In his novel, Hungarian writer Ferenc Barnás melds the sophistication of stream-of-consciousness with a child’s eye view of survival amid repression.
In this World Books podcast I talk to Hungarian writer Ferenc Barnás, whose novel “The Ninth,” published by Northwestern University Press (part of its excellent “Writings from an Unbound Europe” series), takes a brilliantly unconventional look at life under Communism during the 1960s. The author’s third novel, his first to be translated into English (a fluent version by Paul Olchváry), serves up a jauntily jaundiced look at the hardscrabble life of the poor, marginalized, and uneducated in Eastern Europe.
Set in 1968 in a small village outside of Budapest, “The Ninth” is narrated by a nine-year-old-boy, the ninth child in a poverty-stricken, secretive Catholic family that scrapes along by selling rosaries and religious gewgaws condemned by the Communist government. The boy’s home and school life is marked by starvation, overcrowding, and physical abuse, yet the character’s voice filters the horror and hardship through a startling innocence, an amoral earnestness that is tested at the end of the book.
What looks like a modest tale of growing up becomes a far more ambitious examination of moral education in an authoritarian state. How does one develop a conscience in a world that is corrupt on almost every level? I asked Barnás about that quandary as well as a number of other issues raised by the book, from its criticism of the Catholic Church to its roots in autobiography.