really more important than what didn’t happen?” To name one example, one can read the opening story of the volume Woist Mama as a story about the deportation of Jewish citizens, because of the Jewish star that suddenly appears as a fragmentary memory in one of the stories. The stories depict the author’s search for a narrative form that can give voice to a life built among and out of the ruins. Or, in Bán’s words, how is it possible, “to come to grips with the enduring, radical juxtaposition of things that do not necessarily stand in causal relation to each other, without trying to impose order on them?” (In: “The Summer of our Discontent: Negative Capability as Refuge”). When she creates order from disorder in Night School, she memorializes one of her literary forebears, namely Géza Ottlik and his novel School at the Frontier (1959), who in his day also stood for a new Hungarian narrative tradition. He set off a revolution in literature with his formula of “free perception”: though seemingly innocuous, by using this language it was not possible to make a big (Socialist) fuss; furthermore, his work came as a revelation by showing how a deep, serious tone can go hand-in-hand with a weightless, carefree one. Before she turned to novels, Bán had earned her reputation on the strength of her essays as well as her art and literary criticism. She shows a tendency to destroy idols and ideologies, such as when she imports the genre of the biographical novel, much admired in English literature, only to lampoon it. The author, born in Rio de Janeiro, counters Hungary’s nationalistic obsession with “racial purity” by juxtaposing it with things that are fragmented and unclassifiable. That’s one reason why her novel Night School, which was awarded the Attila József prize in 2008, is dotted with neologisms as well as sentences in English, French, and Spanish; intentionally left untranslated, these pervade the text like foreign bodies. In her second volume of stories When There were only Animals, she elaborates on seemingly unrelated life stories with a striking economy, thereby exposing the heretofore unimagined connections between these tales, exploring topics like emigration and dislocation, the “before and after” of life events, and the interior split caused by competing identities. The reason: anyone born in 1957, like the author, was born one year after the Hungarian revolution in 1956. And anyone who grew up in South America, like the author, bears the knowledge of all of the exiled Hungarians who emigrated after 1956. Her stories’ protagonists also fled Budapest in the mid-1950s for seemingly greener pastures, where their old lives catch up with them eventually: for example, a lady with a distinguished appearance shows a tattooed female hobo her own tattoo, and a woman who had been a pianist in her past life is suddenly overcome at a Bartók concert when she remembers the love of her life, also a Bartók interpreter, which ended in tears. Images and the visual are endowed with significance in this volume. In the words of the story “A Short History of Photography,” an image “lives the life of a king: it has a past, present, future, a memory – in a word, everything.” The roundelay of the stories opens with a misleading capriccio, a tale about an x-ray with the title Frau Röntgen’s Hand – only to be transformed into an abbreviated novel of marriage. The capriccio contains Bán’s poetological approach in miniature: she sheds light on the invisible by enlarging microscopic details, and forges connections through daring reflections and refractions; in her work, images cascade, obeying the laws of a mysterious logic that combines various narrative and temporal levels. Her prose thus challenges us to dance right at the abyss, and calls us to relish in the wonderful, yet trying, freedom of interpretation.

Text: Claudia Kramatschek
Translation into English: Amy Pradell
Photo: Miklós Szüts
Camera/editing: Uli Aumüller, Sebastian Rausch