In the world of Gy?rgy Dragom?n, it is hard to pinpoint the moment when humor begins to seep into horror. The war games of children, with combat helmets made from stew pots and machine guns of PVC pipes, are steeped in violence; schoolyard lots are casually drawn from gas masks rather than hats. In his debut novel, translated from the Hungarian by Paul Olchv?ry, Dragom?n ventures into the bleak Eastern bloc of his childhood and emerges with a work so guileless that it manages to be both charming and gutting at once.
The White King is less a traditional novel than a series of vignettes, each a new calamity in the life of the hapless young narrator, the 11-year old Djata. Djata has a stubborn streak that lends itself to misadventure; an early chapter finds him chomping down pieces of red chalk with the well-reasoned explanation that if “we didn?t manage to get sick by the next day, we knew that it would be the end of us, the other kids at school would knock our brains out because that?s when they would find out that we?d accidentally let those slot machines wolf down all out class money.” Each chapter, headed by titles so concrete as to seem metaphorical (though they aren?t: “Gift” is about a gift), has the episodic quality of a short story, set against the incremental shifts in awareness that are the hallmark of the novel. The White King opens with Djata?s memory of his father being whisked away in a van, claiming for the comfort of his son that he is urgently needed at a “research institute,” and ends with a glimpse of him in a similar van, a skeleton of man returning to a forced labor camp.
Were it not for the searing reality of the events described, The White King would seem almost to belong to the school of dystopian Communist allegories. Its atmosphere is at times deliberate in its Orwellian invocations — in one scene, Djata and a friend sneak through an air shaft into a hidden screening room for banned films, where they find a reel that would seem to be 1984. Dragom?n opts to leave his details vague. His novel could be set in any year, in any grey Soviet-era city, though a postscript reveals that The White King draws its specificities from the multi-ethnic reaches of western Romania. If anything, the novel?s placelessness only heightens its dreary sense of political unease. Djata?s minor misbehaviors carve out a small sphere of rebellion in a life otherwise superintended by the dual threats of corporal punishment and shame. In the novel?s most wrenching incident, Djata?s mother drags him to the home of a party official to demand news of her missing husband. Djata is packed off to a back room to play chess, listening as the Comrade Ambassador hits and berates his mother. It is this viscerally terrifying scene that lends the novel its talismanic title: as Djata flees with his mother, he realizes he has stolen a valuable ivory chess piece, “carved to the finest detail” with a face that “looked just like the ambassador.” In a culture where every action is prescribed, any small refusal to play by the rules carries an ideological weight.
This Communist netherworld, already desolate, is even more oppressive for Dragom?n?s fidelity to Djata?s childish sense of wonder. There is a telescopic quality to Djata?s vision — he is quick to zoom in on details but often blind to the broader context. His is an inherited society, where Communism is not a political contingency but a fact. In the “Chestnut Roll” chapter, for instance, a grandiloquent young salesman, all of six years old, appears on Djata?s doorstep, hawking his wares. Djata?s concern is less with M?riusz?s jarring poverty than with his voracious consumption of Djata?s own birthday cake: “I didn?t slow down to savor the sugary chestnut pur?e anymore, instead I just kept stuffing one spoonful after another into my mouth, but all the while I was looking at M?riusz, he was spooning the stuff as fast as he could fit it in him, he cut such big bites out of the slices that he had to hold each heap with his thumb to keep it from falling off his spoon?” The intensity with which Djata feels this loss is no less devastating for M?riusz?s relative deprivation — it is from these minor, daily injustices of life in the Soviet bloc, rather than from the conceptual crush of ideology, that the novel slyly draws its pathos.
Still, there is an inherent risk to the use of a child?s voice, and Dragom?n doesn?t entirely manage to skirt the hurdles he lays out for himself. It is hard to pinpoint the origin of some of the more hackneyed phrasings that appear in The White King — is it an issue of translation, carelessness on the part of the author, or a stroke of realism, an acknowledgment that children must often make do with pre-packaged idioms absorbed from adults? — but this doesn?t keep it from being noticeable when hearts lodge in throats and people crumple like rags. While Djata?s narration lends the novel its singularity, it can come across as relentless: Dragom?n strings together clauses with the pacing of a breathless sportscaster. Here is Djata in one of his schemes to avoid school:
And so I crouched right down in front of the spout, pinched my nose shut, and used the palm of my other hand to direct the rush of water into my mouth, and I began swallowing the water, it was pretty cold alright, but the less air I had, the warmer the water seemed to get, and by the time I stopped, it seemed burning hot, that?s how little air I had left in me, and I nearly fell back?
The sentence doesn?t end there. It?s impossible to fault Dragom?n for inauthenticity, but reading his prose can sometimes feel like having one?s sleeve pulled at by an insistent child clamoring for attention (“and then…and then…and then…”).
To revivify the dismal cinderblock cities of the Soviet bloc is no small charge, however, and if the inflections of Dragom?n?s prose are occasionally wearying, they may also be necessary. The boy?s ceaseless curiosity gives new life to people brought to the brink of their humanity, and with it, to Dragom?n?s portrait of a society ground to a dysfunctional halt. Djata?s failure to play by the rules gives the author license to similarly abandon the constraints governing his own category of ideologically loaded fiction — in the stock tropes of comedy Dragom?n has found an unlikely platform for originality.