I just spent the morning rereading Yudit Kiss’s The Summer My Father Died. Rereading it because I had already read it in the Hungarian original (Apám halálának nyara) a year ago. I couldn’t put it down then just as I couldn’t put it down this morning.
I came to know Yudit Kiss who lives and works in Geneva not as a writer of fiction but as an economist and political commentator on Eastern Europe and naturally on Hungary. I received a link to one of her articles that appeared in The Guardian that I liked very much. As it turned out later, she knew about Hungarian Spectrum and through a mutual friend we got in touch with each other. It was at that time that I discovered she was also the author of a first novel that had garnered rave reviews.
This morning I sat down to familiarize myself with the English translation of the book that was originally published in Hungarian in 2006 (Budapest: Noran). The literary merit of the book can be judged by the fact that it was the Hungarian-born Georges Szirtes, an English poet and recipient of the T.S. Eliot Prize, who agreed to translate it. The English publisher is Telegram.
Although the title mentions only the summer when Yudit Kiss’s father died, the story through flashbacks covers about seventy years of turbulent Hungarian history.
The story is gripping. Fülöp Holló, who dies during the sweltering summer of 1999, is a devoted communist who doesn’t seem to have any doubts about the “Cause.” Or if he does, he doesn’t share them with anyone. As it turns out, he is unwilling to face his own and his family’s past. Or, perhaps, he creates a past that never existed. He is especially uncomfortable with his own Jewishness, as if his adherence to communist ideology somehow swept away the Jewish past of his family. He creates his own version of his experience during the fateful days of 1944 which has little to do with reality. Eventually for the sake of the party he turns away from his mother, who subsequently joins relatives in Australia. Correspondence comes to an end and the son in Budapest never talks about her or his other relatives in Australia.
Meanwhile he teaches Marxism-Leninism until, sometime after the change of regime, he is let go and has to pack up his beloved books and empty his office where he spent countless hours pondering the intricacies of communist thought. Outsiders, including his daughter, think that “he had completely missed out on his own life,” but at the end, just before his death, he wrote a farewell letter in which he claimed that he had not lived in vain.
The death of the father is just one thread of the story and perhaps not even the most important one. The Summer My Father Died is really the story of Yudit Kiss’s self-discovery. When she was growing up, her classmates told her that she was Jewish, but her father claimed that they were not because they were not religious. Yudit’s recognition of her own Jewishness occurred while she was visiting Cracow sometime in the 1970s. Wandering around in the Old City she stumbled on a synagogue that was closed but that she eventually managed to visit. There was also an exhibition of the deportation of the Jews of Cracow where she saw a picture “showing a middle-aged woman walking down the middle of the road by herself.” And suddenly she realized that this woman could have been her own grandmother or perhaps she herself. It was that afternoon that she decided that she was a Jew after all.
Father, on the other hand, didn’t want to acknowledge his own background. Although he was a widely read man and certainly familiar with the literature of the Holocaust, he accepted the usual Marxist-Leninist explanation for anti-Semitism. Capitalism is the culprit. At least on the surface, he couldn’t identify with those who perished or were persecuted. There was only one exception, when he visited his daughter in Geneva and picked up a book Yudit had received as a gift but hadn’t yet read. It happened to be Imre Kertész’s book, Fateless, for which he received the Nobel Prize. Father’s identification with the author of the book was understandable. Kertész and Fülöp Holló were about the same age in 1944. And let me quote Yudit Kiss here: “One glance of that condemned young boy who my father himself had been was enough to bring down the walls of ideology, lies and self-defence he had erected around himself for decades.” (p. 62) Later the father, out of the blue, said, “Well, I suppose we could call that a masterpiece.”
But there is also the mother’s story that is out of the ordinary. Her maternal grandfather had “worked as coach-driver for the local landowner. He had a deep contempt for manual labour and avoided school at all costs.” The maternal grandmother was a servant in the house of the same landowner. When she became pregnant, the landowner made the coach-driver marry her. He was a drunken brute who beat her regularly. Rumor in the village had it that she might be the illegitimate child of a Jewish landowner, and indeed she did look different from her siblings.
It was from this family that Yudit’s mother came. When as a sixteen-year-old the party sent her to school in Budapest, she was unable to tell time or eat with a knife and fork. Comrade Holló became her teacher and they eventually married. Mother also became a teacher. They lived modestly in a Budapest apartment stuffed with books for the rest of their lives together.
In this book we learn a great deal about Jewish-Hungarian life. There are acute observations about Hungarians’ mistrust of one other, and Kiss records her shock, after living outside of Hungary for seventeen years, over “how quickly people lose their temper, the sheer fury that erupts when someone emits an innocent, but apparently, wrong signal.” Or about nationalism: “Without realising it, we grew up with the enforced image of Hungary as a nation of incomparable talent that had undergone incomparable suffering and thus deserved the very best that fate could offer by way of recompense.” Of course, she also realizes that “suffering did not entitle you to anything.” (pp. 73-74)
The recurring theme of the book is captured in phrases that refer to the slow death of the father without any physical sign of illness. For example, “It may be that the summer my father died really started in the summer of 1956.” Or “My father’s death visibly began in the summer of 1992 at the outbreak of the first Yugoslavian war.” To my mind, Yudit Kiss here is saying that her father’s “Cause” was dying and with it he himself.
Near the end of the book she asks: “Could my father have lived a different life? Could he have broken the ties that bound him to communism? Did he have any choice in the matter? [Jan Kott’s and Joseph Stiglitz’s] examples showed that early commitments are not necessarily lifelong. But what does it take to bring about such a radical conversion? Courage, honesty, accident, vanity?” And she adds: “One night it struck me that it wasn’t my father I was mourning, but the person he might have been. I thought he had failed to realise his true self, but that the possibility remained in him right to the moment he died. Under that badly cut commissar suit there was an old-fashioned humanist patiently waiting to emerge” (p. 221).
The Summer My Father Died is such a rich book that no book review can ever do it justice. One must read it.