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There is often a profound awareness of uncertainty within Hungarian fiction. Whether it be parents who are prepared to miss their beloved daughter when she leaves home for the first time only to discover they prefer her to be gone, poor villagers who learn the guiding myth of their existence is as decrepit as they are, or newlyweds deeply in love who grow inexorably apart during their honeymoon, the theme seems clear – nothing is ever what it seems, and one should accept this truth as quickly as possible. The stories in The Birth Of Emma K., Zsolt Láng’s English language debut, are not merely embedded in this tradition. They take it to another dimension. Láng seems to relish not knowing, sometimes subtly and sometimes in a way that seems clumsy until the clumsiness itself becomes another indeterminate variable. These are not stories for readers who want a fictionalized world to roll out smoothly before them. These are stories about characters who live in an enigmatic world, who transform as their world simultaneously changes. In “Like A Shaggy Ink Cap Mushroom,” for example, a deeply frustrated police inspector, who is under pressure from “Internal Operations” about a case, becomes death-obsessed. Is he suicidal, or has his job investigating murders driven him into a match with death he can only win by dying? Is there a difference? All is unsure as the story develops, but what is certain is that when he looks out his window one morning – a window he has looked out for years – “his gaze [falls] upon the graveyard.” Take note of the definite article because we learn in the next sentence that him seeing the graveyard is nothing short of a miracle “considering the cemetery lay in the opposite direction, on the far side of the Bureau.” But the end of the paragraph is most telling: “This could only be the divine work of Providence, thought the Inspector, who, like everything else, didn’t believe in Providence.”
When I read this passage, I had a shimmer of a realization that allowed an aspect of the stories in The Birth Of Emma K to fall into place, at least for that moment: unseen forces operate throughout these stories, either before our eyes or in a background we are led to believe exists. This is from the first paragraph of the opening story, “God on Gellėrt Hill:”
“Our Lord was ruminating over who gave him the power through which he created the Earth and the Sky and the living creatures from clay. Who this boundless power came from. And if it was now his own, why wasn’t it absolute. Because it wasn’t absolute.”
We are told at the beginning that God is a character in the story and God is frustrated at his limits. Then, before the paragraph is complete, we are told that the narrator wants to make one other thing clear: “let’s postulate that we’re not talking about the Father or the Holy Ghost, we’re talking about the Son, and then we can confidently say that there stood the Son of God at the corner of Számadȯ street and Tündėrlaki hollow.” The Son of God, not God, is outside a villa, whose original builder may have been Hungarian or may have been Italian, (he didn’t seem to know for certain),“dawdling in front of the porter’s cabin, which hadn’t been built for a porter but for rubbish.” All is quivering mercury in Láng’s world.
The uncertainty at the core of these stories seems endless. The only thing we can take for granted is that nothing can be taken for granted. The reader must be on the lookout as much as the characters themselves. In the story “Chestnut,” in which two rival homeopathic doctors find themselves sharing a room and competing to get a colleague’s affection, we find out in the first paragraph that one of the doctors seems uncertain about which name to use, but that is only the beginning of his uncertainty. He is also uncertain as to his role in the story: “My name’s Gyémánt, doctor Gyémánt, doctor Károly Gyémánt, he’d begin, if he were to write this story in the first person.” But Doctor Gyémánt, a man who is only comfortable when he is under the illusion that he is in charge of his fate, isn’t writing the story. In “Before Midnight” a Hungarian man who finds himself in a Romanian music class is suddenly an expert on Béla Bartók. In “Madhouse,” a patient in a mental institution switches minds with a supervisor. The insistency of the theme makes it easy to understand why some readers will be frustrated reading The Birth Of Emma K. There are times when one wishes for more to hold onto, and other places where it isn’t clear if Láng knows where he is going or how he arrived where he is. This is perhaps inevitable and while it makes for intriguing meta-thoughts of how the author himself has discovered that he is no more in control than is poor Doctor Gyémánt, it can also cause frustration. How much control writers have over their work is a valid and interesting question, but it can also leave the reader with nothing firm to latch onto.
Then we come to the final, titular story and much of the frustration we may have had vanishes in its telling. On the surface, it is a conventional story. A young man, Kovács Junior, is in a marriage destined to never be happy. His wife wants nothing from him but to become pregnant, and she has a litany of positions and other techniques to help her attain her goal, all of which fail. Then one afternoon he has unexpected afternoon sex with a cleaning girl at the school where he also has an unsatisfying job. The girl, Cecily, who tells him repeatedly she loves him as she climaxes (and apparently means it), ends up pregnant. As Láng says, there was nothing unusual about [the baby’s] conception, “she was the fruit of a customary, barely-three-minute act.” Unbeknownst to Junior, that evening, before he has even finished his pasta at dinner, the baby Emma K. is the size of an ant egg.
After learning of the pregnancy, Junior’s family, who is enraged at Cecily, the “slutty crackpot of a little tart,” tries various ways to cause her to lose the baby. At one point Cecily, who has washed her hair for the occasion, shows up at Junior’s house at six in the evening so the family can take turns punching her in the stomach until “some kind of slow fluid began flowing down her thighs.” It turns out to be sweat. Throughout this ordeal, and the remainder of the story, we learn that the unborn Emma is determined to survive. Then, in the end, after a terrifying description of the birth, Emma is born and we realize that our process of bonding with the foetus is the same process that the characters have gone through. It’s as though the life they led before Emma was born must stop, because from that point on their love for her will render them helpless. It reminds one of what Emerson says in “Self-Reliance” about the absolute power the cradled baby has over the supposedly autonomous adult. In Láng’s world, it means that the one character who has an existence grounded in certainty is not the Son of God or the well-educated doctor – it is the unborn, female child of a simple young man and an equally simple young woman. That is where Láng leaves us, listening to the birth cries of a newborn who is already in many ways the oldest person on Earth. In the end, through all the questions and uncertainty, it remains possible that life is a journey we can be grateful we were allowed to take.
The Birth Of Emma K.
by Zsolt Láng
Translated from the Hungarian by Owen Good and Ottilie Mulzet
Seagull Books, 200 pages
John Riley is a former teacher. He has published poetry and fiction in Smokelong Quarterly, Eclectica, The Ekphrastic Review, Better Than Starbucks, Banyan Review, Bindweed, and many other journals and anthologies online and in print. EXOT Books will publish a volume of 100 of his 100-word prose poems in the fall of 2022. He has published over forty books of nonfiction for young readers.