Skip to main content

Staff Picks: The Dispossessed

Note: The perfect excuse to re-post* an excerpt from a previous book review of The Dispossessed by Szilárd Borbély is that his posthumously published novel Kafka fia (Kafka’s Son) has finally been published in Hungarian, the author’s native language, after its German version Kafkas Sohn. While the English translation is yet to come, we’d like to reminisce with his hit novel, available in English and many other languages.

Disclaimer: strong language, offensive content

books covers in various languages

Covers of a few international editions and the original in Hungarian

“Talent is selfish and cruel” – a book review of The Dispossessed by Szilárd Borbély

A household name today in erudite Europe, poet and literary historian Szilárd Borbély from rural Hungary never longed for fanfare and limelight. He just kept writing. Poems, essays, literary criticism, scholarly papers, newspaper articles, dramas, and novels. He had a way with the language. Precision poetry. No text published until every verb and adjective is perfectly in place.

Reading his poems is a challenge. His texts will take the reader to a mysterious and dark place, where they may not want to be. His newly translated breakthrough novel, The Dispossessed, is not for the faint-hearted either. As I predicted at the SALIS Conference in San Diego, the unique language of this unprecedented novel would challenge both translator and reader. The power of language as used to express powerlessness.

When it was first published in 2013, I had read the original Hungarian novel in one sitting. I was afraid if I put it down, I would not have the courage to pick it up again. Postponing the English version day after day, week after week, seemed inevitable. I knew what I was dealing with. Expressively depicted in the novel, the harsh reality of the northeast of Hungary had already hit me three times in 2016. Faces and places, miserable conditions, an environment deprived of any potential, poverty, ignorance, indifference, listlessness, and cruelty. Trauma, suffering, grieving.

It was Szilárd who helped me out. In an interview published in Kalligram in 2009, he says, “I have the feeling that nowadays people die without an opportunity for them or their loved ones to learn anything from their lives. Without knowing that their lives not only are not leading toward death, but people around them learn nothing from their deaths. […] We don’t have a life of our own, how could we have a death of our own then? I am trying to notice that death provides something to learn about life.”

So does his.

Borbély’s writing gained new depths after his parents’ home was brutally invaded in rural Hungary in 2000, leaving his mother dead and his father disabled. First published in Hungarian in 2013 by Kalligram, and reprinted several times since then, The Dispossessed, a semi-autobiographical novel of growing up in poverty in a remote village, is also intensified by the author’s tragic suicide in 2014.

The language of the novel is a memento to the local dialect and customs interspersed with words such as a “footcloth,” used in boots in winter to keep the feet warm, or a “cleaning rag,” used instead of a sponge, with which the mother would beat the kids. The father follows traditions by drinking brine from sauerkraut to cure his hangover, and in an unloving environment, kids are often called a “pile of misery.” Living with superstition and fear, they are afraid of the “copper-pricked owl,” while the adults are afraid of each other, everyone being suspicious of everyone else. The Messiah, or rather Messiyah in the local dialect, has nothing to do with religion here. He is the only man with a beard in the village, a mentally disabled, toothless drunk, called on to clean the clogged outhouses.

The mother and the kids are always working around the house or are on the go, restlessly and hopelessly. “There is never an end to it,” claims the mother. Walking a lot to places, the little boy talks infrequently with his overworked, depressed, and suicidal mother She only wants to leave the village and often threatens the children that she will commit suicide. She is never satisfied, for all the popular wisdom that “the shit will wear down your teeth.” Nonetheless, the little boy understands that his mother is not mad at him. He had reached the emotional state where being abused verbally and physically doesn’t even hurt, or so he claims.

Death is part of their lives in many ways, such as routinely torturing and killing newborn animals––either to stop overpopulation, or because killing is the only thing that makes them happy. Anemia, vitamin deficiency, speech impediment, and many other handicaps plague the narrator’s young life. The little boy hates his younger brother, who means more work for him, and wants him dead. He also hates his older sister, because he has to wear her hand-me-down clothes and shoes. Obsessed with indivisible numbers, he keeps trying to count and break down everything. The young boy’s unconditional love towards his mother is manifested in plans to kill his father when he grows up. At this early age, he came to the conclusion that they would be better off without the useless, alcoholic, wife-beating father.

Historical events and political changes have no impact on the life of this social group. “The revolution… What’s the point of it? They gave a slap to the shit” is the attitude.

The suggestive and expressive language depicts poverty with great power, with a lot of insider knowledge. Drawing heavily on the author’s memories of his own childhood, this poverty is not appalling, as he claimed in an interview, but rather dignified. Others had it even worse, with more humiliation, and no chance to get away. In the same interview, Borbély calls his escape from this milieu “a system error, just like every individual escape. […] But the real solution should be on a societal scale.”

His survival strategies had been successful only up to a point. His approach, choosing writing as a way of expression instead of suppression, helped him with his own severe depression. In an interview with the 45-year-old author shedding more light on his background, Borbély states,

“The ability to write is essentially a gift, just like all talents are. We see these cases where people become enslaved by their own talents, because talent is selfish and cruel. It is the manifestation of that greater force which moves your hand, and moves people in general.”

A perfect ending to a miserable 2016, reading The Dispossessed helps the healing process in its magical-mysterious way and leaves something important behind for now. Please, never, ever. Please. No more. Not like that.

And all of us in the erudite Europe and eager America, in 2017, let’s stop and step back to think for a second, when we feel so overwhelmed with our first world problems.

Select reviews and interviews

*Originally published in 2016 in SALIS News, 36(4), 11-13. Republished with permission.