Adam Bodor at Words Without Borders

"The Sinistra Zone" is neither an easy nor an enjoyable read. It is, however, an interesting one.

The phrase “nightmare of Communism” is now an axiom—a cliché—so it makes perfect sense that Ádám Bodor, a seventy-seven-year-old Transylvanian-Hungarian novelist with anti-Communist roots, would wish to reproduce the actual experience of a full-blown nightmare in his Eastern-bloc-set story of a totalitarian dystopia. With its geographical and temporal ambiguity, fairy tale grotesquery, alarming Freudian scenarios, repetitiveness, and absence of linear chronology, The Sinistra Zone is neither an easy nor an enjoyable read. It is, however, an interesting one, provided you’re willing to accept the author’s apparent disinterest in supplying any conventional narrative pleasures, such as plot or suspense or character development. Instead, there’s stunning prose, a black comedic tone, and an intense visual evocation of harsh nature, all captured with exacting force in Paul Olchváry’s bold translation from the Hungarian.

The premise of the tale, such as it is, is that a man—advanced in years, though his exact age is unclear—goes to a deprived mountainous village, somewhere around the Ukraine-Romania border, in search of his “adopted son,” who he hasn’t seen in a long time. The “wayfarer,” as he defines himself, is randomly met at the train station by an “olive-brown” man with a “soft, greasy voice.” The dog tag on a chain around his neck says Nikifor Tescovina, but he doesn’t wish to know the name of his new acquaintance—“he even fended off a handshake.” Papers should be discarded, Tescovina explains, since a new identity would soon be provided by the mountain infantry commander, the “Colonel.” With no outward concern, the wayfarer accedes, and is thus absorbed into the Sinistra Zone. Governed according to a vaguely portrayed but Ceaușescu-esque system, the zone’s small population exist in the grimmest rural poverty. Work is assigned by the Colonel, a role at first filled by a corrupt yet benevolent man, and later by a no-nonsense woman emanating “the sour-bitter stink of bugs,” who issues charcoal-scribbled summonses via “scraps of paper bags rustling on utility poles, tacked to fences, and tied to tree branches.”

Andrei, the alias given to the narrator, uncomplainingly accepts various jobs, each more dismal than the last. First he is stationed at the “fruit depot,” where he coordinates the harvesting of blueberries and blackberries destined not for trade or local kitchens, but for the bears “locked up in the ruins of a chapel and caged in abandoned, caved in mines.” Next he is moved to the morgue as a coroner’s assistant, “to sit in a room with the deceased and keep an eye out to be sure that the subject does not stir during his shift.” This promotion of sorts comes with a perk: he can pick any village woman to be his lover. That his choice, Elvira Spiridon, is married is of no consequence; she arrives to live with Andrei, who commences their romance by pouring out some brandy provided by Mr. Spiridon, then waving a hand toward Elvira “to signal that it was time to go ahead, get to it, get undressed.”

Still, at least they were indoors at the time. Later, Andrei is skiing along a subterranean stream, having casually stabbed someone to death while carrying out his latest barbarous work assignment: plugging up cave openings with cement to seal in “unauthorized recluses . . . hiding from the mountain infantry.” Elvira appears at the edge of a clearing, so he simply stands her on the skis in front of him, tears off her dress “with my nails and my teeth,” and has sex with her as the forest flits by “on both sides of us, gliding away backward ever faster.”

Other surreal scenes depict sexual relationships even more freakishly: Nikifor Tescovina’s eight-year-old daughter, Bebe—who is famous for her red hair and eyes that “glow at night like a lynx,” and whom he walks around on a leash—is said to be in love with the fifty-year-old meteorologist (characters are repeatedly referred to by their professions, presumably as a satiric comment on the dehumanization of the authoritarian regime). Andrei stumbles upon the child washing herself in a spring while her aged, pipe-smoking paramour “scrutinized the slight body of Bebe Tescovina and the circuitous trails of blood on those scrawny, water-glistening thighs.” Whether the blood is from premature menstruation or premature sex is unclear, but the man greets Andrei as though nothing whatsoever is awry.

The extreme primitiveness of the characters’ lives—there’s no plumbing, everyone eats foraged scraps and drinks lethal-sounding moonshine, clothes are often ragged or “glossy with dirt”—makes you wonder exactly which era we’re in, as do occasional references to historical Eastern European regions such as Galicia and Moldavia. One woman earns a living making art for “Jews from Chernivtsi and Lviv”—hardly a viable business model in the post-war era. And yet, other details—Andrei naming his birth year as 1936, truckers who consume modern brands of candy—imply a 1990s setting. Nor does narrative time unfold logically: each chapter begins at a seemingly arbitrary and discontinuous point, while descriptions and explanations are endlessly repeated, or withheld when they’re actually needed. Just to exacerbate the reader’s utter discombobulation, the mostly first-person perspective sometimes slips, inexplicably and mid-chapter, into third-person.

As for whether the ostensible goal of the protagonist—Andrei’s quest to find his adopted son, Bela—is fulfilled, it is assuredly not a plot-spoiler to reveal that yes, Bela is found, but at a random point in the proceedings and with no release of tension. Not only has there been little suspense to begin with, but Bela, bereft of “joy or surprise,” wants nothing to do with Andrei, who, fifteen pages later, unemotionally describes the younger man’s demise. His burning body is swept away in a stream, or possibly carried off “bit by bit by the wind over the course of a week or two, during which time he sizzled and smoldered among the blossoming gentians like a wet log in a fire”—observers differ on the specifics, but in this fictional milieu, even the latter manner of death fails to raise an eyebrow. The only rational element of the “Sinistra Zone,” named for the river running through the area, is that it’s sinister indeed. Like its imaginary locale, Bodor’s novel possesses all the coherence and predictability of a malarial delirium: accordingly, you’ll either experience it as an exhilarating thrill, or a ghastly ordeal that can’t end soon enough.

Words Without Borders, by Emma Garman (August 2013)