Pixel – Krisztina Tóth (tr. Owen Good)


He wanted to shed light on the fact that in reality people don’t see what’s in front of them, and that people can only assess and reassess unfamiliar situations one step at a time, before they put together the details and see the real picture. (pp168-169)

Krisztina Tóth, born in Budapest, is a highly acclaimed Hungarian poet who won the Graves Prize (1996), the Déry Tibor Prize (1996), and the József Attila Prize (2000) for her poetic works. She completed her studies of literature at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest and has worked as a sculptor. She teaches creative writing and translates French poetry into Hungarian. Her first prose book, a collection of short stories, ‘Vonalkód’ received the Sándor Márai Prize in 2006.

Tóth’s novella cycle ‘Pixel’ was originally published in 2011 and appeared late last year in English translation (by Owen Good) from Seagull Books. This novella has recently been shortlisted for the EBRD Literature Prize, an award for Translated literary fiction written in any language of the “European Bank of Reconstruction and Development’s 38 countries of operations”. The winning book will take home a prize of €20,000 that is equally divided between the winning author and translator. The winner is to be announced on 22 April 2020.

The judges of the EBRD Literature Prize say:

‘Pixel’ is a clever, satisfying and original novel consisting of 30 individual chapters – the pixels – named after human body parts, forming a body of stories about marginalised people across several decades and across the whole of Europe; it’s very contemporary and each story is sharp, seductive and beautifully written.

I recently finished the collection, which I would define as thirty short vignettes, which can be accepted as an individual short story, or you can take a step back, attempt to understand the whole. The cover blurb opens; “like stars in the sky, pixels may seem like tiny, individual points. But, when viewed from a distance, they can create elaborate images. Each pixel contributes to this array, but no individual point can create the whole.”

As the judges of the EBRD Literature Prize mention, the chapters are named after human body parts, Nape, Knee, Sole, Mouth etc. and each of the vignettes contains a reference to the body part.

The hand’s fingers are short and chubby, and the nails are chewed to the quick.

Is how the collection opens (‘The Hand’s Story’) and each story features a different character, who is roughly sketched or described, these characters move throughout other’s stories, maybe simply appearing by crossing the road, or sitting in the same train carriage, and although the links are tenuous the concept of a unified Europe, all in some way battling in the margins gives these disparate characters a commonality.

Using a playful narrative style, the writer may directly address the reader, or even debate themselves whether to include or exclude details:

Nobody ever lived out in that direction. Now an apartment block had been built, and as for the two teenagers, we wouldn’t even recognize them if some other chapter were to toss them up again. Certainly not your narrator, after all, all of this happened a very, very long time ago, when the black pine of the future was only a sapling. (p86)

This approach gives a distant edge to the tales, we are merely voyeurs peeping in on the character’s lives, and then only a small incident, sometimes trivial, sometimes life changing. However, the resolution of major events are rarely signed, sealed and delivered, the chapters finishing open ended, or with closure of only one conflict that has been presented in the preceding few pages.

Each of these pixels are formed but not fully developed, they merge and seep into each other’s spaces but only with small interference. The cross overs are uncertain, is the teacher with the purple hair the same woman with purple hair in an later chapter, is the guy with the crutch the same guy with a crutch. This highlights the transient nature of the characters, their brief interactions.

Tragedy generally prevails, although there is celebration and revelation, in this multi layered work, one where the language of a poet is obvious throughout. Each part of the human body has a specific use in these tales, but they only become “human” once all the parts are assembled. Each tale being able to stand alone, however becoming more enriched when it forms part of a greater story.

A short book, running to 214 pages, the thirty chapters can be quickly nibbled one by one, however I found longer stretches of reading allowed the memories of incidentals in earlier chapters to still be fresh in my mind. An interesting work and, of course one that is beautifully presented by Seagull books, each chapter heading having various pixels scattered throughout the page.

Another Seagull title ‘Ice’ by  Sonallah Ibrahim (translated from the Arabic by Margaret Litvin) an Egyptian novel about a graduate student in Russia, also made the EBRD Literature Prize longlist, and this is my next read. I may report back on that book once I am done.



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