Wednesday, 25 September 2013

The Finno-Ugrian Vampire by Noemi Szecsi

Everybody wants to be a vampire these days . . . don't they?

Not Jerne, who just wants a normal life, a steady job, and to be allowed to make her own way in the world. But her attempts at independence are resisted by her 200-year-old grandmother, who has more traditional ideas about Jerne’s future, and concocts a plan to make sure she gets her way.

Funny, intelligent and sexy, this novel will make you see vampires in a whole new light. 

Amazon description

It has been suggested to me that magic realist books cannot include books that are part of a sub-genre, such as ghost stories or in this case vampire novels. But then not all books conform to genre memes, even if they have ghost as an essential element or in this case a vampire or two. This book is so many things - it's a coming of age tale, it's about following one's calling and ignoring the demands of family tradition, it is political and social satire, it plays with words, language and literature. One thing it is not is a conventional vampire story. If you are expecting lots of blood, thrills, and sharp teeth, then you will be disappointed in this book. This is very different to the books of Stephanie Meyer and Anne Rice. And as I am not a great reader of those books, that's fine by me. In fact this book was fine by me in all sorts of ways. 

The book is as the blurb says funny and intelligent and had me giggling and snorting in an embarrassing way in a Prague cafe, as I waited for my husband to arrive from England. But then this book is a very central European in its references to history, to literature, fraught national identity and dry humour.  

Jerne is the most wonderful narrator. She may have been born into a family of vampires, but she wants to write children's stories about rabbits. Admittedly, being a vampire, she has none of the empathy or saccharin needed by a successful children's author - her first collection of stories is called Rotten Animals, the problem with which, as the editor points out, is "These rabbits, foxes, wolves, polecats, moles and gophers—they’re all cynical and evil." There are lots of jokes and wry comment on the world of publishing in the first half of the book, as Jerne works for a publisher which produces self-help books. Jerne is always comparing herself with her literary hero, Hans Christian Andersen, but her dry sardonic style is as far from Hans Christian Andersen as you can get.

Jerne's vampire grandmother is also a wonderful creation. She keeps rats as pets (and to annoy the neighbours), decorates the walls of her flat with bullet holes, chops up grandfather and puts him through a meat mincer and (appropriately for a vampire) makes huge amounts of money on the financial markets: 'For two hundred years I lived in the lap of luxury but I have realised its vanity. Then I moved into a run-down block of flats in Pest and I have been happy ever since. The flat leaks, the cockroaches roam free, but I know my money is in a Swiss bank account and I can get the hell out of here anytime I want. Knowing this, you too can go and work. Treat work as your spiritual exercises.'
'You're telling me this as my grandmother?'
'No. I am giving you knowledge from a higher spiritual plane and as a sadistic old woman.'
Grandmother is also proudly Hungarian. Before she leaves for a stay abroad Jerne describes her grandmother in a frenzy buying up Hungarica. It is Jerne's grandmother who uses the phrase Finno-Ugrian Vampire. Finno-Ugrian is a family of languages of which Hungarian is one. I am sure I missed out on all sorts of injokes about Hungary and its language, but it doesn't matter.  

These two are the main characters in the book, but there are other characters (human and vampire) that are shown to be as self-centred and amoral as Jerne and Grandmother. Oscar, the gay guardian appointed by Grandmother to keep an eye on Jerne, appears to be dedicated to culture and Marxism, but is waiting for his grandmother to die and leave him a fortune. There is O - Jerne's preening female love interest - and there's the xenophobic vegetarian cook. Is the characters' cynicism because we are seeing these people through the eyes of a vampire? Or is it because people really are that way? Whatever the answer, this book is a delight.

I received this book from the publisher in return for a fair review.

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