Thursday, October 10, 2013

Relations by Zsigmond Móricz: “The only relation to love is the one that’s of use to you.”

Relations by Zsigmond Móricz
Translated by Bernard Adams
Introduction by George F. Cushing
Corvina Books, Ltd. (2007)
ISBN 978 963 13 5524 6

The original intent was that this post would have been two or three separate posts, but time constraints put an end to that plan. So I’ll apologize for the length of this post in advance, as well as the lack of editing…

In the previous post I had some info on Zsigmond Móricz and a little bit about his 1932 novel Relations. In this post I wanted to begin to focus on the problems in Hungary as Móricz presented them in the novel. The story begins with István Kopjáss (Pista) just elected as the Town Clerk of Zsarátnok, a fictional city but one based on real places. The name means "embers," something dull on the surface but with heat or potential fire underneath. Pista had been the Cultural Adviser, a post with responsibility in name but with little practical influence. The result of the election is a surprise to everyone, but it's gradually revealed that it had been engineered by the real power of the city in order to have a pliant front-man that will help further their causes. They also hope Pista will help limit their liabilities resulting from soured investments and corruption. To the dismay of those in power Pista shows that he has ideas to improve the life of everyday people and an ability to (slowly) grasp the intricacies of a scandal that plagues the city and businessmen. Even though Pista is on his guard he becomes caught in the corruption and patronage web. The exposure damages him physically, mentally, and emotionally, although the Mayor believes Pista will be a very useful man now that he’s been broken. Instead the novel ends with Pista’s attempted suicide, the outcome unclear.

While there are many problems in Hungary presented in the novel I will group them into four major categories. Some of these overlap and I could expand to more categories, but I want to keep things simple. The first category revolves around the corruption and greed of the ruling class. The presence of these characters can be impressive, with one gent described as “an elegant, refined and distinguished man, tall and slim, bearded, seemingly from another planet, even his beard indicated that he was of another race, another world.” (25) Móricz’s story is full of double-edged descriptions: “All present, generally speaking, were proud men, and even if they were small of stature nonetheless they held their heads high. Perhaps this was only because of their stiff collars, because among themselves they were thoroughly cheerful, good-humoured, could laugh like children, as if they were hiding nothing, neither age nor wealth nor power nor an impoverished country.” (69)

Pista talks with a member of the Gentlemen’s Club, providing Móricz with an opportunity to note the divide in the country. The rich and powerful were like a family, “linked by common memories,” acting like a crime syndicate. This is a group that blocks out the fact that the host the parasites are living off of is very sick:

This was a powerful organisation. In its hands were the authority and governmental power of the whole country. All of them were in high positions, senior officers of the army, mighty landowners. Secret societies had no sign that bound their members together more surely than this class that had done well in life.

And they were all cheerful, good-humoured, happy souls. Even the sick, even those who were out of sorts, once they were at home in that private world, were stripped of life’s every care and united there in warm, welcoming, understanding reassurance and conviviality.

But the material basis which had brought this social network into being was crumbling terribly. The salaries of senior officials were falling. This year they’d been cut three times. The landowners were losing their life-blood. Those that had a thousand acres were penniless, buried in a mass of debt. Those with five thousand acres were in debt for a million pengós or two, and were only kept afloat by the special decree for the protection of the farmer. All of them were landowners in name alone.” The only reason that they didn’t get rid of their properties was that they could find no purchaser at auction. There were those whose ancestral estates had come down in the form of mansions of sixty rooms, and they still clung to existence around the mansion while the hyenas of the salesrooms auctioned the clothes of one or another in the great Budapest town house. (102-3)

This is a city where the elite gather at the bank president’s house on Thursday evening so that the outcome of the next day’s council meeting can be decided in advance. As Pista begins to investigate the corruption he has always suspected, “Shock followed shock as he delved ever deeper into the labyrinth of false balances, creative accounting and manipulation of statistics.” (113) The corruption he uncovers has the aptly named 'Pig Farm' scandal, where those in power have gorged themselves at public trough. In another scandal Pista catches an engineer copying bids (with obvious administration support) in order to win a contract: “That was why the city was going nowhere. The people were being subjected to bare-faced robbery.” (206)

So what does it take to succeed in such an atmosphere? As we’ll see later, you have to be related to the right people. But the ability to gluttonously consume without choking helps, too. Pista reflects on the Mayor’s secretary’s behavior at the election party and decides the assistant was going to go far in such an environment. “He [Imrike], the Mayor’s secretary] had been there, and had done some very amusing things. He’d drunk a glass of champagne standing, sitting and lying down without swallowing, merely pouring it into his throat and letting it trickle down, without choking. He had a great future in the Administration.” (35) Ah, if only Country Dick Montana had been alive then. He would have been crowned emperor.

I think I included all the quotes above in order to provide the proper context for the following one, which shows Lina’s (Pista’s wife’s) knack for concise, accurate barbs and allows Móricz an opportunity to provide a suitable summation :

[Pista] “The garden alone is amazing. It all faces south. Great big box bushes, like in the city park.”

[Lina] “That’s where they came from.”

At that he was silent. It was possible, it was conceivable. He thought as he walked. These people really did live as if city property and the personal property of the leaders were fully interchangeable. (142, emphasis mine)

The title of the novel provides my second category: patronage for relatives. Translator Bernard Adams leaves the word protekció untranslated, which means the exercise of personal influence on behalf of another. Every acquaintance of Pista accosts him for favors but the bulk comes from relatives. Many characters provide their commentary on relatives climbing out of the woodwork to ask for help from a relation that recently did well, but none better than Móricz himself (as I included in the introductory post): “When he began to write it Móricz declared, ‘I postulated the idea that in every family there is one man, the rest are relations. By this I meant that there is a competent, strong personality to whom the many incompetent cling. And this strong man cannot achieve anything, because the network of relations enmeshes him and drags him into the depths.’” Lina, the rock and compass for the family, understands the issue immediately: generosity once started for the “blood suckers” will know no end. (91)

What makes things difficult is that Pista is a very idealistic and philosophical man. He muses on the duty of those that are successful in a family to help the others. He tries to weasel out of this duty by declaring his election “an act of God.” (92) That doesn’t stop the appearances of family members, one of which will play a major role in bringing him to the point of attempting suicide. As one character puts it, “Relationships only spread downwards,” which means that the “relation isn’t the man who’s doing well, but the man who’s doing badly.” (184) You only hear from relations when they are in need. The dependence on family members is reflected in other relationships in the novel, including knowledge as well as influence, although the two are so intertwined that it can be difficult to separate the two. Younger students know more about the older students, a tie they try to capitalize on. The poor know more about the elite than the other way around—the poor might as well not exist in the elite’s social circle. The city depends on the generosity of the state. The state begs for assistance from rich countries. And so on…

The right to include family members in shady deals and patronage follows the interchangeability of public and private property for the city’s leaders: “As he sat down it crossed his mind that these urak [members of the decadent (former) land-owning class] really conceived being related to someone as implying an established right to be cut in on any rackets that were going.” (192) Pista’s Uncle Berci provides the greatest truth of the novel: “The only relation to love is the one that’s of use to you.” (221) The quote ends up dripping with irony since Uncle Berci’s attempted coal scam brings Pista down. Pista arrives at a philosophy that coincides with one that the Mayor had put into practice: “One could only make progress in life if one freed oneself of burdens, and that meant all of one’s burdensome relations too. There was nothing else for it, one should keep only those likely to prove beneficial, and the wasters, of whom nothing could be made, must be left to their fate.” (157) The ‘relations’ angle provides much of the humor of the novel, not least of which is when the Mayor learns that Pista is distantly related to the leader of the Opposition party.

The third category of problems focuses on the poverty of most of Hungary and its dependence on the poor international situation of the time. The situation reveals itself early. Pista muses on the poor drainage for houses that are located off of the main road. There had been a program to improve the drainage but it ceased after the affluent had been serviced since the funds (which should have been enough for the whole city) had been exhausted due to corruption. The leader of the Opposition party summarizes what agricultural workers and the poor faced: “illiteracy, ignorance and poverty.” (44) The exact date of the novel’s setting, covering a couple of weeks, isn’t noted but from the comments it appears to be November 1930. The impacts of the financial collapse is working its way around the globe and Hungary can’t escape the fallout. Pista and Lina make similar comments about the “awful, changeable times, with the whole world falling apart.” (130)

A play on the title of the novel is the interrelatedness of the world. Decisions by large countries impact the smaller ones. Small countries like Hungary are asking for favors from the larger ones like the U.S. Officials realize they don't have much control in Hungary's internal affairs when international agreements and commodity pricing dictate living condition. So here’s the interesting question—is that a good thing? Some control has been wrested out of the hands of rapacious officials but are the resulting forces good or bad for the country? I’ll try and address that in a separate post on the so-called ‘solutions’ Móricz proposes. The Prime Minster’s focus is on investing in profitable projects, turning the country into a business model and ignoring the basic needs of the population. The poor, especially the farmers, are caught between the international forces of deteriorating markets and local politicians skimming what’s left. Hungary, especially the elite, want to live in the world as it was while forces are forcing changes they don't want to face.

The fourth category looks at the psychological damage in Hungary from the loss of World War I. I think it’s an important one, especially for the the country at the time. The Treaty of Trianon in 1920 broke up Hungary and left the country at about one-third it’s pre-WWI size. Transylvania was given to Romania while much of northern Hungary went to Czechoslovakia. Many of the places mentioned in the book are in these “lost” territories. Aunt Kati shows up on Pista’s doorstep and tells him about troubles in these territories:

“Well, it’s no life in those parts now. In the Rima valley. The Czechs are in charge. … He’s such a good farmer, and such a Hungarian person. You should hear them all talk about him! Last year, when he went to Prague, he went into a shop to buy some little thing for the family, some souvenir of Prague. He couldn’t understand what they said, because in his whole life he hasn’t learnt a word of any other language. So he said, ‘Heavens, you’ve belonged to us these ten years, haven’t you learnt to speak Hungarian yet? … What can poor Hungarian children learn up there? They have to speak Slovak, and a real Hungarian like him can’t stomach that. Going to school means learning in Czech. What a lesson to learn in such a real Hungarian’s house.” (108-9; ellipsis mine)

So what to do with these problems? The characters live in a situation where nothing changes for the better. Well, unless a relative hits it lucky. The Mayor’s initial meeting with Pista provides insight from the savviest politician of the novel, acknowledging the entrenched power can’t reform itself. The Mayor tells Pista that he, as a new man coming into power, can change things that established men can’t do. “You, as a novus homo, aren’t bound by fear or favour, nothing.” He also issues a warning about how the system will treat him, something that Pista proves to be aware of but unable to carry out:“[Y]ou must move people about, bring in new men, because an established man who’s caught up in the system can’t do it, but a new man…because the system grows into you, wraps round the man in charge like a spider’s web…you see, my boy… On the contrary, you’re got a free hand…a new broom in City Hall.” (38: ellipsis in original) As mentioned earlier, Pista is humiliated by the requirement to change to meet their expectations as he becomes aware that “he was no good to the city as he was. They wanted to transform him in their own image and likeness.” In other words, to get anything done he has to become like those in power.

Pista’s fate reflects that of Hungary at times, especially when he feels “as if his train had been hitched to a new engine, with an unknown driver at the controls, and was under way with him as a passenger, travelling into exile, being deported to some unknown world.” (80) He adopts the way of the elite a lot faster than he is willing to admit, loathing his former life and relations, or at least that have inconvenienced him. There are certain aspects of Hungary’s legacy that aren’t easily forgotten. This adds to the elite’s predicament. as one of the Gentlemen’s Club members tells Pista:

“Believe you me, dear boy, Hungarian law takes a draconian stand against the debtor. The old law-givers maintained that anybody that fell into debt was either a gambler or a drunkard. Both deserved all the punishment possible, so as to become a terrible example to others. Now, however, a new world order has come along.”(103)

Pista sits in on a session of Parliament and watches the leaders of the country deal with the problems they are facing. Rather, he saw their dereliction of duty as the Prime Minister spoke to an almost empty Parliament. There is hope for a reformation when Pista reads about a mayor dismissed by the central government for irregularities and corruption, although he sees it as a warning on how he should behave. There is a counterpoint to this positive development—a journalist friend of Pista’s tells him about the damage that landowners bring upon themselves by entering politics. They neglect their farms and rack up debt on the many elections they have to stand for. As the journalist puts it, “There’s nothing for him to do but resign himself to what can’t be altered.” (123) It's an outlook that many characters ascribe to, giving up on advancement in general but hoping for a relation's good luck to improve their own lot.

I’m planning an additional two posts on the book, one on the women in the novel and another on the ‘proposed’ solutions.

Related posts:
Introduction to Móricz and the novel
Lina and Magdaléna
My notes

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