Carnival by Béla Hamvas

Hamvas’s novel in a sense deconstructs the genre of the novel. It is extremely difficult to relate the plot, as all seven books have dozens of characters and only some of them return in the later parts, since the novel is “a grand catalogue of fate, an inventory” of mankind. The books are preceded and interrupted by introductory chapters, somewhat in the manner of Fielding’s Tom Jones (a novel referred to early on), except, as the reader learns later on, the novel lacks a fixed point from which either the writer or the reader could observe it. In these essayistic dialogues a Voice is narrating some mock-learned, mock-arrogant  conversation between the protagonist, Mihály Bormester (Michael Winemaster), and himself, who claims to be an “agent spirituel” in telling Bormester’s story. If we can believe the Voice, Bormester would find this narration three times foolish - foolus termaximus -, first of all that it should have happened, then that someone should be telling it, and finally that someone else should be putting it down. Later on, the reader and the critic are invited into the foolishness.

“The novel describes the development and spreading of madness in a completely original way,” explains György Spiró. “The novel was born as a gesture of rejection of omniscience, and hence it is occasionally stinging satire on the human consciousness and soul, occasionally a parody of all possible (past and future) theories, including all rational and irrational philosophies, religions, aesthetics, and theories of everyday existence.”

In the first book, a red-haired assistant-draftsman (Bormester’s father) arrives to some town, where he meets as many people as there are attitudes or masks. All these characters are prismatic caricatures, some of them have more than one identity. Most of them return in the second book, but they have changed their distinctive “monomanias”. In the books to come, the hero, Bormester “saves” and marries a hysterical woman, then develops a double identity, strangles his wife, receives a spiritual leader and survives the war. Countless other characters turn up, every time in another environment, as the novel spans from the 1880s to the Second World War. In the seventh book a new character arrives: his name is Vidal (“the one who can see”), who is eager to shed his mask and get a glimpse of the Land of Promise. The narrator and the Voice discuss every part and almost every character of the book. They comment on the difficulties of narration, talk about time, reality, probability, style, common sense and the imagination, women, the body, misunderstandings, the masks that human society is wearing, and much more.

As György Spiró puts it, “Hamvas is not simply a caricaturist with wide intellectual horizons, because caricature is limited by the subject it distorts. He makes a parody of the whole of human existence and we have the feeling that he is most probably the freest of Hungarian writers. He is not so free, however, as not to be a Hungarian writer because his work was made in this language, in an original and varied language abundant in the possibilities of linguistic innovation, and he is not concerned for one moment by the spasmodic efforts oft en found in Eastern Europe to achieve European culture from an undeveloped marginal land. On the contrary, he has no inferiority complex, because he sits in a watch-tower from which East and West can be equally surveyed, that East and West which are not able to understand each other.”

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