Jana Bodnárová: Náhrdelník/Obojok (Necklace/Choker)
This novel is set in the late twentieth century, after Slovakia has become an independent country. We follow the stories of two Slovak women who mirror the vicissitudes of many Slovaks during the war and then under communism. Sara is fifty-five. She lives in Germany, is divorced and has a daughter who has recently given birth to a son. Iboja lives in Slovakia and has not lived in exile.She is looking after her elderly mother, who clearly has dementia, and who did live in exile, in France (Iboja lived with her grandmother.)
We gradually learn the stories of not only the women but also of their parents and grandparents, while learning of various issues in Slovakia. The novel is told in what Bodnárová calls fragments,i.e. short chapters recounting one part of the lives of the protagonists at one particular time.
Iboja’s grandfather, Rudolf Stern, owned the Hotel Aurora, a prosperous watering place and was well respected in the town. It now no longer exists. Stern employed Imro, Sara’;s father and if there is any plot over and above the stories of the lives of the protagonists, it is when Imro finds a body in a hotel room during the early Communist era and what happens as a result.
As mentioned Stern’s daughter, Iboja’s mother, goes off to Paris with her husband and while she finds life difficult and suffers her own tragedy, her daughter stays with her grandparents. Stern who survived the Holocaust, wanted his daughter to go to Israel but her husband wanted to go to France. Stern himself does not have a happy end, seized by the Communists as a bourgeois parasite. Iboja has managed to survive but she never married.
Sara’s parents owned a villa and Sara is back home to reclaim the villa which, of course, is not in good condition. (It had been turned into accommodations for ordinary people.) Despite that, she stays there during her visit, while wondering what to with it and spending time with Iboja. Both women look back with much affection at their childhood and the town as it then was. Jews and Lutherans of the town had been like half-brothers for years and each had their fine temples. The Lutherans had learnt certain wisdom from the Jews: how money should not shout but merely whisper, for example, and that was something the Catholics would never understand.
Sara’s father Imro had always wanted to be an artist, from a young age. The family, with its Jewish background had initially survived the war, as they were well away from the action, though Imro saw a train passing through the town taking Jews to the concentration camps. However, when the Germans arrived, they had to hide. Fortunately, the locals were very supportive but their period of hiding in a buried cellar, hearing the shooting, was very traumatic. Imro’s mother never really recovered from it.
Imro went to art school in Prague after the war but then took ill with a mysterious disease, for which the doctors could find no cause or cure. (It sounds very much like fibromyalgia though could be a symbol for the general suffering of the people under communism.) This made it difficult for him to function but he carries on with his art, though it was not Soviet-approved art. He meets a librarian, Emilka, and they marry and have one child, Sara. Imro dies, Emilka disappears and Sara has to go into a home. She is keen on chemistry and eventually meets another young chemist and they marry, emigrate to Italy and then Germany. As mentioned above, they have a daughter before he runs off with a younger model. Sara is happy in her work as a chemist.
What makes this novel so fascinating, apart, obviously, from the story, is Bodnárová’s poetical, nostalgic view of the past. It is by no means over-sentimental (though somewhat sentimental) but she does skilfully recall, through the eyes of the protagonists, a lost time which cannot be recreated, try as they will, but which, nevertheless, remains very potent in the eys of Sara and Iboja. In some ways, though they are very different writers, it recalls the writings of Joseph Roth. In particular, it also gives an excellent account of Slovakia, the changes it has undergone between the 1930s and the end of the last century and the many victims of these changes.
First published in 2016 by TRIO publishing
First published in English in 2021 by Seagull
Translated by Jonathan Gresty