February 19, 2024, Author: lizzysiddal8 Comments

Translated from Hungarian by Peter Sherwood
Shortlisted for the 2023 Warwick Prize for Women in Translation
15 short stories which may or may not be interconnected by a protagonist growing up in the communist Hungary. Read this as you will. I didn’t catch onto the potential interconnectedness until late on, but I don’t think it matters. This is a debut book of short stories, written by someone who was already celebrated as a poet when they were originally published in 2006, and they are finely observed, relevant still even though from a world gone by.
There are stories from a childhood in the 70s and 80s. There is a story of university students set in 1989, when communism fell. While a picture of communist life emerges from the background, and is more important in some stories than in others, it is not the main focus. That is granted to the lines of life: the small experiences, narrow lines that don’t have much impact; thicker lines that leave their mark. Add them all together and you have a barcode – the barcode of personal life. (Faithfully reproduced on the book’s delightful sprayed edges. Well done, Jantar!)
This differentiation between the personal and the political is most marked in the story Outline Map. Two university students go on vacation, during which there is a radio announcement: János Kádár, the First Secretary of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party has died. But the narrator of the story is more concerned with the proper application of suntan lotion! More significant to the narrator and more memorable to the reader is the personal heartbreak that follows …
Life is, unfortunately, always accompanied by loss. And there is a lot in this volume. Betrayals of one kind or another: betrayal of state towards its citizens (The Pencil Case, in which a young girl is coerced into confessing a crime she did not commit; The Fence, the violent betrayal of the 1956 revolution); bullying and the betrayal of trust on the part of teachers towards pupils (The Castle, Tepid Milk); sexual betrayal (The Witch Has Three, Three Kids Has She and I Love Dancing). And how do the betrayed react: seldom with histrionics, often by stepping outside of themselves, becoming detached. In Cold Floor a traveller is subjected to a protracted, nightmarish (and pointless) experience by Japanese custom officers: “My voice sounds to me as if it were coming from outside by body”. Which is not to say that the woman scorned is not capable of revenge (the teenager in Tepid Milk, whose boyfriend is stolen by her American visitor).
Ultimately life itself always loses to death. The first and final stories feature the dying. In the first a young girl visits a dying man; it is an uncomfortable experience but nothing more. In the last the agony of dying is much more tangible. This circularity is indicative of the poet’s care Tóth has used in constructing not only the prose but also the structure of her Barcode.
The contents of the stories might make this collection sound like miserable reading. It’s not at all – there’s a lightness of tone, a matter-of-factness, characters refusing to sink into a slough of despond. Timea Turin says it best in his excellent introduction: The most powerful metaphor for the style of the collection is nevertheless provided by the jewellery made out of the mysterious material found on the housing estate. The author of Black Snowman finds some “ strange, curiously light sponge-like stones gleaming with an oily sheen that reflected every colour of the rainbow”, from which she makes jewellery and other, intricate objects that she showers on residents of the estate. Only later does it transpire that this material is highly toxic waste, blast furnace slag. This is perhaps the most striking aspect of Krisztina Tóth’s achievement; that whatever her raw material, she can fashion it into a thing of beauty, revealing the darkling, mysterious splendour of its radiance.
Quite how she does that is something that I shall look at more closely during a reread while in Hungary later this year. Not sure what I’m looking forward to most: the trip, or the reread!