Jozef Cíger-Hronský, Jozef Mak, trans. Andrew Cincura (Columbus: Slavica, 1985 ).
It’s easy to write a book about a hero, a one-of-a-kind. Excitement, drama, and surprise inevitably follow. It’s an order of magnitude more difficult to write about an undistinguished soul, one of the many who’ve been forgotten on account of their sheer unremarkable abundance. It’s a testimony to Cíger-Hronský’s gifts as a writer that he has created such a compellingly readable story out of a man as ordinary as a poppyseed—a mak, in Slovak.
Jozef Mak is, simply, the Slovak peasant. Yet Cíger-Hronský doesn’t deal in generalizations. The story is distinct and full of detail, even while the conditions it represents are widespread. Jozef Mak is born to poor and uneducated people in a village whose only tether to the outside world is the Catholic church that they occasionally visit. Every so often they are scooped up and buffeted about by circumstances beyond them: so Mak goes off to serve three and a half years in Austro-Hungarian military service, which takes him as far as Vienna and Croatia, yet his horizons are not expanded in any meaningful way—after all, he’s only needed for his brute labor. The railroad comes through; Bulgarian landowners buy up the local timber; a Magyar school is built in town. When Jozef Mak hears patriots talk of Slovak nationalism he turns a deaf ear. Such things are beyond his ken and trouble besides. He has enough trouble already with his deceitful half-brother, now married to Jozef’s own childhood sweetheart, who has been poisoned into an unrecognizable hag by the experience. Jozef meanwhile is hobbled by his own inability to acknowledge the love of Jula, the woman he ended up marrying in place of his sweetheart.
Cíger-Hronský was a Slovak patriot, unlike his “hero.” He wrote in the Czechoslovakia of the 1930s well after the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire but with an eye to the looming presence of Germany. He might have liked Jozef Mak and his ilk to be better attuned to the bigger issues at hand, but there is no condemnation of the failure to do so. Cíger-Hronský recognizes only too well the endless, mute, and silencing suffering of the peasant class. The opening scene of Jozef’s birth describes the quiet appearance of a mysterious visitor in the night who apologizes to the baby, because everything he had has already been begged away by the other suffering peasants in the village. The only thing he has left for baby Jozef is “my crucified hands—they were left from the night. Take them, but don’t expect a mouth to match them, not even when you grow up and understand people, and they try to persuade you that you should also get a voice somewhere.”
An ambiguous blessing, to be sure, as the blessings of the cross always are! And an optimistic one, assuming that Jozef will actually understand what’s going on around him. One of the most striking qualities of the novel is Jozef’s musings, trying to interpret the behavior and emotions of the people he encounters. Following Jozef’s thoughts is to be taken into a world that the hyper-connected twenty-first century cannot even begin to imagine: a world without theory. Jozef Mak has no Freudianism, no Marxism, no democracy, no talk shows or radio, no newspapers or tabloids to form his thoughts. Even the Christian faith has barely made any inroads on his mind, with its notions of sin and redemption, apart from one moving scene at the mass. And since talking is so hard, very little talking takes place, either. Emotions—even or especially the good ones—get stuffed down. Today we’d look at characters like the ones in the book and say, “Ah, she’s suffering from trauma,” or, “That’s a case of depression if ever I saw one.” But the village world has no such diagnosis, and no relief. The villagers suffer, but the suffering makes them hardy, so they endure—only to suffer more.
This description suggests that the book is grim from start to finish. Strangely enough, it isn’t. I found The Year of the Frog describing life in the late socialist regime to be much harder to take. Here there is humor, solidarity, and deep love, even if insufficiently expressed. Jozef Mak can recognize the beauty around him, and he is in his own way indomitable.
The key, perhaps, is that Cíger-Hronský feels genuine affection and mercy for his characters. A distinctive feature of the book is how often the narrator/author breaks into direct address to Jozef, Jula, or someone else, as if he wishes he really could drop down and be that direct with them, become the explaining and understanding presence that these hemmed-in peasants so desperately lack. He sees their flaws and doesn’t excuse them, but he also recognizes how much their flaws are the product of the terrible situation that engulfs them.
This is perhaps the main quality shared by Jozef Mak and The Year of the Frog. To put it in theological terms, they portray how it’s not a matter of either personal sin or structural sin, but each is entailed in the other. In both books, it’s evident how much the authors yearn for a better structure, but neither story envisions any imminent change. At the times they wrote—the 1930s and the early 1980s—neither had any reason to hope for it.
And yet, change came.