The eighteen stories of this 2007 book by György Dragomán, a Transylvanian Hungarian, can be enjoyed separately but also form a loose narrative set in the 1980s world of an unnamed country – undoubtedly Ceausescu’s Romania.
Stretching over a period of about two years in the life of their narrator, 11-year-old Djata, the tales revolve in part around his home-life with his mother: they live under the ever-present shadow of an absent father Djata gradually realizes has been taken away, as punishment for an anti-goverrnment protest, to do forced labour on the Danube Canal. Djata lives in hope that his father will one day return but despite his optimism, this seems unlikely, and it’s not until the final story we find out whether or not his father is actually alive.
Most of the remaining tales centre round the shenanigans he gets up to with his schoolmates and the boys in the neighbourhood. Descriptions of home-made weapons, makeshift explosive devices, bullies and collections of military souvenirs vividly capture the wild nature of many young boys’ recreational activities, in times past at least. A number of these stories brought back strong memories of my own childhood. Girls don’t come into the picture much at all except in one evocative story ‘Numbers’. It’s a cruel violent world with one of the most repeated phrases being. “I’ll knock your brains out.” School teachers and football coaches are among the worst bullies of all while government workers and security guards display their brutal sides too. At the top of the pyramid of bullies is the government and its leader.
My favourite stories include ‘Plenty’, which captures the mayhem that erupts when there’s a rumour that bananas are available at a local store, and ‘Cinema’, where Djata and a schoolmate manage to penetrate a secret room in a cinema via a vent during one of the city’s regular blackouts. The aforementioned ‘Numbers’ describes very well the mystery young girls’ developing bodies have for their male schoolmates.The style of the writing is unusual in that full stops are at a minimum and this captures the breathless way in which a lot of children speak. Only a couple of stories, ‘Africa’ and ‘Pact’, seem out of place in this collection, straying into fantastical areas which jar with the down-to-earth realism of the other tales.
I can definitely recommend this volume both for its evocative memories of childhood and for the human spirit which explodes from these pages – despite the grey blanket of totalitarianism.
György Dragomán’s The White King is available on Amazon Kindle, at £4.49.