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Hargitai, Peter. 2014. BARBARIAN PHANTASY
Hungarian Cultural Studies. e-Journal of the American Hungarian Educators Association,
Volume 7 (2014): http://ahea.pitt.edu DOI: 10.5195/ahea.2014.175

Reviewed by Paul Sohar, poet and translator
Hungarian Cultural Studies. e-Journal of the American Hungarian Educators Association, Volume 7 (2014): http://ahea.pitt.edu DOI:
10.5195/ahea.2014.158 New articles in this journal are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. This journal
is published by the University Library System of the University of Pittsburgh as part of its D-Scribe Digital Publishing Program and is
cosponsored by the University of Pittsburgh Press ISSN 1936-8879 (online) Hargitai, Peter. 2013. Who Let the Bats Out? Twisted Tales from
Transylvania. Bloomington: iUniverse. 170 pp., illus. Dianne Marlene Hargitai
An English professor, a prize-winning poet and an eminent translator of Hungarian poetry and prose; that was the way I
had known Peter Hargitai until I came across his latest literary product, Barbarian Fantasy, a novel (a re-edition of his
1994 A Barbarian's Bedtime Story [New York: Puski-Corvin], which was translated in 2014 by Laura Lukács into
Hungarian as Barbár fantasia [Budapest: Fapadoskönyv Kiadó]). Another coming-to-America family saga? The back
cover hints at more: science fiction or at least fantasy. The first chapter though is realistic enough and relates the story
of the whole Nagy family crossing the Hungarian border into Austria after the brutally suppressed 1956 Uprising. The
focus is on the nine-year old Attila Nagy, and it is through his eyes that the events unfold, but not quite in the first
chapter, which ends in a cliffhanger well before these refugees reach the actual border. The story of the crossing is
picked up after a few chapters of flashbacks to Attila’s earlier adventures as an unenthusiastic member of the Young
Pioneers, the children’s version of the Communist Party. At the actual border we are left with yet another fadeout which
is followed by a few more chapters of surrealistic flashbacks to the Uprising. Next, we find Attila safe in a hospital in
Austria but subject to amnesia; therefore, no explanation of the escape from the dire situation is given. All that is
presented as background material to Attila’s formative years takes place already in America; therefore, the novel is not
about his adjustment to the New World (these issues burden his father and uncle who have their expectable share of
problems with the break), but his growing up, which he does faster than he should when it comes to marriage and too
slow in making a life for himself and his family. In both these areas he is hobbled by a psychiatric condition and/or the
medications he is forced to take. Still, this condition grants him -- and the author -- long flights of fancy that slowly
evolve into a sci-fi dimension, especially in the last quarter of the book.

Why barbarian fantasy? When Attila finds himself making progress in the area of science he increasingly identifies with
his barbarian namesake until the two become inextricably entwined as the story explodes into star wars leading to
apocalypse. At the end -- and I do not think this will be a spoiler -- either by sci-fi magic or by the device of waking up
from another flight of fancy, Attila finds himself again in the company of his wife and their son, Attila Jr., in their New
York apartment, this time with a better understanding of himself and his mission in life.

Even with the addition of hints about experimental conceits, such as a fractured timeline and unexpected sci-fi touches,
this summary of the basic story does not do justice to the novel’s very personal style and its unique blend of reality and
fantasy that set it apart from the usual 1956 Hungarian “immigrant experience.” Surrealistic scenes and outright sci-fi
episodes grow out of realistic events in an experimental style that leaves it to the reader to decide whether these events
take place only in Attila’s mind. The narrative is told in the third-person singular but it is so narrowly focused on the
main character that it feels like first-person rambling; so much so, that it is hard to tell where the intensely obsessive
internal monolog becomes a dialog with mythical forces. This open-ended approach, however, does not muddy the
narrative but rather enriches it, at least for a reader who welcomes deviation from the routine storytelling formula. In a
recent issue the New Yorker critic James Wood praises Scottish writer James Kelman for being “unafraid of boredom,
banality, digression, repetition, and verbal impoverishment” (vol. 90, issue 24, Aug 25, 2014). If these are valid
literary devices, then they allow Hargitai to build his Hungarian emigré bildungsroman with a layer of adventure story
mixed with sci-fi on top and the two ornamented with Hungarian mythology. In Hargitai's hands the various genres
blend seamlessly into one, exciting albeit labyrinthine narrative.

A central component of Hargitai’s success in this difficult feat is his fluid, simple but expressive prose, as he does not
indulge in the modern conceit of fractured and/or convoluted sentences. Hargitai’s lifelong pursuit of poetry was
paralleled with short story writing, and the skills he developed in that area come in handy in this novel, which covers a
period of roughly twenty-five years, where many of the chapters or episodes work as separate units or short stories. As
an example of Hargitai’s clear prose, a paragraph describing Attila’s unsuccessful efforts to fall asleep will serve well,
especially those of us who are similarly afflicted:

He made a conscious effort to synchronize his breathing with Kitty’s. After several repetitions he realized this was
never going to work. His nerves were jittery. Under the covers he cracked every knuckle on his ten fingers. Not all
the fingers made the popping sound, some just plain hurt, and it ticked him off. Nothing was helping. He was more
agitated than ever, restless like a wild animal trapped in the cage, except with him the cage was his rib cage, and he
was conscious of his heart banging against it. If he turned on his side, he could feel the blasted heartbeat drumming
in his ears and echoing like underwater sonar. If he could, he’d climb out of his skin (66).

Hargitai's prose becomes more intense in the internal monologs, fueled by Attila’s obsessive thoughts that somewhat
reminded me of Knut Hamsun’s early novels, Mysteries (1892) and Hunger (1890), both of which revolve around one
character, the alienated protagonist, a quintessentially angst-ridden figure, very much like Attila. Except in this case the
protagonist manages to break out of his isolation and find meaningful human contact in spite of himself.

The other thing that works for this novel is the way the sci-fi and mythological elements grow out of the realistic story
base instead of being arbitrarily grafted on to it. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (1968) is unquestionably one of
the greatest novels of twentieth century American literature, but that is in spite of the sci-fi paragraphs sprinkled on it
here and there; they are only distractions, they have nothing to do with the story. Perhaps the main theme was too
personal, and the writer needed to hold it up at an arm’s length; it was only through the window frame of another story
that he could deal with it. But for the reader now, nearing forty years after its first publication, the sci-fi frame seems
totally unnecessary. Hargitai’s novel, too, is largely autobiographical, but the fantasy in it is an integral part of the
protagonist’s makeup, his persona, and his life. Thus one man’s story of landing in America, from a whole different
Hungarian "cosmos" or "universe," becomes a many-layered, complex work of art, well worth exploring in all of its
aspects.

Sohar, Paul. “Hargitai, Peter. 2014. Barbarian Fantasy.” Hungarian Cultural Studies. e-Journal of the American
Hungarian Educators Association, Volume 7 (2014): http://ahea.pitt.edu DOI: 10.5195/ahea.2014.175

New articles in this journal are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. This journal is published by the
University Library System of the University of Pittsburgh as part of its D-Scribe Digital Publishing Program and is cosponsored by the University
of Pittsburgh Press