There is tension between the two words of the title. Flowers are associated with beauty, gobbling belongs to ugliness. But is the greed with which one gobbles flowers beautiful or ugly? And can one live on gobbling petals? An almost seven hundred page long tour de force is built on this contradiction. BY TAMÁS TARJÁN.
Both motifs are elaborated majestically by the text. The flower motif is a hundredfold present from the chapter titled The Long Journey of a Petal through the name of the tulip fish playing a special role right to the cadences of Flowers in a Winter Library. (The closed spaces overgrown with flowers and tendrils make this presence all the more astonishing than more commonplace natural forms would.) The hidden motif of gobbling is told in a manner even more abstract and associative than that of the flower language. Let it suffice that the female protagonist, Klára Pelsőczy is attempted to be devoured by biting on several occasions by her husband, Imre Szép, and her brother-in-law, Péter, and by the half-brother of the Szép boys, Ádám, who is at times alive, at times dead. The red blotches on the woman’s hand, the green and purple ones left by teeth on her body and thighs blossom like exotic flowers.
It would be fair to compare this novel with a frame narrative to the genres of fables or legends. Both of these genres claim our full attention early on. The profusely frothing storytelling that poetically merges reality and unreality operates with very suggestive panoramic chapter titles such as the Arrival of the Gipsies – knowingly hinting at the panoramic painting of Feszty, the Arrival of the Hungarians. There is no stopping the deluge of fables and legends that ooze through the seven hundred pages. The length and the countless side-tracks do raise compositional dilemmas, but the handling of the text that dissolves the dialogues into the narration without the usual quotation marks weaves the gripping historic chronicle that switches between points of view into such a unified tone, that the novel actually profits from the remotely linked diversions.
The repeated whisper „Wake up, László Pelsőczy. Wake up, László Pelsőczy.”, and the curse that is later to be fulfilled uttered quietly near the beginning of the book – „You will never wake up again, László Pelsőczy” – seem to be lines or a couplet snatched from a ballad, and the way the text is conjured and the overall tone of the novel also allow for an interpretation from the perspective of the obscure ballad that plays with omissions and the merging of genres.
The myriads of secrets and mysteries of the Flower Gobblers proliferate on a solid trunk of space and time. Although the plot does span decades, the revolution and freedom war of 1848-49 on one hand and the great flood of 1879 in Szeged on the other evoke a closed temporality. And even though the setting of the novel is far from being restricted to Szeged and its surroundings, this town reigns over the spatial aspect of the plot. The selection of both the era and the area is based on a rich literary tradition, summoning previous knowledge, awareness and memories, so Darvasi, regaling as much as he wants to, is continuously tied to one of the great chapters of nineteenth-centurism. The plot may be fractured, non-linear, repetitive, self-reflecting, but the readers never lose the solid ground from beneath their feet. This of course does not apply to the final, monumental vision of reality, the apocryphal Biblical „book” of the flood. In that part, water rules.
The novel forebodes the death of Imre Szép and Klára Pelsőczy: „… it was the fault of the German feldsher that they died, literary of hunger, it was because of him that they perished in their locked flat. Man and wife embraced one another, devoured one another in their cursed room, the window and door of which they nailed from the inside. The rumours were justified. The death chamber was a room of flowers, filled with all sorts of plants, stalks and shoots.” A little later, however, we can hardly understand how this couple could have (will have) ended up like that. Nothing suggests in the early phase of their marriage that they will barricade themselves from the outside world with boards and nails dipped in paint, only to hug and eat each other into annihilation. The era, the epoch devours and buries them both, the couple buried into one another, just like the Tisza river engulfing the Tisza mayfly. This is the middle of the century before the last, the time period that became a narrative, a tale, a legend, a ballad. To understand the florid perishing of the „dotty botanist” and his wife one indeed seems to require the structure and the quantity that is elaborated by Darvasi with unparalleled quality.
This visionary grand novel – full of objective, factual references – sprouts not from the Latin-American tradition that is usually mentioned in case of prose of such character, but from the romantic notion of the novel genre, from its merciless critical attitude tuned to be an opposite force and from certain elements of Hungarian folk poetry and novel tradition. Darvasi’s long list of journal publications over the long years gone by have already gave reason to hope for a magnificent literary gift, but the cohesive neatness is demonstrated for the first time in Flower Gobblers. He has made a huge step forward even when compared to The Legend of the Tear Jugglers. His literary merit will most certainly be acknowledged by reviews and with awards. And in addition to the triumph of the talent and the personal success, perhaps none of the masterpieces of the middle generation of internationally acclaimed Hungarian authors have demonstrated so clearly the kind of internal connections, influences and inspirations that are at work despite the differences within this literary cohort. Behind the (sinner?) Doctor Schütz and the act of nailing we catch a glimpse of Satantango by László Krasznahorkai, and his doctor figure. Darvasi’s sentence structure show almost no similarity to the Esterházy sentence, but the grammar of the fellow writer is „in the air” all the same, as is the kinship with the all the more fractured narrative à la Pál Závada. Let us, however, place the possible parallels in parentheses, and allow Darvasi to receive his due praise for his novel-ballad.
Translated by Péter Papolczy