Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Toth Family by István Örkény

The Flower Show / The Toth Family by István Örkény (New York City: New Directions, 1982)

Matraszentanna is a small mountain town, so small, in fact, that it has no indoor plumbing. Anyone wishing an inside flush toilet has to install his own private pump. Only Professor Cipriani, the proud owner of the town’s one mansion, could afford such a luxury. The rest of the population have to make do with their outhouses.

Thus begins the first chapter of The Toth Family (translated by Clara Gyorgyey), setting the tone for the rest of the novella. Before the first chapter, though, is a preface in the form of a postcard from Gyula Toth, a soldier at the Russian front, informing his family that his company commander Major Varro would be spending his leave at their home. Since the major suffers from insomnia and an overly sensitive nose Gyula convinced him to relax with his parents in their rustic village.

Matraszentanna is a backward village, where the cesspool cleaner has a Ph.D. in law but chose being a cesspool expert since he makes twice as much money as a lawyer. Making money is an issue in the village since there are few opportunities to do so. People lease rooms in their homes to tourists bur recently the state gave the town a low rating. The visit by a high ranking official was a major event (pardon the pun). The walk from the station to the Toth home resembled a parade as the villagers line the street to get a glimpse of the major.

The Toth family was one of the more respected families in the village. Lajos had retired from the railroad and had been chosen town fire chief, a position he wore with pride. His wife, Mariska, and daughter Agi were devoted to Lajos and to Gyula. They receive the major with trepidation, planning his visit for weeks so that nothing will go wrong. The family hopes to gain from Major Varro’s visit by providing an easier life for Gyula at the front. Because of this concern, they overreact to everything the major does, says, or implies. They completely defer to him regardless of how silly his requests or how asinine their concerns turn out to be.

Major Varro turns out to be a complicated figure. He’s often described as half-mad because he does have some good points. He fails to realize the pressure his visit places on the Toth family. The madness in his actions comes from his role in the war and his inability to act outside of that role. Because of the danger of attack at night the major sleeps during the day and stays up all night, a trait he doesn’t change in the Toth home. His views on idleness carry over to his leave, too:

In a dark room even the softest noise sounds amplified—the volume is multiplied a hundred times. Now idleness has the same effect on the entire human organism as darkness on the organs of hearing: it reinforces internal sounds, causes distorted vision, and creates a rattling in the brain. Whenever my soldiers have nothing to do, I order them to cut off all their trouser buttons. Then they have to sew them back on. As a result, they are always calm and collected.

There are more examples of the impact of war, which remains highlighted throughout the story, but the Toth family provides their own examples in their complete submission to the major. Lajos can’t take the pressure and cracks up, first running away from home, then refusing to leave the outhouse. The novella looks at the state of sanity during wartime. It turns out that Gyula had been killed returning to the front after taking the major to the station—their torture at the hands of the major was needless. They had not received the notice of Gyula’s death because the postman, described as a half-wit, hated to deliver bad news to families he liked (and refused to deliver good news to those he disliked). In such a setting, his lunacy makes as much, or more, sense as the major’s actions, and definitelymore than that of the Toth family.

So why did Örkény choose the name Toth? An explanation from Michael Henry Heim’s introduction:

Toth is one of the most common Hungarian names, and Örkény is doubtless making a reference, none too veiled, to his compatriots’ double capitulation: to fascism during the war and Stalinism after it. Like the Hungarians, the Toths revolt in the end, and the why and how of their revolt supplies the novella with a satisfying finish.

I’ll agree with the easy capitulation, but keep in mind the Toth’s went through with their devotion to the major to help their son. Even this reason has a dark side, though, since another Hungarian boy would have to take Gyula’s place at the front. I included the last sentence in the quote because I don’t fully agree with it. The father revolts, it is true, but the mother and daughter aren’t aware of his actions—they have fully submitted to the major, switching their loyalty from Lajos to Major Varro. I’m not sure the ending was satisfying, either, although I suppose it was fitting in such an absurd story.

I enjoyed The Flower Show a little more of the two novellas included in this volume, but I highly recommend finding a copy to read both stories.

After publication in the mid-1960s, The Toth Family was adapted for the screen and stage. Here is a clip of the 1969 movie based on the story. There are no subtitles but it provides a good taste of the novella. The clip starts with the family constructing boxes for the bandage factory, a task Major Varro has them perform all evening. The mailman destroys the telegram with the bad news of Gyula’s death but delivers a postcard from the boy (that had been delayed) filling the family in on some of the major’s quirks. Because the family still have to perform their daily tasks after staying up all evening, they catch moments of sleep wherever they can.

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