The Ninth, Ferenc Barnás (trans. Paul Olchváry). Northwestern University Press. 174pp, $16.95.
Telling a story from a child’s point of view is one of the most difficult modes of fiction to write successfully. The narrator of Ferenc Barnás’s The Ninth is a nine-year-old boy—The Ninth child of ten (eleven, counting the brother who died) in a large Hungarian family—whose inexperience and bare vocabulary are compounded by a speech disability.
In writing The Ninth, Barnás seems to have wanted to give himself a taste of what difficulty his narrator must face when trying to give expression to his experience. Overall, Barnás succeeds, using simple language and a conversational style that allows dramatic irony and understatement to do most of the heavy lifting. At the same time he navigates the Scylla and Charybdis of condescension toward the child narrator and the hyper-extended language of that same precocious narrator. The novel’s opening lines demonstrate Barnás’s felicity:
Last night I had a dream, and in it I was brave: three boys were coming toward me as I stood in a clearing. At first I didn’t recognize them, but then I saw that it was Perec and his pals. The shortest one had a hatchet in his hand. I thought they wanted to do that again. Just how I took away the hatchet I do not know, but take it away I did, and then I did what I’d done in my other dream. It happened so fast that this time I didn’t even see any blood, though they must have spilled a lot. Then I waited for the police. . . . When one of the policemen put a hand on my shoulder, the hatchet was still in my hand. Holding it felt good.
The boy’s narrative centers on his large, extremely impoverished family, where most of the children have some kind of mental or physical disability. They all live in a tiny house with a distant, religious mother and a driven, entrepreneurial father—a family at odds with the communist system in which they live, keeping their Catholicism and business of producing and selling religious devotional objects a secret.
At school, the other children pick on the narrator, who is still innocent but has learned how to survive by simply taking the frequent beatings and other mistreatment from classmates. He has an extremely difficult time reading out loud and speaking, so he mostly keeps silent. The only escape from peers, school, and sleeping in a crowded bed is to get hospitalized, which the boy finally achieves around Christmas, thus missing most of the holiday with his family. Then the family gets a loan and builds “the Big House,” which the boy has been dreaming about for some time. Soon, the father lands contracts for devotional paintings and keeps some of the children home from school to work to meet deadlines. Meanwhile, the community holds a charity drive to provide the family with clothing, and the boy returns to school wearing a pullover that had belonged to a classmate, whom he catches glaring at him. He begins to understand why his classmates look at him that way and wishes that his parents had not accepted anything. Eventually the boy finds himself in a situation where his actions will begin opening his eyes to the confusion and burden of guilt for the first time.
Barnás uses the first-person present to create a distance that allows the reader to glimpse the separation of the narrator from his world, a world he can only observe and rarely understands. Although Barnás erects a palpable barrier with the nine-year-old narrator’s innocence and speech disability, the reader must maintain a suspension of disbelief: how can a young boy be so articulate, even if he does occasionally have trouble expressing himself? The repetition of facts and situations, as well as shifting back and forth between past and present tense, perhaps indicates that the narrator is talking to himself in an attempt to make sense or to practice speaking. This may be the case, which is nothing new for readers to play along with, but Barnás’s genius begins to sharpen when the narrator steals money from his favorite teacher without seeming to understand what he is doing. He feels suddenly as though another person dwells inside of him, and this begins the breakdown of his childlike innocence. Immediately following this act there is a dream sequence, which begins:
Blessed be the fruit of your womb, goddamnit fucking hell/ i’m on the way/ miss vera spoke to me, i obeyed others, too, i only hope they won’t make me talk/ i threw my village council pullover in the trash bin by the market square, where mr. pista was found last wee, we couldn’t serve at his funeral/
Here we get a look into the boy’s subconscious, dealing with his confusion regarding desire and guilt after stealing from someone he adored. This does not seem like the kind of thing most adults imagine a nine-year-old thinking, let alone saying. The dream sequence likely contains fragments of language he’s heard, but it also serves as a definite indicator that his theft has changed something. For the first time, he feels the weight of guilt: “My body was heavy, especially my hands.” He tries “acting like a kid, but that doesn’t work.” He feels alienated from himself, mentioning “that other someone within” and even says, “for my part, though, for awhile now I’ve been joining in only to show the nine-year-old me to Nanny, too.” Closing the novel, Barnás conveys the boy’s dread as he goes home toward inevitable punishment, having been cast from the Eden of innocence.
However, there are reasons to believe that Barnás’s nine-year-old narrator has been playing a game, showing us his nine-year-old self the way he did for Nanny, the way an adult might expect a nine-year-old’s experience to be narrated. In his dream, the boy’s stream of subconsciousness touches on when he had gotten himself admitted to the hospital by pretending to be sick:
i opened the wallet as if i wasn’t i, that much i remember clearly/ even more so than the state railway hospital, though being someone else didn’t last as long in there . . . confession is on thursdays, i don’t know what i will confess, i won’t whisper what i’ve said up till now, instead i’ll come up with something from along the horizontal axis, the screen helps
Is it possible that narrating his own story also allows him to be someone else? Telling about himself would make it possible to separate from that shadowy other the narrator senses inside, and it might also be a way back into the Eden of childhood innocence, a way to put his former nine-year-old self on again. In this way the narrator could regain a degree of control over his own life, over the important details like where the burden of responsibility rests. If this is so, by leaving these small details toward the end of the story Barnás has created a way back into the novel for a dramatically different and equally moving reading. Whatever the case, Ferenc Barnás’s The Ninth is a quiet novel that yields more ground for exploration than appears on the surface, and it is a fine rendering of the child’s voice.
Josh Maday lives in Michigan. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in New York Tyrant, Action Yes, Apostrophe Cast, Barrelhouse, elimae, Keyhole Magazine, Lamination Colony, Word Riot, and elsewhere. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and keeps a blog here.
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