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This paper was originally presented to the Hungarian Literature Discussion group of the Modern Langauge Association of America in San Francisco at the annual conference in 1991.

Protest as Deconstruction in Péter Szabó Szentmihályi's Anti-regény ("Anti-Novel")


Steven C. Scheer
stevenscheer@wowway.com

The reading/writing dichotomy involves four personalities two of whom are real while two are imagined/imaginary. Thus, there is always already an actual writer and an actual reader (provided that there is an actual reader, of course) where the actual writer is a real person and the actual reader ditto. But there is also (again, always already) an implied writer and an implied reader (without exception, in this case) where the implied writer is a persona or fictive person (which is true even if the person in question is obviously a projection of the person of the actual writer) and the implied reader ditto (again, without exception since a reader is always already implied in every act of writing). This foursome/twosome distinction is important because there is a sense according to which no actual writer or reader can ever be textualized in the literal sense while no implied writer or reader can ever be untextualized even in a metaphorical sense (I think). What I mean is simply this: no real person is ever a name on a piece of paper and no name on a piece of paper is ever a real person. All of this is quite obvious, of course, even if it does seem rather mind-boggling when meticulously described. I am, nevertheless, belaboring the point because without it the first (and in a sense last) question I wish to raise here would be either simple-minded or downright hostile and/or disrespectful. The question is, who is Péter Szabó Szentmihályi?

Ordinarily I wouldn't raise such a question because ordinarily I wouldn't worry about an answer to it. In this case, however, the answer is indubitably questionable or questionably dubious. Allow me, therefore, to begin by describing the book the cover of which bears the name Péter Szabó Szentmihályi. The flyleaf (ordinarily blank) repeats the name and the title, but the title page also includes a subtitle ("Vigyázz magadra, te ütôdött!"- the English equivalent of which is something like "watch out for yourself, you nincompoop!" And at this point it is not clear whether or not this is a warning to the reader). The verso of the title page bears the copyright sign followed by the author's name and the date 1989. [It was, in fact, in the summer of 1989 that I bought a copy of the book in question in a bookstore in Budapest, but that's neither here nor there.] The next page contains the Preface which is dated September, 1988. The verso of this page is blank. The recto of the next page contains what, upon reading, prove to be disclaimers, the first is dated 1970, the second, 1981. The penultimate page of the novel, the recto of which contains an Afterword, is dated January, 1989. This, in itself, is interesting from a deconstructive point of view since deconstructors like to preoccupy themselves with the question and/or problem of the Preface. Everyone knows that the Preface is the last thing a person writes. In this case, however, it is not - though it is not the first either, of course. In any case, Péter Szabó Szentmihályi seems to have written the Afterword last - for good measure, I suppose. But I am getting off my subject (not really) which is the phenomenon (literally) of the Dark Line in the Middle of the Page.

The novel (that is, anti-novel) proper begins on page 9. Now pages 9-309 are split in half by a dark line in the middle of each page. The upper area ("fenti terület" or "térfél") contains the original novel which the Author claims was written nearly 20 years prior to publication (but the actual writing of which according to - perhaps dubious - internal evidence seems to have taken three years), while the lower area ("alsó terület" or "térfél") contains not so much another novel but a running commentary on and an apparent continuation of the first. This second, or subsequent, or anti-novel comes to a sudden end at the bottom of page 309. Pages 310-469 continue the original novel. Discounting the 300 split pages, the entire novel is one uninterrupted chapter. In a few places during the 300 split-page sequence the Author mischievously flip-flops top with bottom just to test the reader's alertness. The Author, of course, always brings attention to this fact. The only other breaks in the text occur at pages 394, 398, and 423. The 2.3 pages which follow page 394 contain the original synopsis of the novel. The interesting thing about this synopsis is that many of the story's episodes mentioned in it are, in fact, not in the novel proper. Most of these do, of course, come up in what follows so that whatever happens in the last 70 plus pages is merely a detailed version of what the reader has already learned from reading the synopsis. The top of page 399 (most of which is blank) bears a Dedication in which the Author dedicates the novel (anti-novel) to all those modest and decent people who would never think of writing an autobiographical novel which they would then try to foist off on unsuspecting readers. In a footnote at the bottom of this same page the Author explains that for technical reasons this particular place is the most appropriate place for the Dedication, which could otherwise discourage potential readers from ever picking up the book in the first place. The break on page 423 is simply a conventional break indicated by ellipses. The Author, of course, does bring the reader's attention to this fact, too.

At this point it might be appropriate for me to raise my first (and in a sense last) question again: who is Péter Szabó Szentmihályi? Once more, this is the kind of question I wouldn't ordinarily raise because I wouldn't ordinarily be worried about an answer to it. It is, after all, a matter of convention to distinguish the author from the narrator. This is not so simple in the case of Péter Szabó Szentmihályi. As the Dedication on page 399 makes it very clear, this anti-novel is autobiographical. Part of it is, in fact, told in the first person singular, though much of it is told in the more conventional third person, but not without the Author making much of the fact that these two persons don't really mean anything and are, in fact, more or less interchangeable at the Author's will and/or whim. Throughout the entire novel, in fact, the Author frequently refers to himself as the Author, with a capital "A" (actually "S[z]" for "Szerzô"), deliberately ignoring the conventional distinction between author and narrator. In a handful of cases he actually uses the letters "P" "S[z]" "S[z]" (the abbreviation of his real name), though for the most part (whether in the first or third person) the story in the upper area and in the final section appears to be "about" a young version of the Author who goes by the name of Szent Antal (I am retaining the Hungarian order of the name in this case so as to save the pun on Saint Anthony that runs through the original. "Anti" is, of course, the familiar or informal version of "Antal," so that there is even more pun in the title of this Hungarian Anti-regény than initially supposed - in other words, the title in the Hungarian original is not just "anti-novel," but - as it turns out - also simply just "Tony's novel"). Most of the time, however, the name is simply abbreviated to the letter "A."

The name of the Author's apparent older version in the lower area is never given. The letter "G" is used throughout the lower area as an abbreviation but it is never even made clear whether this is an abbreviation of a first or a last name. Thus, the triple-protagonist of the novel (anti-novel) is one character in three persons, a trinitarian or triune Author who manifests himself either as Szent Antal or as "G" or, on a couple of rare occasions, as "P" "S[z]" "S[z]," that is, the abbreviation of the actual writer's real name. (Let me parenthetically mention here that the letter "g" would not, of course, be the initial letter of God's name in Hungarian, though I should also mention that both Szent Antal and "G" are English teachers . . . whatever that may signify). The decision to call the Author's younger self Szent Antal appears spontaneous and arbitrary, the result of the chance use of a slang expression ("annyi szent" - the equivalent of something like "that's for sure" or "you bet"). At this point, in fact, the Author is trying to name his character, as it were, and considers "K" or "Mr. A. G." The invocation of Kafka is unmistakable but non-Hungarians might miss the reference to Tibor Déry's dystopia, G. A. úr X-ben ("Mr. A. G. in X"). Once Szent (Saint) becomes the character's last name, the Author considers Peter, Paul, and John before settling on Antal. This occurs on page 15. The only problem is that on page 11 the character in question has already put his initials ("S[z]" "A") on a document. This apparently total indifference to inconsistencies and contradictions on all levels is a characteristic of the novel as a whole.

Needless to say, Péter Szabó Szentmihályi's "anti-novel" is archly self-conscious, exasperatingly self-reflexive, and gratingly self-referential. If you like Laurence Sterne, Vladimir Nabokov, or John Barth, you will love Péter Szabó Szentmihályi. The story he tells is not so much the story as the innumerable frustrations that attend the attempt to tell the story. The unbridgeable discrepancy between the actual and the implied never leaves the pages of the book. Nor does the anxiety of trying to capture fleeting life by means of more or less permanent but silent marks on paper. Writing a novel is, for Péter Szabó Szentmihályi, like trying to mime a scream. Life is continuously swallowed up by the passage of time and when we try to capture it by writing it down, we but end by wasting more and more of the very thing we are so desperately trying to save. And this same frustration is beginning to beset me now, for in my attempt to be meticulous and exact in describing Péter Szabó Szentmihályi's anti-novel I have nearly used up all the time allotted to me without so much as scratching the surface of the work under consideration. And the fact that "scratching" happens to be the etymological meaning of "writing" is of little consolation at this or, indeed, any other moment.

All I can do, therefore, is attempt to capture the essence of the book in one last breathless (though not spiritless) paragraph: Péter Szabó Szentmihályi's anti-novel (like all metafiction) operates on two levels of significance simultaneously. That is, it is not merely about itself, about its own processes, but also about the role of the fictive and the illusory in real life. The story as such chronicles going to school and then teaching in school, courting and then getting married, making love and then having children, trying to make ends meet and then committing more or less insignificant infidelities, and not just of the marital kind. But this ordinary human life is framed by larger forces (equally fictive) which both are and are not beyond an ordinary person's control. In spite of its arch self-referentiality, in other words, Péter Szabó Szentmihályi's text re/presents the very textuality of life under an at first strong, then changing, and eventually slowly dying Communism with frightening accuracy. Though the illusion which the book admittedly is is disillusioned both with politics and religion, it never gives up on human beings (even though it is not exactly enamored of human nature, either). Let me, by way of conclusion, quickly comment on two of the novel's several endings. In one "A" encounters himself as the "other." It's a spooky scene in a streetcar somewhere not far from Marx Square. But the person "A" momentarily mistakes for himself turns out to be his symbolic double, a Worker sitting across from the Intellectual. This scene, reminiscent of a similar ending in John Fowles, quickly dissolves when the Worker gets off the streetcar and an aging Priest gets on. From the Worker, the Priest, and the Intellectual we quickly switch to a final scene (supposedly realistic) in which Szent Antal is trying to hock a tape recorder in a Pawn Shop. To prove to the surly employee that the tape recorder works, "A" plays the tape that happens to be in it. For a brief moment, the shop resounds with a private recording of a church choir bursting out with "The Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world." Out of a sense of embarrassment, "A" fast-forwards the tape to an American friend's halting recitation of a few lines from Attila József. When the surly employee claims that the tape recorder must be defective because it doesn't sound right, "A" frantically explains that the voice on it is the voice of an American whose Hungarian is imperfect. In the end, then, the Worker, the Priest, and the Intellectual give way to the Lamb of God and a well-respected leftist poet. The final image is almost that of the imperfect Hungarian through a Voice of America. This ending is reminiscent of the entire book in which chance has been parading as choice (and vice versa) all along, and at this point I cannot help but suspect that what we really have here is order masquerading as chaos and/or chaos masquerading as order. One of these words ("Chaos") is, of course, the name of the latest movement in science - in other words, the State of the Truth (no pun intended) at the end of the twentieth century.

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