Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Sinistra Zone by Adam Bodor

Lyrical, surreal, and yet unsettlingly realistic, The Sinistra Zone swims in the totalitarian backwaters of Eastern Europe

Entering a weird, remote hamlet, Andrei calls himself "a simple wayfarer," but he is in fact highly compromised: he has no identity papers. Taken under the wing of the military zone's commander, Andrei is first assigned to guard the blueberries that supply a nearby bear reserve. He is surrounded by human wrecks, supernatural umbrellas, birds carrying plagues, albino twins.

The bears - and an affair with a married woman - occupy Andrei until his protector is replaced by a new female commander, "a slender creature, quiet, diaphanous, like a dragonfly," and yet an iron-fisted harridan. As things grow ever more alarming, Andrei becomes a "corpse watchman," standing guard over the dead to check for any signs of life, and then ...

Goodreads description

This is a strange book, combining poetic descriptions, earthy humour and satire, sometimes in the same sentence: Hamza Petrika took his brother’s rubber boots under his arm and started back toward the bear reserve without a word, letting out colossal farts on the way, as if his soul was fast departing his body. 

Some readers will be shocked by this earthiness, by the casual way the "hero" shares the wife of another man and especially by the portrayal of paedophilia. A Goodreads group I belong to has recently been reading and discussing One Hundred Years of Solitude and many members object so strongly to the incest in that book that it clearly completely colours their view of the book's merits. They certainly wouldn't like The Sinistra Zone. As you know One Hundred Years of Solitude is one my all time favourite books and additionally grew up in a family which enjoyed fart jokes. I have also spent a lot of my time in a country which endured four decades of communism and so have some understanding of the impact of totalitarian rule, its absurdity and its cruelty. 

The location of the Sinistra Zone is deliberately ambiguous. To my mind the setting seems to be somewhere on the borders of CeauČ™escu's Romania. The author is a Transylvanian Hungarian. But this land is also a land of the imagination, albeit a very bleak one. The lives of the inhabitants are desperate: their diet seems to consist of dried mushrooms and forest fruit, washed down by a lethal moonshine which has to be filtered before consumption. Whether you live or die is down to the whim of the local military commander: short, hunched and pallid, Coca Mavridin-Mahmudia was... like some lurid nocturnal moth giving off the stink of dead bugs. The commander also decides what job you do and who you sleep with. The book's grotesque imagery and story holds up a mirror to the obscenity and brutality of life under a dictator like CeauČ™escu. 

Bodor ignores many of the rules of structure. The chapters overlap, information is repeated,  the book shifts from first to third person narration without obvious reason. At first I wondered whether this approach was a form of magic realism metafiction, but later decided that it wasn't and that Bodor just seems to work to his own rules. Maybe the structural oddities reflect the arbitrariness and unpredictability of life under totalitarian rule. There is instead magic realism of the type we see in Marquez's work. Throughout the novel the umbrella of a former commander flies above the zone like an oversized bat. When the same commander dies a bird builds a nest in his mouth. 

This is a book one should approach with an open mind. If you do that you might find, as I did, that you are drawn into the weird and terrible world of the Sinistra Zone.
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