Attila Bartis : A vége (The End)
This monumental novel is clearly, at least in part, autobiographical as many of the episodes match Bartis’ own life. The narrator is Andras Szabad, a name he seems to share with a few of his male ancestors on his father’s side, including his father. He tells us that he is fifty-two years old, a photographer. Fairly well-known. Actually, very well-known. Which is no reason, of course, for a person to go public with the story of his life. But he does.
At the beginning of the book his father has just been released from prison, where he had spent three years. During the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 he and his comrades had placed upturned bowls on the road. The Russian tank drivers thought they were mines so stopped. He was somehow identified from a fuzzy photograph. Photographs are key to this book as Bartis himself as well as Andras father and son are keen photographers and photos and the photographic way of seeing things, scenes and people will play an important role. We see this when the father is arrested, The arresting officer finds lots of his photos. They are not a security issue but one appears to be merely of clouds. The officer asks him why he took a photo of clouds and what was behind the clouds. He replied you’re right, Comrade Major, there’s something behind the clouds. God. The Comrade Major was not amused.
Sadly, Andras’ mother died just before her husband was released. In real life Bartis father and son had to leave Romania and went to Budapest. In this book they move to Budapest from the small town of Melyvar, where they have a flat waiting for them. Why they had to move is not clear to us or to Andras son. They expected their furniture soon but it was delayed. Andras father has clearly suffered in prison and is a shadow of his former self.
We now follow the events after they move to Budapest but also go back to the early period . Andras’ father has been a teacher but can no longer work as a teacher, while his mother had been a librarian but, once her husband was arrested, she too lost her job and struggled as a seamstress. We go back to the early years, even before Andras was born.
Allegedly his first memory is under the German occupation. They had German soldiers billeted on them. The mother did what she has to do for them but refused to speak to them. Colonel Adler, the senior officer, comments But the contention and division that will now follow will be the ruin of this country. Mark my words, it will become weak, sad, ridiculous. We are in no position to justify this or that act of ours, because there is no justification for them whatsoever. On the other hand, from now on, we’ll come in handy for this rabble, their excuse for everything. Just before the Germans are about to leave at the end of the war, he finally persuades the mother to talk and then pulls out a gun and shoots himself. This, Andras claims, is his first memory.
We get more stories from that era, including the death of the mother’s brother and the piano that came and went. We learn of Mrs. Ferenc Vandor, the only woman in town who was terrified that her husband might eventually come back from the POW camp. Ferenc was a violent man.
The focus, however, is on the post-prison era. Andras son goes to school but not too much till he is persuaded to do so by a female teacher who seduces him. He will later see a photo of her next to Yuri Gagarin. Gagarin, his exploits and his mysterious death, occur throughout this book.
Father and son have an ambiguous relationship. Sometimes they get on, sometimes they do not. It is a tradition in the family for the family members to keep out of each other’s way. However the father does help his son become a photographer by giving him his enlarger and later buying him a good camera.
He tells us stories of his life and the life of his family. There are stories for which I can find no parallels, but which I like. It’s as simple as that. For instance, my maternal grandmother going nuts and sleeping for years at a stretch. Or my paternal great-grandmother going nuts and hauling bits and pieces of the carcasses of dead horses up to the apartment.
They have two neighbours – two elderly ladies. One, Eva, turns out to be a countess and the other, Maria, is her former maid. Andras becomes close to Eva and she becomes a mother figure for him. She has no children of her own. Eventually Maria dies and Eva will move away.
Both father and son have to work. Andras son works in a printing works as a gatherer but remains keen to work in photography and will eventually get a job with a photographer. He does manage to avoid military service thanks to the influence of a friend of hs father, a doctor, who certifies that he is unfit. This is just one example of how corrupt Hungarian society was at the time and we will get other examples.
We also follow Andras’ murky love life, including his teacher, a fifty-year old woman and a young woman who wants him to take her picture at the height of passion and then regrets it, till he finally ends up with another Eva, a musician who is divorcing a much older composer.
Andras father still see his old comrades-in-arms, which is risky but Andras son tries to steer well clear of any involvement, not least because it is suspected one of their number may be an informer. One of them wisely comments The U.S. will bring the Ruskies to their knees economically. That’s what the Cold War is about.
Andras son has one good friend,Kornel, a would-be writer who learns that he will be published and might even be allowed to go to London, provided he informs on other writers. He struggles to decide.
The father gets cancer and Andras son prepares a list of questions, including why they moved from Melyvar, to ask him before he dies but never does put them to his father.
The book continues well past the Communist era. The focus is on Andras’ career in photography. He has a job with a professional photographer, mainly taking ID photos but he also does his own photography and, as happened with Bartis, will eventually exhibit abroad (USA).
However for, a long time the focus is on the decidedly tempestuous relationship between Eva and Andras. They argue, they fight. They live together, they do not live together. Frankly, he does not behave well and they split up more than once. While all this going on, we are still getting glimpses into his past, such as the death of his mother.
This novel works on threee levels. Firstly we get to see Hungary under Communist rule, particularly under János Kádár and Andras son clearly has something of a fascination with him. Secondly, we get a decidedly colourful account of his life and the lives of his family. Obviously, in many respects, their lives are very much affected by the communist regime but also, briefly by the German occupation. However, there is much in Andras’ life that is solely down to him, particularly his messy romantic life. Finally, Bartis and Andras (father and son) are both photographers and we often view people, places and events though the eyes of a photographer. Overall a complex and fascinating novel.
First published in 2015 by Magvető Kiadó
First English translation in 2023 by Archipelago
Translated by Judith Sollosy