The Great Transylvanian Novel? On Gábor Vida’s “Story of a Stammer”

PERHAPS IT’S UNWISE to begin a review with an admission of ignorance, but learning new things for me is one of the great boons of reading. Nonfiction teaches almost by its nature, but novels can be every bit as edifying for me, particularly works in translation that arose out of environments different from mine. Authors writing in languages ​​other than English may approach their craft from wildly different vantage points, bringing unique histories, cultural touchstones, and frames of reference to bear on their art. Plus, the entire conversation between author and reader is enabled by a translator or translators with their own knowledge base and background.

All this is preamble to say that Gabor Vida’s Story of a stammer (2017), in Jozefina Komporaly’s English translation, introduced me to a people and a history that I was utterly unaware of before reading the novel. And I say novel with a caveat, because Story of a stammer is one of those works of autofiction about a character with the same name and general background as the author — in this case, a Hungarian writer born and raised in Romania called Gábor Vida. The line between fact and fiction feels particularly bubbly here, an impression bolstered by the publisher referring to the novel as “a deeply personal account.” But internet sleuthing yields no clues regarding fidelity to the author’s background, thanks partly to the prominence of two deceased Hungarians — one figureskater, one painter — who share his name. So, for clarity’s sake, when I talk about Vida here, I mean the character in the book unless otherwise specified.

Story of a stammer Is a generally straightforward, almost languid, telling of Vida’s childhood, schooling, and compulsory military service as he works his way toward becoming a writer. The bulk of the book focuses on his youth and relates anecdotes about his family — grandparents, uncles, parents. Vida is born, in March 1968, in the same place his father’s side of the family comes from, the village of Kisjenő, on the eastern edge of the Great Hungarian Plain, in the Arad region of northwestern Romania, near the Hungarian border. As Vida tells it, the villagers are continually “wrangling over the grievances of the past, the future being uncertain as always, [and] they belittle Romania, berate gipsies and Europe[;] Everyone would like to live in Hungary, or at least by way of the Hungarian language.” Vida’s father is “heavily Hungarian,” so much so that “it’s beyond his comprehension that one can be of any other ethnicity.”

And yet Vida’s mother and her family are another ethnicity, at least of a sort, as they are Székelys. Komporaly’s “Translator’s Notes” somewhat circularly defines Székelys as “a subgroup of Hungarian people living mostly in Székely Land (Hungarian: Székelyföld, Romanian: Ţinutul Secuiesc) in Romania.” Vida’s mother’s family is from Transylvania, but readers don’t get any more guidance on Székely Land for 70 pages until Vida provides a capsule history.

To expand a bit for readers like me who know little about the region, Székely Land today includes most of the central Romanian counties of Covasna and Harghita, which begin about 100 miles north of Bucharest and arc up and to the west. At the beginning of the 20th century, the region, along with several other northern Transylvanian counties, was part of the Kingdom of Hungary. Romania invaded during World War I, and the Treaty of Trianon, which settled the war between the Allies and Hungary, officially gave northern Transylvania, including Székely Land, to Romania. During World War II, Hitler gave much of that territory back to Hungary in a bid to keep both Hungary and Romania fighting for the Axis. Then, in 1947, the lands were once again given back to Romania.

These enforced oscillations of Székely autonomy contributed to, as Vida writes,

the view among Hungarians living on the Romanian segment of the Great Hungarian Plain that there’s something deeply wrong with the Székelys. They might be Hungarian, but they speak, think and behave differently […] Hungarians couldn’t be different from one another anyway, for, in that case, who are we.

Vida grows up moving between the worlds of Hungarians and Székelys — worlds that are further differentiated for him by the family members who inhabit them. He spends his childhood summers in Transylvania with his Székely grandparents, in a “close religious and family bubble.” His Székely grandfather comes “from an archaic world in which the ongoing abuse of women and children is a daily occurrence.” He is a Baptist, his wife who is a Catholic, and for him the 10 Commandments could be reduced to “Honor thy father!” The Hungarian part of his family all look “down on [his] mother as a matter of course, because she is just a Székely girl,” but life in Arad is no idyll. Where his Székely grandfather has religion, his Hungarian grandfather has alcoholism: “There’s a particular phase in grandfather’s drunkenness when he always wants to hang himself, but in such moments he can no longer handle the rope or the chain, grandmother is quite certain in this regard, or perhaps it’s all the same to her by now.”

In Transylvania, the family’s Hungarian flag, sewn by his grandmother in 1940, is kept hidden in a bed in case the house is searched. Vida plays “American Indians” in the forests of the Harghita Mountains, and later explores them with his uncles, Tom and Will, key figures in his life. Tom’s suicide, when Vida is 19 years old, is the first time he realizes that “the image my family had created and cultivated of itself didn’t quite correspond to reality.” He was much younger, eight or nine years old, when the scales fell from his eyes with respect to the image his country had cultivated of itself, an image enabled to that point by both his mother and his teachers who taught that “the socialist regime we live in and have built is the best social arrangement in the world.” The catalyst for this awakening was witnessing his Hungarian grandfather, while listening to a radio play about the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, lamenting the fact that the “motherfucking Americans” […] didn’t fucking drop their nuclear bomb on Moscow.”

The novel opens with Vida nearing 50 years old and offering metatextual insight into his career, including the great Transylvanian novel he is struggling to write, presumably the novel you are reading. He embraces the belief that “reality and our image of ourselves rarely coincide” and admits that he has “so few reliable personal memories that [he] must weigh up whether what [he] claim[s] is actually true.” He considers putting all his family members/characters in a castle so they will be forced to interact. And he worries about whether he has what it takes: “People pretend that they have some expertise, but they can never actually ensure that the next sentence doesn’t reveal the limits of their knowledge.”

The beginning of the book also offers most of Vida’s commentary about the conditions in Romania-writ-large as it lurched toward 1989 and the end of communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu’s reign: “I have no idea whether there existed in Europe a country bleaker than Romania .” Addressing his primary story about the Székelys, Vida highlights the fact that Ceauşescu intended “to liquidate everything that [had] survived from Hungarian culture in Transylvania […] entire areas [were] being eroded with an impact lasting to this day, lifestyles, traditions and worlds disappearing for good.” But the novel never provides specifics, opting instead for more generalizations, as when he later writes that Ceauşescu’s policies “had not only reconfigured people’s relationship with the land, but, under the guise of modernisation, systematically liquidated and deliberately destroyed the culture that had always preserved and perpetuated village life.”

Vida’s family dynamics are presumably representative of the broader relationship between Székelys and other ethnic Hungarians in Romania, but the novel rarely looks outside the narrator’s personal experience.

I found myself wanting to read more about the effects of dictatorship on Székely Land, more thoughtful consideration of the story he is telling, and more about the national situation during Vida’s military service, but these themes give way to the dense family history that comprises most of the novel’s nearly 400 pages. Vida relates this history directly, without explicit (or even much implicit) dialogue, without any variation in perspective. It feels both colloquial and like being lectured to, as if the novel was dictated or written down and never revisited. This loose style yields an occasional scattershot chronology and a fair bit of repetition, as well as themes, such as an early focus on Vida’s facial hair, that never really pay off.

Vida the narrator studied to teach Hungarian literature, and Vida the author is the editor-in-chief of Lato, a literary magazine dedicated to contemporary Transylvanian Hungarian fiction; this combined expertise is evident throughout the novel. Numerous references may make a little impression on readers not well versed in Hungarian literary history, however. Komporaly tries to save some trips to the search engine, but her endnotes are not exhaustive and provide only basic facts. The “Index of Place Names” at the back of the novel is helpful as well, but the inclusion of a map would have been greatly appreciated.

Soon after Russia invaded Ukraine, there were fears that the violence would spread beyond Ukrainian borders. Romania is surrounded by countries that could easily get involved in a conflict, including Moldova, which maintains sovereignty over the pro-Russian breakaway state of Transnistria, and Serbia, which has made no secret of its continued support for Russia. It is not terribly hard to imagine that a nationalist dictator like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán would take advantage of a destabilized region as well.

In 2011, Orbán’s Fidesz party, after it took over the parliament in Hungary, passed legislation permitting “every person who was a Hungarian citizen or a descendant of a Hungarian citizen before 1920 or between 1941 and 1945 and speaks Hungarian” to apply for citizenship — “even if they don’t actually live in Hungary.” Eventually, these people were “granted voting rights too,” according to Dariusz Kalan, who reported on Fidesz’s base for the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. These changes were ostensibly intended to redress the reapportionment of territory, such as Székely Land, due to the Treaty of Trianon, but Kalan writes that the actual effect has been to bolster votes for Fidesz from Hungarians of all stripes who live and work, often out of financial necessity, abroad — Hungarians who now feel indebted to Orbán and Fidesz.

The expansion of the war in Ukraine is a worst-case scenario, particularly any speculation about Orbán’s possible aggressive actions. But anyone paying attention to the atrocities Russia has been committing in Ukraine since February knows that worst-case scenarios have become depressingly commonplace in 2022. We in the West can’t afford to remain ignorant any longer.

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Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor.

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