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The Swimmer, by Zsuzsa Bánk.

June 16, 2012

The Swimmer, by Zsuzsa Bánk.  Orlando : Harcourt, c2004.  Translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo.

A haunting story told through the words of a young girl who wanders around occupied Hungary with her father and brother after her mother leaves.

Zsuzsa Banks is a German author with Hungarian roots. In this, her first novel, she writes about Hungry in the 1950s.  The political environment of Soviet occupation provides the background for her novel, but the focus is on one family: a father and two children left behind when the mother suddenly and unexpectedly leaves.   The daughter, Kata, tells the story of how the remaining family members wander around Hungary temporarily living with various relatives.

The Swimmer is much more than its plot, however.  Kata’s voice captures the family’s sense of loss and rootlessness.  Her language is sparse and insightful as she describes the people and places where they live and the disorientation they all experience.

It was strange, the way our lives continued even after Mother had abandoned us.  Morning came, night came, and I was no longer surprised that this was the way it was.  We got up, we did things, we swore, we prayed, we ate, we argued.  It seemed to me that we were doing something wrong, that time shouldn’t be allowed to pass. Not like this.

Although other families took them in and were kind to them, they always had to move on.  The temporary nature of their lives wore on them.   “I didn’t want to go to new houses, new yards, see new faces that wouldn’t mean anything at first and then would mean too much.”  Her father was as disoriented as the children, who realize that he doesn’t really care what happens to them.   Kata becomes worried over her little brother, Ista, who becomes more strange and out of touch with the realities of other people’s lives.

The mother who has left remains a key figure in the book.  Kata’s longing for her mother permeates the book.  The children make up stories about her life somewhere else.

We would invent explanations and excuses for our mother and her not being with us.  We pretended there might actually be reasons for her absence. We didn’t want to be the sort of people who are easily forgotten, people you can just leave, without even saying good-bye.

Kata tries to pretend that she has forgotten her mother, but she is unsuccessful.

At one point, they move in with a family that lives by a large lake and their father, who is a fine swimmer, teaches the children to swim. “Now we finally knew what being in the water really meant.”   All summer the children spend much time in the lake.  Ista, Kata’s brother, is particularly at home in the water.

Although readers understand what is going on, Kata does not grasp that her father is having an affair until she sees the child born from that union who looks just like her brother.

The yard suddenly looked distorted, askew, taken apart and put back together again, but differently, all wrong, not the way it had been before, as if nothing were where it had been before, where it belonged.

Here and there the children find acceptance and happiness, but happiness is always fragile.   Their grandmother tells the children that their parents had once been happy together.  But “precious objects sometimes break even though they are not handled clumsily, break without your intending it; it simply happens.”   Then one must simply endure, but their mother wasn’t good at doing that.  Can anyone make a life out of simply enduring?

The story of children growing up in a very fragile world certainly is sad and tragic, but the beauty and freshness of the book make it worth reading.

I strongly recommend this book to all readers willing to open themselves to a child’s perception of a cruel world.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 18, 2012 10:26 am

    But “precious objects sometimes break even though they are not handled clumsily, break without your intending it; it simply happens.” A very beautiful and apt summation of canker that is a broken home. You’ve done a fine reivew here of a truly haunting and touching story.

    • June 18, 2012 4:20 pm

      Thanks. Families and too much else precious are broken in our world.

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