Life behind the Iron Curtain in post-1956 Hungary provides the backdrop for a nightmare childhood.
Soon after Katalin gets on a train and defects to the West without a word to anyone, abandoning her husband Kalman, daughter Kata, and son Isti, the family leaves their farm and embarks on a peripatetic life. Kalman is a dangerous ne’er-do-well, dependent on the kindness of family and friends whose hospitality he repays with anger and disdain. Bitter, antisocial, and often drunk, Kalman is either unwilling or unable to care for the children properly. School, meals, and discipline go by the boards and are taken up by a series of mother-substitutes with whom the family lives as Kalman bounces from job to job and Kata strives to develop some type of normalcy with the various people who give them shelter. Someone teaches Isti, who has not been to school, to read and write. After a while, each member of the family finds a compensatory consolation: Kalman swims in the rivers and lakes near where they settle, Isti becomes fascinated by train schedules, and Kata creates imaginary worlds. From time to time, Katalin’s mother will arrive with word of her daughter, who has settled into a drab life as a dishwasher in Germany, including the story of their hardships in crossing the border. But such communication has little effect on the family’s belief in the future, which remains stunted. Soon their afternoon swims together become their only joint activity, when they can lose themselves in the sensuality of the water—until tragedy strikes, the final blow that destroys any semblance of family. Bánk’s language is spare and an absence of color dominates the novel, but such spareness provides The Swimmer with its impact, and a reflection of Kalman’s reticence.
A startling piece of work in its lack of affect, reminiscent of the fiction and memoir of Jerzy Kosinski and Agota Kristof.