Our Street by Sándor Tar (tr. Judith Sollosy), Contra Mundum Press. $18.50, 296pp.
American authors who have written compellingly about poverty, among them John Steinbeck, James Agee, Sherman Alexie, and Denis Johnson, did so not because of temporary literary fashions but because they cared deeply about the lives they portrayed on the page. For them, exploring the subject of adversity was inherently entwined with the very core purpose of writing, constituting an aesthetic, political, and moral challenge in its own right. This commitment compelled them to neither unfairly exploit their topic nor to be lenient in its treatment due to ideological or sentimental reasons. Moreover, if one views this artistic credo in a global frame, it can be understood as an implicitly shared imperative found in all literatures. Poverty, and the whole gamut of social adversity surrounding it, has certainly been one of the central themes of Hungarian literature since the nineteenth century. From the foundational examples of classic realism to the more radical masters of modernism, the powerful depictions of material hardship have influenced social imagination and fueled political transformation.
By all accounts, the Hungarian short story writer and novelist, Sándor Tar (1941-2005), belongs to this long and valuable tradition of authors who share this rare commitment. And with the recent publication of Our Street, the translation of one of his critically acclaimed and deservedly popular short story collections, the English-speaking public can finally get acquainted with Tar’s radically humanistic and sharply precise prose. The book, which can be read both as a series of interconnected stories or a fragmented novel, consists of thirty-one vignettes depicting the post-1989 Hungarian countryside through a cast of villagers living in a dead end called “Crooked Street.” Coming from an impoverished family himself and having worked as a manual laborer most of his life, Tar chronicles the harsh yet often humorous realities of the working class in the industrial provinces and the post-agrarian rural world. His protagonists are the downtrodden, the marginalized, and the forgotten, those for whom the collapse of communism brought mainly unemployment. Tar’s people became known as the “losers” of the regime change—and they represented a sizable section of East European society.
At the time of its publication in 1995, Our Street‘s grim, penetrating, and sobering tone went against the mainstream of post-socialist enthusiasm for a vaguely defined democratic transition and a much more clearly outlined implementation of free market capitalism. Yet, as the last two decades have shown, the ravages of privatization eventually led to increasing inequality and the hollowing out of democratic institutions. In hindsight, the blind hubris of these transitions is becoming more and more apparent, but at the time only keen-eyed sociologists or anthropologists like Katherine Verdery or Chris Hann, and the exceptionally perceptive writers like Tar, had an understanding of the human cost resulting from reckless social policies.
Nonetheless, the writings of Tar amount to significantly more than a simple critique of the “transition era.” Although implicitly carrying a political warning signal, his focus on economic and social deprivation has no straightforward aim of political emancipation or condemnation. His goal, if one can term it in such a way, of presenting the simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious vicissitudes of existence is primarily humanistic—a radical gesture of solidarity toward his fellow disenfranchised citizens. Despite the approximately identifiable rural Hungarian setting, Tar’s stories and people transcend strict contextualization, and they could stand in for the generic East European milieu, or even any disadvantaged area around the world. The scarcity of cultural references and of a specific analysis into the causes for degradation indicate that Tar views the situation rather ahistorically: hardship for the downtrodden is a constant looming pressure, outside of time, recurring irrespective of the color of the political regime.
Tar’s real strength lies in his ability to reveal the general human condition through the articulation of the particular. Far from the dry and descriptive nature of the well-known East European genre of sociography, he creates an interconnected world that is not only living and breathing but also sensibly suffering and rotting away. The authenticity of this world rests on his intimate knowledge of the materiality of the place—fictive as it is—and the everyday rituals and customs of a disintegrating community, the web of meanings that guide and constrain the lives of the characters. Yet, like other masters of the short story, from Hemingway to Raymond Carver, Tar skillfully uses the method of understatement. His minimalistic texts offer just the right amount of revelatory, iconic details, hinting at the existence of an entire submerged world: a wasted life, a grotesque fate, a checkered past, a hidden pain through fragments. As the critic Lajos Jánossy observed, Tar “depicts his world with such a dramatic asceticism, and he is capable of creating such dreary tension, that it makes him unique in contemporary Hungarian prose. The mystery is in how he manages to transubstantiate this naturalistic raw material into high quality literature. Tar possesses those unique traits of literary sensitivity, empathy, and solidarity, which enable him to hold up to us the elemental drama of these situations through reduction.” Strange as it sounds, the reference to mystery is justified when encountering the subtleness of Our Street, since the devil of its prose truly hides in the details.
Tar’s economical style inhabits the intersecting, ambiguous realms of sharp realism, cyclical absurd, and genuine comedy. His protagonists are characterized by a sense of intertwined ridiculousness and tragedy that marked the fates of Charles and Emma Bovary. This protracted ambivalence both draws readers in through empathy and detaches them through humor. For example, Tar reveals the horrendousness and hilarity of fatal alcoholism through the ironic depiction of the morning ritual of the village drunkards in the local liquor shop run by Aunt Piroska. One of them, called Béres, “gets hold of his glass with both hands, and tries to bring it to his lips. These are difficult moments; he has to lean down to it. Even his legs are trembling. Aunt Piroska pretends she doesn’t see.” And then there is Vereslaci who, after reluctantly moving back to the village from the city, wholeheartedly urinates in his old childhood bed in the very first morning. Or the mentally unstable Mrs. Dorogi, who throws herself on the train tracks, but only after making sure that the train has passed. Or the same Béres, who leaves his incapacitated and sick wife in the outdoor toilet for a whole day due to his alcohol-induced forgetfulness. The aesthetic experience arising from meeting such guilty, painful beauty is simply unforgettable, and could effectively work as a cure for social indifference.
It is perhaps one of life’s ironies that Sándor Tar himself eventually ended up sharing the tragicomic fate of his protagonists. At the height of his career and critical acceptance in the late 1990s, it was revealed that in 1976 he had been forced to become an informant for the communist secret police and consequently wrote reports on his closest friends in the Hungarian literary world. In the ensuing debate, Tar came out as the archetypical “fallen intellectual” of the post-socialist period, embodying both the roles of perpetrator and of victim. He handled the news, the scandal, and his eventual excommunication from the world of letters with difficulty, and he never recovered from his deep sense of guilt. In the end, he withered away in a state of psychological instability and material squalor, like the broken heroes in his writings. His fellow writer and close friend, Tibor Keresztury, wrote in his obituary that Tar “came from the depths and returned there. He made the wrong personal choices in the story that life offered him. While he could interrogate the human condition with a skill unmatched by any of his contemporaries, he was not able to deal with his own demons. And I can assure anyone wishing to hold him accountable in the name of morality: he paid for his sins dearly.” Yet, unlike most of the poor souls he wrote about, Sándor Tar, the brilliant writer, will most definitely not be forgotten. Keresztury’s passionate closing exclamation is understandable: “For Christ’s sake! Let’s be fair to the man at least in his death! His oeuvre can easily be compared to the works of the most significant masters of the genre . . . it is, from the first word to the last, undeniably authentic and true.”
Szabolcs László is doing a PhD in history at Indiana University, Bloomington. He has contributed with book reviews and translations from Hungarian literature to various journals, like Visegrad Insight, Asymptote Journal, Hyperion, Prodigal, Hungarian Review, and Hungarian Quarterly.
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