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.



Our Street – Sándor Tar (translated by Judith Sollosy)

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.

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