Review of Never, Again
Montreal Gazette Feb 10, 2017
It’s 1956, a seminal year in modern Hungarian history. But for the residents of Békes, a village literally at the end of the line if you’re taking the train from Budapest, in many ways it feels like life has barely changed since medieval times. Everyone knows everyone else, people grow their own vegetables and draw their water from a common well.
For Sanyi and Hannah Wolfstein, the village has represented a haven after the Holocaust that claimed many of their family and friends, and seemingly a safe and nurturing place for their only child, son Tomi, who is about to start school. This is where Endre Farkas’s Never, Again (Signature Editions, 212 pp, $19.95) starts, but it ends up somewhere very different indeed.
After nine books of poetry and two produced plays, Never, Again is his first novel.
Farkas, who was born in Hungary and came to Canada with his parents as part of the post-Uprising wave, is an internationally published poet and a crucial figure in the Montreal literary scene; his work has been translated into six languages. After nine books of poetry and two produced plays, Never, Again is his first novel. For Farkas, you strongly sense, it is a book that needed to be written.
For much of the book we’re inside the head of Tomi, seeing the world in third-person through his eyes. Happily, Farkas avoids the common pitfall of making a child hero overly precocious, a miniature adult. Tomi is a typical boy of his age: worshipping the soccer players who have led the Hungarian national team to legendary victories (including two glorious routs of England), spinning fantasies of ancient soldierly derring-do inspired by the handiwork of the village blacksmiths, and generally piecing together his world view from what little material is at hand.
The contemporary outside world intrudes only fleetingly and randomly: a stray radio signal can sometimes be heard bearing not the state-approved patriotic folk music but a strange and excitingly rhythmic new sound from America.
So far, so normal — though the everyday is rendered uncommonly vivid and kaleidoscopic through the detail and immediacy of Farkas’s account.
We can see, though, that Tomi is growing up in an atmosphere of secrecy and carefully guarded trauma; his parents don’t yet consider him old enough to know what they have been through, and it’s not clear when they think that time will come.
Things are no more clear for him at school, where the bullies look more like classic all-purpose victimizers than people with any particular ethnic grudge. The penny drops one day in the classroom: One minute, it seems, Tomi is the teacher’s pet, reciting poems from memory, but the very next he’s an enemy of the people, denounced in front of his classmates as a traitor to the true Hungarian cause.
After class, groping for some kind of explanation, he pulls aside his cousin and closest confidante.
“Gabi, why do people hate the Jews?”
“Because we killed Jesus Christ.”
“Who’s Jesus Christ?”
“He’s God’s son.”
“When did we kill him?”
“I don’t know, a long time ago.”
Gabi shrugs his shoulders. “I don’t know.”
As autumn ’56 proceeds toward winter, the anti-Soviet ferment sweeping Hungary makes its present felt in the village, and it becomes alarmingly clear that this freedom movement carries many of the uglier features of nationalism. It’s one thing to want the Russians and the Communists out, but unfortunately an older scapegoat gets caught in the same net.
For the Wolfsteins and their Jewish neighbours, there is no choice but to flee — in their case, first for a town on the Czech frontier, then, it’s hoped, all the way to the still-new state of Israel.
From the point where their decision is made, the novel’s narrative takes on the pace and suspense of a good thriller, the family’s bid for freedom intercut with flashbacks to Sanyi and Hannah’s respective harrowing experiences during and after the war.
As the narrative digs deeper into the past and the two timelines increasingly dovetail, the irony of the title grows more and more bitter: As Farkas points out in his Afterword, “Never Again” is, of course, the “call of remembrance” for survivors of the Holocaust, but somehow we keep finding new uses for it. The insertion of that title comma — one small but crucial little bit of punctuation — speaks volumes about where we’ve been and where we somehow keep finding ourselves again.
Never, Again is a remarkable fiction debut.