The grinding dailiness of poverty is so well delineated in Szilard Borbely’s novel The Dispossessed, that we realize that we may have become inured to the sufferings of other people (once known as “compassion overload” a couple of presidential cycles ago).  This Hungarian novel swept that country by surprise; it takes place as Communism took over that country, after the evils of World War II, including Hungary’s own complicit actions in that war, have recently ended.  Mostly autobiographical, Borbely’s family (father, mother, sister, baby, and the author, the middle child/oldest son), lives in one room and grows some of its own food, raises some farm animals to sell some eggs , or ducks, or whatever: we’re looking at the daily existence of the truly poor.  On top of all that, the husband’s family were once “rich” (a relative word if ever there was one, in the context of this world) kulaks, a class of people whom Stalin nearly completely wiped out in The Soviet Union, because of their “bourgeois tendencies” (or whatever the lingo of the communist era was).  To make this family’s situation worse, the father’s Jewish, and rarely has the daily anti-Semitism of a small Eastern European village, located near the border of Romania, been so well rendered. It’s difficult for Americans to capture the idea that Jews were/are considered almost a separate “tribe ” of people in Europe, often put into the same category as roma, or gypsies.

The reader will be privy to the arrest, departure, and vanishing of one other Jewish family in this village, a man who’s a tailor/haberdasher of some kind; the jealousies raised by the relative affluence of this family neatly summarizes the bases of so much European anti-Semitism: it’s a combination of fear of Jewish power, or alleged power, and envy of their relative affluence.  Watching other villagers begin to taunt, and then render violence, onto the father of this family, in particular, is to become aware of what it’s like to be ostracized within a small village in the middle of nowhere, near nothing; we are made aware of the psychology of mobs, even when they’re small mobs, and how easily already suspicious peasants turn against families just because they are Jewish; when the Communists literally cart this family away, everything they owned will be stolen in minutes. Since the same thing happened in German cities all over Germany during WWII, we are instructed by this book to see how the hatred of “The Other” begins and develops and how no one defends the family once it’s gone (though the peasants will look for, and not find, the alleged “gold treasures” they’ve heard the Jews owned, but didn’t). With the resurgence of anti-Semitism all over Europe and in some parts of America, reading this novel’s an essential cautionary tale about how easy it is to fall back upon ancient nationalist hatreds, fears, and prejudices, and how easily the rest of the village is complicit in the certain death of this one Jewish family.

Borbely’s own father will simply not be given any paid work by the collective that Communism has formed in this village: his choices, then, are to leave (vanish), have his wife work full time: there are no possibilities because he’s scorned as a Jew with kulak parents.  The novel mostly, however, centers around the daily thoughts of the middle son, who clearly becomes the narrator: it’s fascinating how a little boy is never allowed to play, as there’s no time for play in a grueling daily struggle for food.  This little boy is frightened of so many things; he is frequently bullied at school, or on the way there or back; his older sister has evolved coping skills of her own, but the children are not close. (The baby brother will suddenly get sick and die; called “The Little One” throughout the novel, the mother will go mad at this loss, as she already has so little). But she admonishes her children all the way through the novel that “we are not peasants”, and the reader will eventually fully understand the need for this dissociation from the worst behavior of village peasants.  It’s an unsparing look at a village truly lost to history and to modern times, where desperation is a daily thing and a kind of paranoia floats around the village. Husbands spend their evenings getting drunk at the one local tavern, leaving wives/mothers to take care of everything on the home front.  At times, the novel reads almost like a sociology text.  Our sympathies are with the mother and the son/narrator, of course, and eventually the mother and two remaining children will move to Romania, across the border, without their husband/father, who’s just a liability by then.

Much of the emphasis on writing around/about WWII and the peasantries of Eastern Europe have tended to center on life in the cities: Warsaw, Berlin , Bucharest, Budapest. The Dispossessed is thus completely different in tone and emphasis; in many ways , the peasants of this corner of Hungary are still basically living in feudal times. And The Communists, of course, got rid of all religion in The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, so that when this family practices a fascinating combination of Easter and Passover rites hidden in their hovel, we get a much greater understanding of how maintaining religious identity was a way of keeping any identity at all, other than that of “collectivized peasant”. The sweetness of the little boy/narrator carries the reader through the daily bleakness of life, and we see all the horrors of daily life through his very young eyes.  We’re not even sure for a large section of the book whether the father is or isn’t Jewish: being thought Jewish was as “bad” as being so in the lives of these petty , suspicious villagers. The survival of the mother and two of her children thus seems a miracle, and probably is.  “The Dispossessed” is as honest and grueling a novel about such issues as I may have ever read, and I urge our readers to give this novel a chance, as it’s so timely for the times in which we are living, and, alas, of times to come in the imminent future.

–Daniel Brown

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