Author's page

Ferenc BARNÁS
( 1959 )

» The Parasite (1997)
» Bagatelle (2000)
» The Ninth (2006)

Biography

born 29. September 1959 in Debrecen, Hungary
1988: graduated from Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) with degrees in Hungarian language/literature and Aesthetics
1991: earns his doctoral degree at ELTE, with a dissertation entitled The World View of Hermann Hesse
1988-1994: teaches literature and aesthetics in secondary schools for the arts in Budapest
1990-1992: instructor of music aesthetics at the Department of Cultural History, ELTE
2000 -- employed at the Ernst Museum, Budapest

Prizes:
2001 one of three co-winners of the Sándor Márai Prize, in recognition of his first two novels
2006 Tibor Déry Prize for his novel, A kilencedik
2013 AEGON Artistic Prize

The Parasite
1997

One of the most eloquent summaries of Barnás’s first novel was given by Professor Ivan Sanders in his introduction to a reading by Ferenc Barnás at Columbia University, New York City, in October 2003. What follows here is an abbreviated version of his remarks: Ferenc Barnás’s Az élősködő (The Parasite) is one of the most unusual and unnerving novels I have ever read in any language. Only in the most cursory way is it rooted in time and place, though its particular preoccupations (which are spiritual and philosophical, appearing in the guise of an elaborate compendium of mostly sexual obsessions) betray its provenance—an inchoate postcommunist East Central Europe. Yet this is not a philosophical novel; neither is it, for its resemblance to a case study in abnormal psychology, a psychological novel. It is, rather, a compelling, often abstruse exploration of the Self, a profound meditation on the communicability of real and imagined experience. Its language is powerful, evocative, even when dealing with high abstractions, which is often. The central consciousness is that of an unnamed young man who is real enough, even if we do see him through the distorting mirror of his obsessions and morbid fantasies. He is the parasite, feeding off other people’s physical and psychological ailments; but he is also a host who attracts people with the most peculiar quirks and manias. [. . .] There are Dostoevskian visions of suffering and degradation here, and there is certainly madness (in one dream sequence the narrator literally skins himself alive), and also intellectual fervor (stunning little essays on music, on odors, on the mechanics of perception, etc.), but it all arrives—sensuous metaphors notwithstanding—in cold, precise, analytical prose. All in all, this is a tough book to get through; but once read, it holds you captive. The opening of Ferenc Barnás s first novel, The parasite (1997) Perhaps it was all decided at the beginning. It s hard to put a finger on, but I was always drawn instinctively to illnesses. As a child, for example, I regularly escaped into hospitals with a varying assortment of suspicious complaints, as if I could be secure nowhere else. Hospitals were my world, for no matter how fixedly ordered the outside world purported to be, I felt genuinely free only between those dun olive walls. Although after two or three weeks it was invariably determined that there was nothing wrong with me, even while packing my things to go home I knew without a doubt that, soon enough, I would return. That which children fear, that which makes adults uneasy, was soothing to me. Above all it wasn t the sundry peculiarities of this or that clinical case that interested me, but the enigmatic aura that illness in general constructs about itself. No sooner would I step into a hospital at my father s side than I would sense this: I had only to notice the tired face of the plump old man slumped behind the little sliding window of the porter s booth by the hospital entrance a face curtained by a mixture of boredom and the bureaucratic solemnity porters are expected to display. Surely he was among the most important people here; despite his blank stare he wore his dark-blue hospital-issue overalls with the pride of someone entrusted with authority well aware that, here, he was not simply a guard carrying out his duty but a breathing crossing-bar at the front dividing the two worlds. It seemed that his eyes, glittering sometimes dimly, sometimes almost brightly, exuded an inscrutable light that enveloped all those who entered the hospital. I noticed the difference immediately, as keenly as a virologist might sense at once that a laboratory is sterile whereas others don t notice a thing. I received this light into myself with deep breaths. But let me clarify what I mean by light ; for in fact what little light did seep through the windows was subdued in effect by that familiar hospital smell most people find so disagreeable. Perhaps I m not mistaken in now asserting in words what I then sensed: that this glitter was a materialized extension of the sundry illnesses of those suffering in the hospital present and past. This perception of mine was akin to those rare and fortunate occasions when we manage to see behind another person s smile and notice its supporting pillars; knock those pillars out of place, and what a moment before had seemed indestructible, is gone, like that. I breathed easier on seeing the doctors appear in the hallway. Ah yes, I m home once again, I thought as my father accompanied me, as usual, to the in-patient receiving office. I was worried only that the doctor who d been summoned to give me a last minute look before sending me on to the appropriate ward might reconsider things, and be pleased to inform us that I needn t stay after all. But vigilance saved me. Unfalteringly I followed through on the symptoms I had come up with a week earlier, so that the doctor, after yet another test, would be ready to hand me over to some darling nurse. How could he have suspected that a ten-year-old boy was playing sick? While he racked his brains over the cause of my constant headaches, recurring dizziness, and fainting spells, I wanly awaited the verdict, worried that my trickery would be uncovered any minute. The sight of my frightened face, however, could hardly have led him to suspect some scheming on my part, especially not the sort at issue fed by my desire to be in a place everyone else would, if possible, abandon with haste. But I deceived him: when he notified us that a sample of my spinal fluid would have to be drawn, I gave a sigh of relief, as if this test held the promise of a speedy recovery. Next I was led into the ward and shown my bed. Rarely would I arrive with pajamas in hand, so my father would ask the nurse to dig me up some standard, hospital-issue nightclothes. When, a little while later, a rosy-cheeked nurse placed the clothing before me, my reaction was not that of other boys not a bashful stare, but exhilaration. As if only with this ill-matched, overwashed uniform could I become a fully legitimate denizen of the hospital, in contrast with those patients who wore their own pajamas and robes, and whom as a result I did not consider full-fledged hospital residents but practically civilians. I may have looked ungainly in those scraps of fabric, but they were now mine as surely as the guile by which I d succeeded in deceiving everyone around me. Now I only waited to say good-bye to Father. Oh, he tried cheering me up, he did, saying I shouldn t be scared, that they d pay me a visit in no time. But even as he patted me on the head, I was hoping they d take as long as possible before tearing me out of the sense of freedom that awaited me. No sooner did he step from the ward than I gave a sigh of relief. My final link with the outside world had disappeared: no longer would Father s presence disturb my solitude. In this confinement, the fear I never could have overcome at home or at school began to slowly let up. As if I could get air only here, cramped between four walls, separated from the outside world. I breathed in what my roommates sick bodies and frightened expressions exuded; and doing so was as liberating a sensation as a convict must feel on unexpectedly being granted two days of freedom. It was in this atmosphere, bleak and sad to practically everyone else, that my self-identity began to take shape, albeit in a highly questionable manner. Not only was I soothed by the proximity of my fellow patients, but I actually drew strength from within them; I nourished myself on their worries, uncertainties, and pains, not unlike those creatures that cull their food from excrement. I didn t even have to scrutinize their faces to discover on them that palpable vibration, composed of a marqueterie of fear. Fear of their illnesses. Perhaps it was a heightened sensitivity to this shadow play, distinguishable from their bodies, that attracted me to the wards to begin with; for there I could observe that the worse off someone was, the more this vibration appeared on him as something separable from, yet nonetheless in contact with, the material world. Later, when I would catch the eyes of one of my fellow patients, I met with this stare, which appeared to have torn through a thick veil. It seemed it wasn t even him watching me, but rather, that a current of sorts surrounded his face, and this current was descending upon me. The translator: Paul Olchvary paulolch@hotmail.com - neweuropebooks@yahoo.com

Bagatelle
2000

To the streets with art? Is everyone an artist? Is art everyone s? No longer does anyone ask the questions that characterized the new avantgarde of the 1960s. Or if they do, taking them seriously has long been out of fashion, for we are all too familiar with the repudiating and contemptuous, sarcastic answers. The narrator-hero of Ferenc Barnás s second novel could care less about all this. Through many long years he has traveled the big cities of Europe as a solitary musician, uninterested in drawing a crowd. He plays his flute on streets, at outdoor markets, in front of restaurants that is, on the varied stages of everyday life. He plays works by Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart, and others for pedestrians. Why did he not choose a concert hall instead? Is he obsessed? Is he addicted to amateurish performance? Is he a ridiculous dreamer? Is he neither, but in fact a shifty freeloader (in the spirit of the protagonist of Barnás s first novel, The Parasite) who mindfully counts his cash after this or that performance ? As this novel aptly shows, never does a novel give an unequivocal answer to the question: what is art good for?

The Ninth
2006

As put by Viktória Radics in her review of Barnás s third novel, published in the December 2006 issue of one of Hungary s preeminent literary journals, Holmi: The ninth child of a family living in dire poverty finds himself in a trap. . . . What we read is a concentration of selected events over a year in his life. The novel s dramatic pacing, the balance between form and content, is rendered with on-the-nose precision. Ferenc Barnás has succeeded without fail in any respect not just to depict, but also to render palpable, that singular, unmistakable, throat- and gut-wrenching quality of distress that everyone remembers from his or her own childhood a distress that tempers by adulthood but recurs in more venomous form. Barnás has succeeded in setting forth in writing the elemental content, form, and circumstances of this distress, and in doing so to reveal it in all its paradoxical force. . . . At stake in this novel is expressing an authenticity deeper than possible through language. The aim is to render a convincing portrait of a confining world and a young soul forced into a corner a situation of complete distress that unfolds in such a way that language, despite it all, does ironically manage to summon its force. Thus, what is really at stake is liberation from the distress. Simultaneously therapeutic and literary, this objective is achieved by a most serious act of writing, one with an existential weight. The Ninth is, then, a multilayered, strategic, disciplined accomplishment. . . . The sense of catharsis that results from (reading) this novel is, in the classical, complex (aesthetic-psychological-moral) sense of the word, a pure one. The opening of Ferenc Barnás s most recent novel, The Ninth (2006) Last night I had a dream, and in it I was brave: three boys were coming toward me as I stood in a clearing somewhere. At first I didn t recognize them, but then I saw that it was Perec and the boys. The shortest one had a hatchet in his hand. I thought they wanted to do that again. Just how I took away the hatchet I do not know, but take it away I did, and then I did what I had in my other dream. It happened so fast that this time I didn t even see any blood, though they must have spilled a lot. Then I waited for the police. Two squad cars arrived, but without sirens. When the officers got out I turned to the side and saw, three or four yards away from me, two bodies floating in the water, face down; the officers were already lifting the third boy out of the water. I thought we were by a river. But then I realized that I was standing by a lake. I wasn t scared. I was calm. I was glad I d done what I d done. The funny thing is, Perec s face looked normal, as if he d just drowned. Though I didn t see the faces of the other two boys, for some reason I thought that theirs also looked exactly like that time when they caught me. But I m sure, absolutely sure, that I did what I had in my other dream. When one of the policemen put a hand on my shoulder, the hatchet was still in my hand. Holding it felt good. At four-thirty, when Papa leaves for work, I wake up. Papa still works for the state railway, but now he s at Station Headquarters in Rákoskeresztúr, where not long ago he accepted the post of watchman alongside his regular job. He s got to learn new trades, because once we re busy building the Big House, we really can t be spending all our time at home making devotional objects to sell to churches. Mama wakes up around five. I know this because she then goes right out to the street and asks someone for the exact time. She always does this when she s on morning shift. The first time that church up in Budapest organized a benefit drive for our family we didn t get a clock, and she can t be late for work at the Pen Factory in Szentendre. She was hired there not long ago for two shifts. With her having kids all the time, Mama never got a trade, which is why she s got to screw ballpoint pens together all day long. While she s getting ready I pretend to be asleep like the others. My head is under the pillow and my brother Teeter s foot is right by my face; I push it away, as at other times. Then I try getting back to sleep, but it doesn t work. Nowadays we re living in the Little House, in Pomáz. Papa and my three big brothers built it with Mr. Miska directing the work, while us Little Ones stayed back at the Bombshell Villa along with all the girls and Mama too. The Bombshell Villa, where we used to live, is across the country on the Great Plain, in Debrecen. We called it the Bombshell Villa because it burnt to a crisp on account of a bomb in the Second War, but back in 45, in exchange for free rent, Papa fixed it all up, because back then he still had money from being in the army. It wasn t till later that the Communist s kicked him out of their People s Army. All of us were born in Debrecen. Mama always took a wooden cross with her to the baby-making clinic in that huge peaceful park called the Big Forest, just outside downtown. But Doctor Szilágyi said to her, Mother dear, this won t do. Last time I almost got into trouble on account of that cross. Mama then spread her arms wide while this crying shot up from inside her, which maybe the others saw too. Doctor Szilágyi saw it for sure. Then she sat up on the baby-making bed and clutched that wooden cross tight as we came out, one by one. I was the ninth. The translator: Paul Olchvary paulolch@hotmail.com neweuropebooks@yahoo.com

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