Sharp-eyed debut novel limns life in a remote Hungarian town, a post-communist hotbed of greed, envy and romantic rivalries.
During World War II, Allied and Axis tanks alike bypassed this unnamed village as not worth bothering with, but in 2000 its aggressive young mayor keeps inviting foreign investors to visit and finance local industry. (Results so far: one Dutch dog-food company.) Ridiculous, thinks Fitten’s cranky, majestic heroine Valeria, who at 68 has seen it all and has little faith in any of it. Her main pleasure is visiting the village market, bypassing the “Chinese boom boxes, Polish electronics, German cassettes,” to reproach her neighbors for selling subpar fruits and vegetables. Everyone’s terrified of this tough old woman, who denounced her first lover to the Soviets way back in the ’40s, but the astonished crowd sees a whole new side of Valeria when the widowed potter catches her eye. With the villagers commenting on the action like a voluble, mean-spirited Slavic Greek chorus, Valeria orders a magnificent pitcher from the potter, and they have a one-night stand that provokes the enmity of his girlfriend Ibolya, proprietress of the local tavern. A little old (58) for flashing her bosom and legs to attract customers, Ibolya figured she’d eventually settle down with the potter. Now the vengeful tavern owner incites a visiting chimney sweep to make trouble all around. Ten days in bed with the chimney sweep certainly cheer up Valeria, but when the potter comes back with a pair of vases, she understands that she’s his muse, and their shared love of beautiful things unites them. A final jealous outburst from the chimney sweep and more troublemaking by Ibolya can’t alter the inevitable outcome of a clever if slightly overdetermined narrative that emulates the fablelike tone of Calvino and Márquez, adding a heaping helping of Kundera-like sex and satire.
Intellectually if not emotionally engaging, and it’s refreshing to see a neophyte author taking seriously the passions and opinions of older people. Fitten has a distinctive voice and a promising future.