HOMAGE TO THE EIGHTH DISTRICT
By Giorgio and Nicola Pressburger
134 pages, $17.95
FOR BEST effect these wonderful stories must be read together, even at one sitting if possible. And it is entirely possible, so delicious and nourishing are they. Taken separately, any one of them is satisfactory, but only together do they provide what the authors must have intended, which is the life and times of a culture at the vanishing point.
The writers are Jewish twin brothers who left Hungary as teen-agers in the critical year 1956 to live and eventually work in Italy. They pursued separate careers and collaborated on these stories only much later, in the 1980s. The collection won an Italian literary prize and has been translated into English by Gerald Moore for publication this year.
The Pressburger brothers write not about events of 1956 but about an earlier period: a few years before the Second World War, during the war and just after it. The Eighth District is described as a largely Jewish district, with a borderline population of Gypsies, in Budapest. A preface briefly outlines its history as an upscale bourgeois quarter that gradually devolved by default into the hands of poor Jewish traders. Thereafter it evolved upward into a heavily trafficked marketplace.
There are 10 tales, stories that often have misty beginnings in Jewish ghettos in other parts of Eastern Europe and have their middles and endings in the Eighth District. They are easily imagined read out loud. Like the district itself, they can be said to teem with unconcealed humanity -- brimming and overflowing with joy, melancholy, cruelty, nobility, courage, cowardice, luck and fate. The fate part can be individual but is largely the work of evil forces beyond a people's control, forces mounted by fascists at one time, by despotic communists at another.
Taken together, the plan of the stories is to embody universals such as love, sex, religion, conduct of life, memory, death through the experiences of children, youths, adults, the aged, even a retarded man. The final story, "Nathan," is a conversation with God. They of course reflect the particular flavor of the people and district whence they originate.
Readers International is a small press operating in Britain, with offices in this country (P.O. Box 959, Columbia, La. 71418-0959). It publishes translations of contemporary literature from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe, among others. Some bookstores carry the titles.
Several others I happen to have read from Eastern Europe worth considering are Ivan Klima's "My Merry Mornings," stories from Prague, and Ludvik Vaculik's pre-communist-overthrow essays from Prague, "A Cup of Coffee With My Interrogator." There are many more.