By: Lajos Grendel
Translated by: Paul Olchváry
Published by: Kalligram
Available at:The Art Forum
Rating:4 out of 10
"Once upon a time there was, well, nothing much to speak of."
With this bathetic flourish Lajos Grendel ends his first novel, Live Fire - a sarcastic take on history and almost everything else under the sun. But while Grendel may not have intended it, his concluding line sums up perfectly the author's own first attempt at prose.
Grendel might well argue that this is exactly the point. Live Fire is more of a series of essays than a novel, and sets out to prove that fiction is incapable of reflecting life; instead, the book suggests, history is a far better vehicle for portraying humanity. But the ambitious project misses the target, leaving the reader stranded in a messy plot burdened with platitudes and hollow confessions.
Born in the bicultural southern Slovak town of Lučenec, Grendel uses Live Fire to share his experiences as a Hungarian living in Slovakia (the novel was first published in Hungarian as Élesloveszet). Written from the perspective of a nameless narrator, the story has two parts: the first is a historical account of Budapest since its first occupation by the Turks in 1663, and second a more personal look at the lives of Slovak Hungarians living in the narrator's hometown.
Covering 300 years in a pessimistic rant spanning 157 pages, the book introduces readers to such characters as the Turkish Sultan, the narrator's tragic grandfather whom he calls the hero of the story, and a group of "block people" from his own generation whose moral and intellectual growth has been stunted by decades of communism.
Unfortunately, Grendel allows none of his characters to materialise vividly enough to generate any interest. Instead, he interrupts their development by repeatedly inserting his own confused reflections on history, none of which offer even a morsel of original insight. Grendel relates the hilarious tale of a traditional rabbit-hunt, for example, which he craftily manipulates to parody war. Unfortunately, the jaunt is short lived, prematurely abandoned, and fails to advance the wearisome plot.
Even more exasperating is his defence of this tactic: "If the narrator were a novelist", he writes, as if to remind the reader that the parts of the book he enjoys the most - the 'novel' parts, where adventures happen and a story gets told - are an artificial construct which will ultimately be abandoned.
What do they call this kind of writing now? Post-modernism? Post-post-modernism? And who knows what it means, or cares? Indeed, were it not for the dues it feels it owes to literary fads, Live Fire might have been a book worth reading.