by Owen Good
Owen Good’s translation of Krisztina Tóth’s “The Tongue’s Story” appears in the March 2018 issue: Charged with Humanity: Six Hungarian Women Writers.
A Body of Text. This is the subtitle of Hungarian writer Krisztina Tóth’s Pixel, a novel in thirty chapters of standalone stories. Each story is given the title of a body part: “The Hand’s Story,” “The Head’s Story,” “The Gums’ Story,” “The Nape’s Story,” “The Fingers’ Story.” Chapter Thirteen, or “The Tongue’s Story,” sticks in my memory in particular because I worked most consistently on the novel Pixel during the summer of 2015, when there was a sudden intense influx for several weeks of asylum seekers arriving to Budapest, chiefly from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. On the streets of Budapest, between British backpackers in their flip-flops headed for Sziget, the music festival, were boys of fifteen years old at the most walking in threes, each one with a worn, modest rucksack. Hundreds of boys, young men, and families sat in circles on our neighborhood square for days on end, under the shade of the trees. When asked, they explained they had been traveling for weeks. You could recognize the same teenage boys on the same bench day after day, then week after week, and later learn that this was a designated meeting point for traffickers, and these boys were Afghan and had less money than Syrians, so they had to wait their turn. Their long journey from home, like that of the Greek men in “The Tongue’s Story,” hadn’t yet reached its final destination, wherever in Europe that might have been.
There are a lot of characters in motion along many different threads throughout Tóth’s novel. They come from all layers of European society: migrant Greeks escaping civil war, two Roma brothers, a bus driver with a stammer, a racist masseur, a French teacher, an architect, a blue-eyed top physician. The characters are present in each other's stories, sometimes in the foreground, in a chance encounter or a love affair, and sometimes lurking in the background, identifiable by their street address, a lamp in their apartment, a bulky square-shaped wedding ring. And the timeline of the novel spans almost a century—the earliest story is set in the ghettos of the Second World War and the latest reaches into the future. Consequently, there are large gaps of time between the stories and we often unknowingly encounter different generations of the same family or, as characters do remerge again and again, characters who have aged.
Not only does the novel leap in time, it leaps in space within Europe, too. Its borders are blurry as characters move freely between countries. The Hungary described in this novel is inseparable from Europe. From one story to the next, the focus shifts from France to the Balkans, Germany, Romania, the Turkish coast, and even Luton as we follow the fates of the characters, but it always returns to Budapest and to the same streets, the same buildings, and the same apartments. Through this sequence of characters and locations coming in and out of view, we are also faced with the fallibility of our own memory. We find ourselves wracking our brains, trying to remember if we’ve been in this apartment before in another story with another character, if there was someone who mentioned a Greek grandparent, if we’ve encountered this blue Ikea lamp before; it’s as if we had, but we just can’t be sure.
This body of text is composed of glimpses into other people’s lives and chance encounters of strangers: A refugee’s first failed interaction in a Hungarian village, a phone conversation overheard on the bus, a grandson clearing out a dead relative’s wardrobe, a blind woman on the metro wearing nail polish and a flashy watch, an argument heard through the neighbor’s wall. These are details of fragmented lives in a fragmented Europe. The details appear without context, but if we pause and take a few steps back, we might be able to at least imagine the whole picture, whether that’s a family tree going back through the generations, or the route of a migration across Europe, beginning to end. None of this is traced for us. We never find out where the Greek men ended up. The real body of Pixel is in the missing space and time that falls between the chance encounters, in what lies beyond our vision.
Pixel will be published by Seagull Books, Fall 2018.