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[190] Valeria’s Last Stand – Marc Fitten

valeria ‘You should be ashamed of yourselves. All of you. You’re old enough to be in retirement homes. This is craziness. You’re worse than adolescents. What did you do?’ [98]

The quoted line summarizes my feeling toward the novel. Not that older people have no right to love, but the extent with which they have gone is overboard. The essence of the story has a lot of promise and the opening really intrigues me. Set in Zivatar, a small town in Hungary, in what appears to be the 1990s, when forces of capitalism has just touched the last reserve of Communism, the book revolves around a senior citizen love triangle. The town’s beloved widower potter, the ideal of modesty, has not only taken up with Ibolya (58 years old), the libertine and venomous tavern owner, but also falls in love with the spinster Valeria (68 years old), who was once jilted and never allows herself to enjoy life.

“Over the years, Valeria had made herself unattractive. Villagers were accustomed to seeing her grimace, seeing her sneer, and then hearing her curse before being pelted with a handful of chestnuts or whatever else she could get her hands on.” [13]

Valeria’s routine carping and her finding fault with everything—even the vegetables, unfortunately are the last of the book that intrigues me. While I enjoy the flamed exchange between the tavernista and the spinster, who vie for the exclusive affections of the potter, my attitude toward the bizarre love triangle and the sexual details it ensues is indifferent. The arrival of a scheming, opportunistic chimney sweep, who is ready to retire and takes a wife, shifts my mild intrigue to dread. I’m aware that each of the three main characters represents a power during the time of radical change, as Zivatar teeters on the brinks of new possibilities yet is hesitant to move forward. The mayor, who drives a Mercedes, while the townfolks ride their bikes, goes on vacations aboard under the pretext of negotiating business deals for the town, is hilariously corrupted. He represents the system that Valeria finds faults with, that Ibolya helplessly hates, and that the potter dodges, for he is unaware of the troubles of the village.

My problem with Valeria’s Last Stand is that characters are too etched to be read as a fable and fairy tale, yet they are not convincing enough to be taken seriously. It’s not believable. There are many perspectives from which one can portray a period of political change in a small town. But least expected is one written in the context of a sexually charged drama that features old folks. The book, however, is worth a read for good laugh.

Oh? Don’t you know anything about it? How awful for you. It seems, you little filthy man, that the potter must have awakened some kind of fire in her, and you just happened to be the first piece of meat her famished body came across. It’s funny really. A switch, actually. You were convenient.[211]

ARC. Scheduled to release May 2009
259 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

Friday Mishmash

valeriaWhat happens when a 58-year-old woman and a 68-year-old woman fight over a widower potter in a village? It’s more than drama. Ibolya owns a tavern. She wears garments that stretch to the seams. Valeria is a spinster who finds fault with everything and everyone in Zivatar, even the vegetables. When they both have the eye on the potter, it’s almost like the third world war. But I don’t buy the story so far, not because Fitten chooses to write about intimacy of the over-sixty set, but because it’s not believable. It is light in the style of Italo Calvino who uses humor to point out the foibles of society. The fable-like story has a somewhat slapstick feel. I’ll have a follow-up with a full review later.

For the participants of the Gone with the Wind read along, I’m slowing down since I have devoured the first three parts of the novel in no time. I have turned my attention to the historical period and study how closely and authentically Margaret Mitchell has portrayed the time period. I will post more thoughts and reflections on the book but won’t pick up reading again until everyone is on the same footing, so to speak. I have enjoyed reading everyone’s comment and am in the process of compiling a post that collectively addresses to your thoughts.

Scarlett might be self-centered and a tad vain, but I admire her courage to be different at a time when women were no more than chess pieces. Her stubbornness, or maybe her singular devotion to Ashley, might have caused her pain. She cannot succumb to the notion that “you can love somebody even if you’re not with him.” That’s belittling love. I ask the same question Scarlett does: Why do some of us feel things that people we love can’t understand?

From Whitney Houston, All at Once
All at once,
I finally took a moment and I’m realizing that
You’re not coming back
And it finally hit me all at once
All at once,
I started counting teardrops and at least a million fell
My eyes began to swell,
And all my dreams were shattered all at once

All at once,
I looked around and found that you were with another love
In someone else’s arms,
And all my dreams were shattered, all at once
All at once
The smile that used to greet me brightened someone else’s day
She took your smile away
And left me with just memories, all at once

[181] The Clothes on Their Backs – Linda Grant

clothesbacks2“My parents had brought me up to be a mouse. Out of gratitude to England which gave them refuge, they chose to be mice-people and this condition of mousehood, of not saying much (to outsiders or even each other), of living quietly and modestly, of being industrious and obedient, was what they hope for for me, too. And whatever Uncle Sandor was, he was no mouse.” [54]

“Until I was 10 I was completely unaware that I had a relative.” This is not the opening line of the novel. It doesn’t appear until the start of the third chapter, but it is where the novel truly begins. The narrator is Vivien Kovaks, the relative is her uncle Sándor.

Ervin and Berta Kovaks arrived London from Budapest in 1938. They left Hungary to flee from the Jews persecution. The reclusive refugees who hide behind the door are timidly grateful for any kindness shown to them. Their daughter, Vivien, is a sensitive and bookish girl who grows up sealed off from both past and present by her socially aloof parents. The arrival of a man who dresses impeccably in a mohair suit with a diamond watch on his wrist pierces the long period of calm in her parents’ uneventful lives. The man, Sándor Kovaks, is the uncle from whom Ervin and Berta strives to protect their daughter.

Curious of her family’s past and also suspicious of her parents’ tight-lipped silence, against her father’s wishes, Vivien sets out to forge a relationship with her estranged uncle, a man reviled and imprisoned, whose treatment of his tenants prompts one newspaper to caption a photograph of him with the words: “Is this the face of evil?” But that he constantly challenges her notions of morality makes her feel otherwise. The gripping narrative that unfolds Sándor Kovaks’ story is quintessential of the imperil of hypocrisy: no man is all good or all bad, the same notion that division of humanity into good and evil is no longer useful to measure morality as raised in The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. As much as Vivien tries to hold on to her disgust at Sándor’s choices, she is convinced that life itself can be so opaque that it is sometimes impossible to analyze beyond the surface. Sándor’s choices muddle her notions to define immorality. Her interactions with her uncle turn out to be the best part of the novel.

While all that the media and her father say about her uncle is true—cheap thug, pimp, racist, bloodsucker and libertine, Sándor is owed a fair judgment on his character from the perspective of the line between selfishness and self-preservation. The more Sándor comes into life and color, the more shadowy her parents’ quiet inheritance has become. The more her uncle elaborates on his choices dictated by survival, the less defined the line between good and bad. The novel shines in characterizing Vivien’s uncertain scope in life, and her frustrations and the incredible loss in her early marriage. Disappointingly, the other strand (as suggested by the title) that is never fully realized is the one around clothing, which gives the title of the book one of its two meanings; at various points we are told how the clothes we wear define us and change us – a fascinating idea, but one which is not fully woven into the narrative. The book reminds us that the way we acquire of our sense of elf from what gets reflected back to us, either in the mirror or in our relationships with others.

“The clothes you wear are a metamorphosis. They change you from the outside in. We are all trapped with these thick claves or pendulous breasts, our sunken chests, our dropping jowls. A million imperfections mar us…So the most you can do is put on a new dress, a different tie. We are forever turning into someone else, and should never forget that someone else is always looking.” [288]

293 pp [Read/Skim/Toss]