A few months ago, whilst doing my usual internet trawling and reading about literature in translation, I came across New York based independent publisher Contra Mundum Press. Let’s have a look at their “About” section on their website:
Our principal interest is in Modernism and the principles developed by the Modernists, though we also publish challenging and visionary works from other eras.
Our catalog consists of poetry, fiction, drama, philosophy, film criticism and essays. In the future, we intend on expanding it to include works on architecture, music, & other genres. While we have published bilingual and multilingual books, in accordance with our global outlook, we intend on publishing works in languages other than English. Our free online magazine, Hyperion: On the Future of Aesthetics, is published biannually and features essays, translations, interviews and reviews.
The primary aim of Contra Mundum is to publish translations of writers who in their use of form and style are à rebours, or who deviate significantly from more programmatic and spurious forms of experimentation. Such writing attests to the volatile nature of modernism. Our preference is for works that have not yet been translated into English, are out of print, or are poorly translated, for writers whose thinking and aesthetics are in opposition to timely or mainstream currents of thought, value systems, or moralities. We also reprint obscure and out-of-print works we consider significant but which have been forgotten, neglected, or overshadowed.
There are many works of fundamental significance to Weltliteratur (and Weltkultur) that still remain in relative oblivion, works that alter and disrupt standard circuits of thought — these warrant being encountered by the world at large. It is our aim to render them more visible.
As regular visitors here would know, I’m always up for a challenge and am always on the lookout for translated works that push the boundaries, works that will linger with me long after the last page has been turned.
My first choice from their catalogue was their latest release “Our Street” by Sándor Tar, a Hungarian writer who passed away in 2005 and the author of five books, this being his first translated into English.
The book consists of thirty-one stories, opening with the story of Uncle Vida and the crooked street where nobody needs to know the numbers of the houses, where everybody is poor, where there is no point in growing produce because nobody can afford to buy it: “the street, it took shape just like all the others. A cart drove along, then a second, and then a third, the tenth, the thousandth, each driving along the groove.”
As each story, or vignette of an inhabitant of corked street, is revealed we learn of all the local’s woes, into communism, out of communism, into alcoholism…
Attila is the best looking boy on the street, and everybody knows it. He’s an adolescent now, he’s in eighth grade, but when he was little, everybody wanted to eat him all up. In summer he wore tiny shorts, and he went from house to house, and if the gate wasn’t open, he’d bang on it and shout. Wherever he went, they picked him up, pinched his cheeks, & stuffed him with candy and cake. Sudák did, too. Once he sat on the ground in front of the boy and kept gazing intently at him for a long, long time. Then he asked the child, tell me. How in God’s name did you turn out so well? Hm? That’s when something must’ve gone off in his head, because something definitely went off, except it didn’t show at the time. He was living with a tall woman back then, an alcoholic, and it’s a good thing he didn’t marry her, he later said, just shacked up, because he’d have been fleeced, with the woman taking half of everything. What that everything might have been he didn’t say. He pushed her out the gate, bolted the door, and good riddance. She tried to move back in two weeks later, but the new woman poured dirty water on her, just like that, from a wash-bowl, over the gate. Jolán Árva stood there in her suit, with a cigarette, necklace, wristwatch, and the sudsy water running down her. I can’t believe it, she said, aghast. That deaf bitch poured water on me! Because the new woman was a deaf-mute.
Our stories open with more foundations of the characters and as each story unfolds, we have layer upon layer of the local’s lamentations, a complex spider’s web of crisscrossing woe and spite. Initially we start off with the occasional joy, a few snippets of dark humour, but the further we travel into the lives of the village inhabitants the bleaker life becomes;
Béres stands around in the yard for a while. Sometimes he doesn’t go back to bed at all but heads for the lean-to and hustles up something to lie on, hoping the fear won’t follow him there. But it does, tugging and straining at him so his teeth chatter, even when it’s warm, and his brain whirls like an engine, it veritable creaks and grinds like a mill, but what? Who knows what? I love her anyway, my wife and the wine too, he groans into the hay, and it’s none of anybody’s damn business, not even the good Lord’s! It’s my life! Sometimes he starts shouting, and then it’s better, he beats his head against the boards, will morning never come? A dog howls outside, and then the others join in, and as for Béres, he just talks & talks behind the boards, wanting to say it, struggling, stammering, wanting to get it out, but all he does is curse, and by now they all hear, ours is a bad street, plagued by frenzied dreams.
This dry, deadpan, matter-of-fact style, riddled with irony and dark humour make these bleak peasant characters and their meagre existence come to life. The overlapping tales and characters slowly build into a crescendo of despair, a future where there is no hope, a day-to-day existence of just existing and drinking, and sex to keep the boredom and reality at bay.
We have a plethora of odd characters, a rat catching vagabond who drinks too much and takes on all comers in the pub, a young man who goes to town and steals the coins from a bling violin playing beggar, and throughout we have the presence of the Minister who is horrified at the goins on, he can’t understand why these people don’t come to church. The real reason being, they have sold their Sunday clothes;
I’m not surprised, the clergyman thought, and suddenly, he felt sad. When will there be order and justice in the world, Lord? Because as he later saw for himself, the people here not only sell their Sunday best, but their furniture, too, piece by piece, along with anything else that finds takers. One the other side of the equation, though, stood the inconceivable amount of alcohol that some of them consumed at Misi’s, or at the private dispensers, in the shop, and anywhere else they could get it. There seemed to be plenty of money for that. How come? Béres explained this, too, if a bit circuitously, because he couldn’t manage the requisite complex movement of the lips by then, an explanation from which the clergyman drew certain conclusions only after he got home. Béres explained that it takes a lot of money to get drunk, no two ways about it. But if you’re careful and don’t sober up, not for a minute, you just gotta keep it flush, which doesn’t take much, a beer or two or a shot or two of pálinka. Plus a little extra at night so you can sleep. What’s so terrible about that? If they ever sobered up, the minister would have his hands full burying the dead. It’s a bet. They’d all leap in front of the train, grab a rope, or jump in the well. People here are desperate he concluded & grinned, because his lips unexpectedly curled that way of their own accord.
In our current world where positive affirmations and messages on social media are a dime a dozen, this novel brings the reverse into play, the dystopian affirmations;
…he was nauseous and broke out in a sweat, but he knew that this was actually a good thing and that life is beautiful, even though the day is just beginning.
A collection filled with alcohol, binges, alcoholics, wife swapping, incest, veiled references to homosexual liaisons, violence and even more alcohol, I was reminded of the idiosyncrasies of the villagers in Bohumil Hrabal’s collection “Rambling on: An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of the Gab” but within the dark world of the desolate villagers meeting in the bar in Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s “Satantango”
If you’re up for travelling to a desolate village in Hungary, and bleak images with no hope of redemption, this could well be a collection for you. The font choice of Adobe Jenson Pro an interesting aside, with the occasional double check required which actually highlighted my unknown bias for standard fonts. To have a look at an example of the font and for an excerpt of this book go to Contra Mundum Press’ webpage here.
Source personal copy.