Tranquility, Attila Bartis (Imre Goldstein trans.). Archipelago Press. 325pp, $15.00.
After mud and pouring rain have been the constant companions of the sad characters in Hungarian director Bela Tarr’s hopelessly miserable (but astonishing) film Damnation, agony finally ends with the camera ceasing its nonstop movements and staring at a giant clump of muddy filth. It’s a fitting end to a beautiful, depressing movie.
Hungarian writer Attila Bartis’s novel Tranquility (the first of his translated into English) ends on a similar note: a phenomenal final paragraph full of misery and hopelessness. It’s an especially fitting ending to a book in which there is no light, no redemption, a novel filled with mental illness, madness, suicide, abortion, incest, violence, sex, and hate, a novel which slowly unfolds an exceptionally complex and sad and terrible history of possibly the most dysfunctional family ever: the Weers. The novel is an almost nonstop litany of human misery and degradation, and even when nothing terrible is explicitly or expositionally described, there are always inferences and suggestions—in fact the passages where the awfulness is only tangentially present (as when a six-year-old is asked to sit on a convict’s lap) are among the worst and most uncomfortable in the book.
The novel is narrated by Andor Weer, the voice of the oppressive misery. It’s late in the novel when we hear this exchange, something we’ve figured out long before he chooses to declare it:
“What I want to know is how you’ve lived,” he said.
“Like animals,” I said.
Andor’s mother, a former stage actress, hasn’t left the house in 15 years, and his twin sister Judit escaped the household many years before; Andor deceives his mother by writing letters left-handed and having them postmarked by friends traveling to exotic locations, as if Judit were traveling the world, pursuing her musical career. This perhaps doesn’t sound that bad, except that Andor shares a crypt-like apartment with a mother who is overbearing, mean-spirited, and in possession of an acid tongue; she is a woman who “would take all the death notices out of her drawer and lay them out on her desktop as if playing solitaire,” and who had an empty coffin buried in the cemetery to signify that her daughter was dead to her. And let’s not forget, one who announces when she meets her son’s lover that she’s “stuck on [his] cock like a big leech.”
So it’s no surprise that Andor has a terrible time relating to women. The women he gets involved with are not always the most stable, and the descriptions of the sex are almost always indistinguishable from a fistfight, or sometimes a murder. Sometimes, though, they’re just nasty and hate-filled: “Her nails slashed my thigh, yanked open my zipper and clutched my hate-filled testicles. I felt I was about to spit all the filth of my gonad into her throat, but I tore myself out of her mouth because never in this life would I want to come into this heaving piece of meat.” Even post-sex, Andor finds a way to see the horrors of the world: “From the dried-off vagina goo both my hands looked as if I had some skin disease.”
When his girlfriend Eszter has to have an operation to remove a tumor from her uterus, instead of feeling anxiety for her recovery and health he thinks “After a routine operation, her womb would be as serviceable as that of any healthy 28-year-old woman’s, equally suitable for birth or abortion, depending on the quality of the woman’s relationship to her partner.” You get the sense that maybe somewhere deep down he has some feelings resembling love toward Eszter, even though when his mother dies he wants Eszter there not to support him in his time of grief—he feels no grief—but to relish in the decrepit final state of the woman.
Tranquility might seem an odd name for one of the bleakest books ever, a read astonishing for its endless waves of increasing misery, though the title actually refers to the Sea of Tranquility on the Moon, probably a very peaceful but very bleak place. Death is a preoccupation of the book, with everything that happens to anyone shadowed by the constant awareness of our common fate. As Andor’s worldview gets dimmer and dimmer, his sanity gets more and more tenuous. In one scene he remembers a conversation with his sister that they had in a graveyard. Judit says:
“You live only as long as you can lie into the mug of anybody, and without batting an eye. And when you can’t anymore, well, it’s time to get hold of the razorblade.”
“Listen to me. You won’t find a single corpse in this cemetery that hadn’t lived his or her life as a potential suicide. All that happened was that some little thing got in the way: cancer or carpet bombing or premature aging. There was simply no time to fill the quota of lying and to get disgusted enough with oneself.”
Interest in the family’s complex history is heightened by the facts that we never see the father and that Judit is absent for most of the book. Andor pieces things together, horrifying discovery after horrifying discovery: forced abortions, crazed lovers, coincidences that seem much more sinister given the family which is the victim of their eventual manifestations.
There’s a woodenness to the dialogue at times, but this seems like something Bartis is doing intentionally to further dehumanize the characters. His writing is filthy and dark—every page of this book is filled with horrors and nastiness, violence and ill intentions—and his writing metes all of this out in sentences perfectly stripped of anything positive, bared to their most wretched core. For example: “That’s when I saw her naked for the first time after two months. If we don’t count the dressings and undressings in the hospital, and the times I took her to pee in the chlorinated shit-smelling toilet at the end of the corridor in the neurology-psychiatry ward, because she’d often hold it until I got there so nurse Bertuska wouldn’t have to put the dirty bedpan under her.”
For Andor, there’s nothing beautiful about the situation, nothing to be in awe of, his heart is not beating rapidly with excitement. It’s just a naked woman whom he’s previously seen in a hospital setting, and now she’s not in that setting, and the writing conveys this depressing dissociation quite well. It’s not that the reader would necessarily expect Andor to be bowled over by love at the sight of her naked body, but there’s a part of you, the part which has seen innumerable movies and read innumerable books where in the end the guy and the girl live happily ever after; Bartis seems to purposely be playing on your natural inclination to cheer for a happy, lovestruck ending, because it’s hard to see someone so unhappy and not hope for a little something to come his way. But it’s just another meaningless interaction in a long string of meaningless interactions for the narrator.
What does this sort of writing mean?
There are certainly other writers who employ nonstop misery (Elfriede Jelinek comes to mind), but I think there’s a particular brand of humorless brutality to Bartis’s that sets it apart. For one thing, its ceaseless ferocity gives it a power, even a certain beauty. It’s not written to shock, or merely for the sake of writing in this manner. To many people (and artists especially) the world is a filthy fucking shithole and there’s no reason to cover that up with devices commonly used to take the sting out of this sort of writing. It perhaps takes a certain type of reader to enjoy an endless stream of pessimism and sourness, but for that type of reader Bartis’s novel is very rewarding. In its unflinching chronicling of misery and hatred, things that many feel but won’t or can’t talk or write about, Tranquility succeeds. There’s a certain bravery in writing like this—Bartis must be aware that no one earns money or fame with book like this—but as a result there’s an honesty that comes through both in the worldview of the characters and on behalf of the author.
The thing that starts to get your hopes up, though, is that if Andor doesn’t feel love or even something like it for Eszter, he doesn’t hate her either (even though it seems that way much of the time). What’s important is that he feels something, even if it’s never articulated: “She nestled into my winter coat, but even there, with her silence, she remained as alone as if God had forgotten to create a world around her.” Maybe it’s the beauty of the writing, or even the fact that for once Andor is considering Eszter and her relation to God, something that validates her in a way that pretty much no character achieves other than Andor’s sister. That maybe even, for him, just a consideration of someone else beside himself is something that we, the readers, hope might be the first step to some new level of understanding for him. Is it that slight glimpse of hope we’re supposed to hold onto? Is that Bartis’ concession towards accessibility? We cling to the chance that a brief moment of nonsolipsism may be the first sign of something better ahead, but we don’t count on it.
Scott Bryan Wilson is a contributing editor to The Quarterly Conversation.
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