The great novel of Transylvania? On “The Story of a Stutterer” by Gábor Vida
All this is a preamble to say that Gábor Vida Story of a stutterer (2017), in the English translation by Jozefina Komporaly, made me discover a people and a history that I was totally unaware of before reading the novel. And I say novel with a caveat, because Story of a stutterer is one of those works of autofiction about a character with the same name and background as the author – in this case, a Romanian-born and raised Hungarian writer called Gábor Vida. The line between fact and fiction seems particularly blurred here, an impression reinforced by the publisher referring to the novel as “a deeply personal narrative”. But internet searches yield no clues as to whether the author’s background is true, thanks in part to the notoriety of two deceased Hungarians – a figure skater, a painter – who share his name. So, for the sake of clarity, when I refer to Vida here, I mean the character from the book, unless otherwise specified.
Story of a stutterer is a generally simple, almost languid account of Vida’s childhood, schooling, and compulsory military service as he prepares to become a writer. Most of the book focuses on his youth and tells anecdotes about his family – grandparents, uncles, parents. Vida was born, in March 1968, in the same place where the paternal family comes from, the village of Kisjenő, at the eastern end of the Great Hungarian Plain, in the Arad region in northwestern Romania, near from the Hungarian border. As Vida recounts, the villagers “continually argue over the grievances of the past, the future being uncertain as always, [and] they belittle Romania, scold the gypsies and Europe[;] everyone would like to live in Hungary, or at least through the Hungarian language. Vida’s father is “strongly Hungarian”, so much so that “he does not understand that one can belong to any other ethnic group”.
And yet, Vida’s mother and her family are another ethnicity, at least in a way, since they are Székelys. Komporaly’s “Translator’s Notes” somewhat circularly defines Székelys as “a subgroup of Hungarians living mainly in the Székely country (Hungarian: Székelyföld, Romanian: Ţinutul Secuiesc) in Romania”. Vida’s mother’s family is originally from Transylvania, but readers don’t get further advice on Székely Land for 70 pages until Vida provides a time capsule.
To expand a bit for readers like me who know little about the region, Székely Land today includes most of the central Romanian counties of Covasna and Harghita, which start about 100 miles north of Bucharest and run west. At the beginning of the 20e century, the region, together with several other counties in northern Transylvania, was part of the Kingdom of Hungary. Romania invaded during World War I and the Treaty of Trianon, which settled the war between the Allies and Hungary, officially gave northern Transylvania, including the Land of Székely, to Romania. During World War II, Hitler returned much of this territory to Hungary in an effort to keep Hungary and Romania fighting for the Axis. Then, in 1947, the lands were again returned to Romania.
These forced swings in Székely’s autonomy contributed, as Vida writes,
the opinion of Hungarians living on the Romanian segment of the Great Hungarian Plain that something is seriously wrong with the Székelys. They may be Hungarian, but they speak, think and behave differently […] Anyway, Hungarians could not be different from each other, because, in that case, who are we?
Vida grows up moving between the worlds of the Hungarians and the Székelys – worlds that are further differentiated for him by the family members who inhabit them. He spent his childhood summers in Transylvania with his Székely grandparents, in a “close religious and family bubble”. His grandfather Székely comes “from an archaic world in which the continuous abuse of women and children is a daily phenomenon”. He is a Baptist, unlike his wife who is Catholic, and for him the 10 commandments could be reduced to “Honor your father!” The Hungarian part of his family despises all [his] mother of course, because she is just a Székely girl”, but life in Arad is not an idyll. Where his Székely grandfather is religious, his Hungarian grandfather is an alcoholic: “There is a particular phase in the grandfather’s drunkenness where he always wants to hang himself, but in those moments he cannot no more handling the rope or the chain, Grandmother is quite certain of that. respect, or maybe he doesn’t care now.
In Transylvania, the family’s Hungarian flag, sewn by her grandmother in 1940, is hidden in a bed in case the house is raided. Vida plays “American Indians” in the forests of the Harghita Mountains, and later explores them with her uncles, Tom and Will, key figures in her life. Tom’s suicide, when Vida was 19, was the first time he realized that “the image my family had created and cultivated of themselves did not quite correspond to reality. “. He was much younger, eight or nine years old, when the scales fell from his eyes compared to the image that his country had cultivated of himself, an image allowed until then both by his mother and by his teachers who taught that “The socialist system we live in and have built is the best social arrangement in the world. The catalyst for this awakening was the testimony of his Hungarian grandfather, as he listened to a radio play about the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, lamenting that “fucking Americans […] didn’t drop their fucking nuclear bomb on Moscow.
The novel opens with Vida approaching 50 and offering metatextual insight into his career, including the great Transylvanian novel he’s struggling to write, likely the novel you’re reading. He embraces the belief that “reality and our self-image rarely coincide” and admits that he has “so few reliable personal memories that [he] must weigh if what [he] claim[s] is actually true. He plans to put all of his family members/characters in a castle so they have to interact. And he worries whether he has what it takes: “People claim they have some expertise, but they can never guarantee that the next sentence doesn’t reveal the limits of their knowledge.”
The beginning of the book also offers most of Vida’s comments on conditions in Romania as a whole as it faltered around 1989 and the end of the reign of communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu: “I have no idea if there existed in Europe a darker country than Romania. .” Turning to his main story about the Székelys, Vida points out that Ceauşescu intended to “liquidate everything that [had] survived from Hungarian culture in Transylvania […] entire areas [were] is eroding with an impact that lasts even today, ways of life, traditions and worlds are disappearing for good. But the novel never goes into specifics, opting instead for more generalizations, as when he would later write that Ceauşescu’s policies “not only reconfigured people’s relationship with the land, but, under the guise of modernization, systematically liquidated and deliberately destroyed the culture that had always preserved and perpetuated village life.
Vida’s family dynamic is presumably representative of the wider relationship between the Székelys and other ethnic Hungarians in Romania, but the novel rarely looks outside of the narrator’s personal experience.
I found myself wanting to know more about the effects of the dictatorship on Székely Land, a deeper reflection on the story it tells and more about the national situation during Vida’s military service, but these themes give way to the dense family history that comprises most of the novel’s nearly 400 pages. Vida tells this story directly, without explicit (or even very implicit) dialogue, without any variation in perspective. It feels both familiar and like being lectured to, like the novel is dictated or written and never revisited. This loose style results in an occasionally scattered timeline and quite a bit of repetition, as well as themes, such as an early emphasis on Vida’s facial hair, that never really pay off.
Vida the narrator studied to teach Hungarian literature, and Vida the author is the editor of Lato, a literary magazine devoted to contemporary Hungarian fiction from Transylvania; this combined expertise is evident throughout the novel. However, many references may make little impression on readers unversed in Hungarian literary history. Komporaly tries to save a few trips to the search engine, but its endnotes are not exhaustive and only provide basic facts. The “Place Name Index” at the end of the novel is also helpful, but the inclusion of a map would have been greatly appreciated.
Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, there were fears that the violence could spread beyond Ukraine’s borders. Romania is surrounded by countries that could easily become embroiled in a wider conflict, including Moldova, which maintains sovereignty over the pro-Russian breakaway state of Transnistria, and Serbia, which has made no secret of its continued support for Russia. It is not very difficult to imagine that a nationalist dictator like the Hungarian Viktor Orbán would also profit from a destabilized region.
In 2011, Orbán’s Fidesz party, after taking power in Hungary’s parliament, passed a law allowing “anyone who was a Hungarian citizen or a descendant of a Hungarian citizen before 1920 or between 1941 and 1945 and who speaks Hungarian” to apply for citizenship – “even if they don’t actually live in Hungary.” Eventually, these people were “granted the right to vote as well,” according to Dariusz Kalan, who reported on Fidesz’s base for the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. These changes were apparently aimed at redressing the distribution of territory, such as Székely Land, due to the Treaty of Trianon, but Kalan writes that the real effect has been to bolster votes for Fidesz among Hungarians of all persuasions who live and work, often outside. out of financial necessity, abroad – Hungarians who now feel indebted to Orbán and Fidesz.
The expansion of the war in Ukraine is the worst-case scenario, especially any speculation about possible aggressive actions by Orbán. But anyone paying attention to the atrocities Russia has been committing in Ukraine since February knows that worst-case scenarios have become depressing in 2022. We in the West can no longer afford to remain ignorant.
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor.