Thursday, December 27, 2012

Death of an Athlete by Miklós Mészöly

Death of an Athlete by Miklós Mészöly
Translated by Tim Wilkinson
Liverpool: Bluecoat Press, 2012

My earlier post on the novel and author, providing a few links available in English on both.

Hildie, the companion of recently deceased track star Bálint Őze, is asked by the State Sports Press to record a memoir about his life. What follows is Hildie’s twisting narrative, covering some of the key events and people in Bálint’s life. Hildie recounts stories about Bálint she saw and heard, returning to certain moments repeatedly, uncovering more facts with each telling.

Bálint can be hard to pin down through Hildie’s stories and recollections. She presents plenty of detail in the central stories she returns to again and again but they form only a general outline (at best) of the athlete. She recognizes her limitations, deliberate or accidental, as well:

One day I read through what I have written so far about our life and was unhappy with it. It reinforced me in the belief that I should only regard this as a draft. I considered that it still contains too many impromptu conjectures, comparisons, and arbitrary references, albeit there is also a strong temptation to read this or that into what happened. The sports press, for instance, were still suggesting as late as the end of October that I make a visit to a few of the spots where, in their view, I might be able to collect authentic experiences. I politely rejected that offer, although I am well aware that my own notes are incomplete. None of what I wanted to do—to write down only the pure facts, objects, repetitions, trivialities that the only person who could find them to be of importance is someone who has learned to loath imagination because he knows that it marks the start of true forgetting—succeeded. All the same, I shudder at the thought of allowing myself to shape it. Not out of stubbornness; I simply feel that only I can be a guide in what represents my own suffering and happiness. Even if I err, at least I do so on my own responsibility. At all events I shall expand or curtail the book until it is as incontrovertible as he was when we found him. I suppose every legend is very simple. Not that it will necessarily be readily understandable, of course.

To make things more complicated, Hildie later reveals she has deliberately left out one event (chronologically earlier, but then chronology doesn’t really factor during her memoir) that, without which, nothing is comprehensible. I don’t know that I would go as far as her judgment but the event does shine a different light on some of the earlier actions in addition to questioning both her memory and her method of presentation.

The legend of Bálint isn't straightforward but even in its incompleteness we get some understanding. He’s unfaithful to Hildie. He pulls out of races with no explanation. He seems to not really be trying at times and has a reputation for underachievement. He treats the track team’s physician (and state informer, at least in Bálint’s mind) with contempt. He continues to move up in distances (running longer races) because of his age—he can no longer compete with the younger sprinters. Yet he has his generous moments, too. He takes time out to educate rural athletes with helpful training advice. He can be generous to athletes that are or will be his competitors. There are other factors, too, such as the injury as a teen that has caused “Every step I have taken since then has been painful” (literally, but somewhat metaphorically, too). He seems to race for some sort of inner verification instead of impressing others.

Hildie recounts episodes that have meaning, both to her and her story, questioning if she understood their implications at the time they occurred or if she’s only sees their importance later. Underlying her stories lives a complicated tale of group dynamics with friends, family, and community (athletic, artistic, government). Rarely are any of these dynamics positive, some of them turning destructive—this was one of the keys to novel for me. This section from a Hungarian Literature Online article goes into more detail on the dynamics for certain spheres, although it could be applied to all of those I mentioned:

In a sense, the official narrative of the athlete's life that the regime expects from her is the chronological and narrative equivalent of the spaces of socialism that fill the novel, particularly those of the purported public spaces of socialism, such as housing estates and sports facilities. The inscription of a personal subjective chronology onto these impersonal spaces constitutes a major philosophical and moral triumph (even if left unstated) for the female protagonist, even as she discovers at the end of the novel that the regime has no use for her memories and has already published its own account. As opposed to the military academy in Ottlik's School at the Frontier, the space that dominates Death of an Athlete is that of the telep, a word translatable into English by such expressions as "settlement, colony, habitation, premises, [housing] estate, establishment" and so on, and which in actuality translates one of the most essential spatial tropes of Socialist space in the Soviet satellite countries. As Beáta Thomka writes:
The telep is a part of a space of desolation, in spite of its openness, and along with it as well, the spatial model of a perfectly surveyed, enclosed world. (p. 95)
The narrator describes as well those relics of pre-war Budapest that somehow survived into this era. The description of the puppet theatre at Városliget, nearly documentary in its detail, renders a vivid picture of the sheer diachrony of life in a small central European country where not all layers of the past could be effectively and thoroughly erased. "Her small park theatre, incidentally, was not touched by the post-war wave of rationalisations… Even then it had already given the appearance of some sort of asylum against various police security threats…" And the description of the theatre itself becomes subordinate to the narrator's need to unravel the personality of its director, Becky, her sister-in-law and one of Bálint's lovers.

Hidie reveals early on the “looniness” of the new world she entered when she met Bálint: “True everyone had their own secrets, but that was done in the interest of a common goal. I was always alarmed by this mixing of oppositions: that was how an exemplary esprit de corps could arise out of jealousies and loathing. It took years to get used to the fact that the laws of pursuing records are not run-of-the-mill stuff.” Neither are the laws of running a centrally planned state. Nor are the laws in maintaining a close-knit group of friend. And so on. In one case where acquiescence is given to be a member of a group (and implied for all cases), Bálint describes it as having lost “our independence and exchanged it for that ambiguous camaraderie which in the end impaired each and every one of us.”

I found it to be a fun read (OK, and more than a little disturbing), straightforward and dense at the same time. Highly recommended.

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