Over the lockdown, Seagull Books gave away a cornucopia of world literature to readers. I chose The Book of Mordechai and Lazarus by Gábor Schein from their new Hungarian List as there is a definite gap in my reading, although I have read a lot about the Holocaust, I haven’t read enough of what happened to the Hungarian Jews and to Hungary in the post-War years, unless it was a a result of what was happening elsewhere. Lizzy of Lizzy’s Literary Life created Seagull Books Fortnight to say thank you to the publisher for their generosity and, while this review is a little late for the fortnight itself, I am very grateful to Seagull for my discovery of Gàbor Schein and The Book of Mordechai and Lazarus.
This volume is actually two books and in The Book of Mordechai – translated by Adam Z. Levy – P. is learning to read at his grandmother’s table as she watches, tapping her finger at any mistakes, while he reads aloud from a Hungarian translation of the Book of Esther. That story is woven into the tales of P.’s ancestors and that of the man responsible for the translation. The book was given to P.’s mother as a present for her bat mitzvah and the inscription reads, ‘To Mordechai, who raised an orphan girl,’ words that have meaning for Esther herself, as well as for P.’s family history.
That history, both known and discovered, mingles with Esther’s story in P.’s head. He imagines his grandfather to be like the Mordechai of the book, the one who is foster-father to Esther. The translator, Leopold Blumenfeld, was a local character, part of the Jewish life in the town, dying just before the First World War and so spared the knowledge of all that was to come. Hungary, allied with Nazi Germany, was home to over 725,000 Jews, with half of that population living in Budapest. Although Hungary began enacting anti-Jewish legislation in 1938, Jews from other countries had escaped there to find relative safety. Measures began with economic sanctions and forced labour, and there was a deportation of so-called ‘foreign Jews’ to Poland in 1941, with most of those people later being massacred. Hungary joined Germany in invading Russia in 1941, but Stalingrad soured relations and, in March 1944, Germany invaded. Ghettos, yellow stars and deportations followed, with approximately 430,000 Hungarian Jews being sent to Auschwitz, many straight to the gas chambers. Of those that remained, largely in Budapest, thousands more would be killed when the fascist Arrow Cross party seized power late in 1944.
Say someone were to board a train car, the direction of which he does not know. He gets on the next car and avoids the worst of what’s to come or, instead, points his life down the path of certain death. He decides for himself, he takes a step, but the result of this decision and this step is not revealed until much later.
Just as it is also not revealed until much later that someone somewhere has already written a letter, making this step possible, without his knowledge.
A chance observation leads P.’s family into a different cattle car than the ones bound for Auschwitz, being sent to a labour camp in Austria instead. After they return, the survivors and former neighbours gather to reminisce, on occasions where, ‘the war was not called a war but a storm.’ The family businesses are nationalised and P.’s grandfather is kicked out of the party but let back in. Memory plays tricks and while P. pieces together the story over many years from snippets and later archive visits, P.’s grandmother doesn’t remember all of the story of Esther as he reads it aloud to her. He wants to stop reading before the Biblical persecution starts but she makes him carry on.
What was the root of Haman’s evil? The Agagite people, of which he was one, were just as scattered across the Persian states as the Jews, and they also lived by different laws. But when hate is released, it creates a path for itself, like a storm covering the land in darkness – does it matter what its source is? To us, Haman has no face, but then again neither does Mordechai. We see only the storm as the sky becomes full of wrath, mountains of black clouds sweep over the land, it will be dark, and the first bolt of lightning will cleave the darkness with a startling crack…
If The Book of Mordechai is an attempt to recreate a family history out of fragments passed down through generations, Lazarus is more tightly focussed on a father, M., who is an over-sized presence, then diminished, then gone, leaving his son to put together memories and wrestle with understanding. Expressly forbidden to write about his father’s final illness and death, Péter is nevertheless doing so, ‘in defiance of your prohibition.’ At first, Péter wants something akin to a Lazarus-style return, if only to say what has been left unsaid the first time.
You and I were always people without a language for each other, if in differing ways. For didn’t our words usually mean something different to what we were thinking, and even more so from what we were feeling; that is, from what we should have been feeling and thinking, for each of our movements and acts were proof of something completely different than our words, forever corroding the other’s self-esteem? Injurious words which we then tried, impossibly, to rectify.
Lazarus is the writer looking back on photos, recalling fragments, trying to recreate his grandparents in the early years of his father’s life, before he could have known them. M. and his mother had been quite well off, but were forced into hiding, with even the local district council leader of the Arrow Cross keeping the secret. Another fragment of family history – possibly mistaken – that the family had originally come from Galicia in Poland, has sealed the fate of those members who had never managed to apply for Hungarian citizenship. Their ultimate end is hazy, but postcards arrived and Péter searches for answers in archives, finding only more questions. M. never knew what happened to them, the events of the war left him, according to Péter, ‘convinced of the impossibility of change.’
M.’s father returns from the war and makes attempts to carry on, returning to his previous job as a printer, writing a manual for apprentices and behaving ‘as if all the people missing around him had simply never been.’ M. grows to adulthood, marries, divorces, marries again, Péter is born and the dance between father and son begins. The strength of M.’s body in life and what it is reduced to as he ages and becomes ill, brings a ‘compulsory indifference’ to Péter’s thoughts while he tries to make sense of the loss, missteps and miscommunications that have made up family life.
I am telling you the story of a father and a son, and in their story there are many other stories, which you should be telling and not I, purging them of that disillusionment, that betrayal, because I feel I am betraying you now: speech betrays us both. I am writing about you in spite of your emphatic request that I not do so. I write because I have a need of writing, so that afterwards I can lapse into silence: I can observe your prohibition.
The translator of Lazarus, Ottilie Mulzet, has written that both books are considered in Hungary as ‘father novels,’ attempts to come to terms with the writer’s own father, as well as the ‘patriarchal structure’ of the communist era and Hungary’s post-War and wartime history. The late twentieth century has cast a long shadow and, as the generation who lived through it are reaching old age and leaving us to reckon with a world where the far right are again up to no good – particularly but not solely in Hungary – thoughtful reflections such as The Book of Mordechai and Lazarus are needed more than ever.
The Book of Mordechai and Lazarus is one of my 20 Books of Summer. Are you doing any similar reading challenges this summer? Have you read any of the free books from Seagull Books? Let me know in the comments below.