Dana Todorović: Tragična sudbina Morica Tota (The Tragic Fate of Moritz Toth)
Moritz Toth, as you will see from his name, is Hungarian. He is also a punk rocker. He has music in his blood as his late grandfather was an accomplished violinist and was the first non-Roma to play with the Gypsy band Honey Cakes. He even bought his grandson a violin, which Moritz later pawned to buy a guitar. As the pair lived together, the grandfather found out but said nothing. It seems that Moritz’s career as a punk rocker has not been financially rewarding. Coupled with the death of his girlfriend, Juliska, a few months previously, his situation is not happy.
Fortunately, the Employment Office finds him a job. He is to be the prompter for the tenor who is to sing the role of Calaf, Princess Turandot’s suitor in the opera Turandot. The tenor is a substitute for the original cast member and, though he has a fine singing voice, he does not know all the songs. There are a couple of problems. Firstly, because of the complex lighting, Moritz cannot be in a conventional prompter’s box nor behind the curtain but has to stay in a very small box which is actually on stage, disguised as part of the set. Secondly, as he realises once he starts the job, Turandot is in Italian, a language he knows not a word of.
These problems are overcome and Moritz takes up the post. To his surprise, he very much enjoys the job, singing along to Nessun dorma, for which the tenor does know the words, ogling the soprano and getting on well with the cast. Indeed, he is turned on to classical music and buys and listens to classical records. While this is going on, we are gradually learning his life story.
He has one strange problem. It seems that he is being stalked. A strange-looking man is following him around. Moritz is afraid to confront him but does get near him once or twice. He has no idea why he is being stalked.
However, there is another plot going on, which is suddenly and unexpectedly introduced, that of Tobias Keller. Tobias is the Advisor for Moral Issues with the Office of the Great Overseer. What that is, we do not know, nor do we know whether Tobias is a real person or a supernatural being. We do know, however, that he has been hauled up before Chamber C of the Second Wing for a breach of Article 98a of the Causal Authority Regulations, as he connected the Extraordinary Activity Device to the faculty of his free will by putting a pebble in the path of a cyclist, namely Moritz Toth. By showing free will and acting contrary to the regulations, he risks losing his fairly prestigious post.
We gradually follow the investigation of Tobias, while we are following the story of Moritz. To the surprise of the investigators, Tobias not only admits his crime but is well aware that he breached regulations by not getting written permission in advance from the Great Overseer to do so. We know that Tobias feels that he was fully justified in not getting the written permission but, as far as the investigators are concerned, there can be no possible justification for this breach and he is prima facie guilty. However, there is a most interesting discussion on whether free will and determinism can co-exist, suggesting that the Great Overseer may be God or, at least, some sort of God figure. Tobias, of course defends free will, while the investigators clearly think that there are rules and they must always be followed, without exception. We, of course, are wondering how Tobias links up with Moritz.
Meanwhile, things are not going too well for Moritz. The tenor has been fired and there is a new one, requiring a lot of work for Moritz and others. However, he is more concerned about the stalker, not least when he is joined by a mysterious man in black. He spies on them and learns that the stalker, whom he had nicknamed Birdman, seems to be called Ezekiel. Moritz is aware of the biblical connection. He is now getting so concerned that the thinks that they are plotting to murder him. We, of course, suspect that the may be linked to Tobias. He finds solace in the arms of an old friend, Noémi, a prostitute.
The ending is, of course, something of a surprise and probably not quite what we had been suspecting. However, Todorović has cleverly kept us guessing throughout the novel, wondering what is going on and how the stories link up.
Telling two separate stories which the reader assumes are going to meet at some time can be tricky. Todorović keeps us guessing till almost the end. However, at the same time, the two stories are interesting in their own right. Moritz is a man who has lost his cultural past and regains it through opera. He is also a man who has generally lost his way and what better way to find it again than through the love of opera and the embrace of a loving prostitute? The stalker issue is also somewhat disturbing but also cleverly done as we feel that it is connected to the Tobias story but we cannot work out just how.
The Tobias story is perhaps even more interesting, raising as it does the philosophical question of free will versus determinism and, by extension, when we must slavishly follow the rules and when it is acceptable to break them, even at considerable personal risk. Tobias does come across as arrogant but his opponents come across as stuffy bureaucrats, so we are inclined at least to give Tobias a hearing. Of course, we are wondering exactly who they all are – some sort of bureaucratic court of angels, the figment of someone’s imagination or, perhaps, some strange futuristic society? It is to Todorović’s credit that she manages to tell a good story, at times somehow disturbing, but not too much, while keeping us guessing as to what is going on and raising some interesting ideas.
First published 2008 by Stubovi kulture
First English translation Istros/Peter Owen in 2017
Translated by the author