I recently received a lovely lot of review copies from new indie publisher Stork Press, who specialise in Central and Eastern European literature. The one I was keenest to read was The Finno-Ugrian Vampire by Noémi Szécsi, having first heard about this book at the TA Industry Day in the spring, when its translator Peter Sherwood was one of the speakers.
Although vampires aren’t really my thing, I have read the occasional vampire book and got surprisingly hooked on Being Human. This isn’t your standard vampire book though and there’s very little gore, despite the glistening trail of blood on the cover. It is the story of Jerne, a self-confessed unreliable narrator and would-be writer of children’s stories. Jerne lives with her 200-year-old Grandma in Budapest and is reluctant to get involved with what you might call the family business. Grandma soon loses patience with her desire for independence and comes up with a scheme to make Jerne a true vampire.
It begins with a paragraph headed “words to the reader by way of introduction” in which Jerne states:
Reader, do not doubt the truth of my words, for the tale I tell is a lie from beginning to end. It is often said that the only way to tell the truth is through telling lies. But in my view reality is wholly devoid of interest. Yet every word of this tale is true.
So, right from the start we have a clue to the post-modern humour underlying the book. It’s also interesting to note that it was first published in Hungarian in 2002, so pre-dating the current vampire craze, as Szécsi points out in her interview from 2012 European Literature Night. She says that Hungary has no folklore of vampires, but that blood sacrifice is a recurrent metaphor for Hungarian history and so this makes a satisfying twist on a coming of age story and intergenerational conflict. Indeed, she also points out that it’s particularly apt for a book about vampires to be resurrected in English translation ten years after its first publication.
I found the writing odd, enchanting and just occasionally irritating. I presume that the unusual choices of vocabulary are a reflection of the Hungarian, which seems to have been peppered with foreign words. In conversation with her childhood friend Somi about why the rabbit in her stories is called Initiative, he says:
“What, you’ve got a degree in English or something? It really pisses me off when you parade your knowledge of languages. Why can’t it have a proper Hungarian name?” (p. 20)
To which he gets the reply:
“The moment you start calling your band Megszakított Közösülés, I’ll call the rabbit Kezdeményezőkészség, and not before.”
This is an indication of the total unfamiliarity of the Finno-Ugrian languages to speakers of Germanic ones, and the kind of aloof exoticism which Grandma plays on with her business cards proclaiming: Finno-Ugrian Vampire(commissioned to stop arrogant Anglo-Saxon ones from looking down their nose at her). All the same, the words I had to look up were English ones – irredentist, for example. Meanwhile, back to the Finno-Ugrian-ness. The name Jerne is pronounced YEAR-nay, apparently, and is one of the major casualties in translation:
“the main idea of the text (which is completely lost in the English translation) was that in Finno-Ugrian languages you don’t have to define the grammatical gender of a pronoun, so Jerne could be a man or a woman as well.” Source: Interview with Noémi Szécsi
It is good to see Peter Sherwood credited on the cover as well as given a translator’s note and a Translator’s Reflections section on the website, where he talks about the difficulty of translating specifically Hungarian references to writers, places and events. He describes his approach to this problem as one of “invisible mending” and admits that there are “times when I simply have to let things pass” – it is clear that there are many jokes that go right over my head. In comparison, the multilingual puns were relatively straightforward and generally very successful. From his bio at the back, I see that he is predominantly an academic and I wonder if this is also reflected in the prose style. Given all of this, it was all the more jarring to find an “and I” that should have been an “and me” – one of my pet hates but increasingly common.
There are plenty of references, literary and otherwise, to very familiar subjects too though. Jerne was educated in the UK and wrote a dissertation on The Manifestation of the Rabbit in British Children’s Literature, with Special Reference to the Victorian and Edwardian Era. Her own tales of Initiative the rabbit are very much in this vein, yet rejected for publication because of their cruelty and immorality. I particularly enjoyed the parody of Wind in the Willows with the Mole in conversation with the cynical, cigar-smoking, hard-drinking Gopher, proud that “one of my sons from this year’s litter has already made me a grandfather. The lad doesn’t waste any time, does he?” (p. 50), and was also taken with Jerne’s use of Foucault, Lacan and Derrida as mild obscenities.
This was a fascinating read, very accessible and entertaining, sometimes funny, sometimes sad. Grandma is one of the most original characters I’ve come across for a long time and the contrast between her revelry in vampiredom and Jerne’s reluctance is very well done. Maybe Jerne’s longing for the tastes and experiences of life will help us all appreciate what we have a little more too.