In his first and only novel, Borbély describes growing up in a remote village in northeastern Hungary.
Borbély, an acclaimed poet and writer in his native Hungary, once promised his father that he would never write about his dismal childhood. His father died in 2006. In 2013, Borbély published a brilliant, and biting, depiction of his destitute boyhood in a remote Hungarian village. The novel was highly acclaimed, and now, in his debut in English translation, Borbély’s work promises to be a major gift to English readers. His is a massive talent, with a dark taste for the absurd placing him squarely in the company of Gogol, Kafka, and, more recently, Bohumil Hrabal and the filmmaker Emir Kusturica. In the 1960s and '70s, Communist years, Borbély’s family was ostracized because of his mother’s landowning ancestors and rumors of his father’s illegitimacy. They were desperately poor. From a young boy’s perspective, Borbély describes his father’s chronic unemployment, his mother’s ongoing attempts to fling herself down into the well. The boy, his older sister, and their baby brother sometimes went hungry. There weren’t enough resources to support unnecessary life, and so, as Borbély writes in one unforgettable passage, “all newborn animals”—including sparrows, mice, and kittens—had to be “exterminated.” Then the boy shifts his gaze. “We should take my little brother someplace, as well,” he tells his mother. When she demurs, he pushes back. “But why was he brought here?” he insists. “There are enough of us already.” In Mulzet’s magnificent translation, Borbély’s prose is caustic and lucent, tart and somehow burnished. He writes in short, staccato phrases that seem bitten off, chewed at the end with an acerbic twist. He has a fantastic wit; he excavates the darkest whimsy from the bleakest of situations. “But the angels sent him to us,” his mother says of his baby brother. His response: “I don’t understand what angels have to do with it.” Borbély died in 2014, but there is a back catalog of poems, essays, and stories yet to appear in English. Here’s hoping Mulzet brings us more before too much time passes.
An exquisite addition to any library of the dark, the bleak, and the absurd, Borbély’s inauguration into English is a magnificent one.