Review published on October 27, 2012.Reviewed by Richard W. Jackson
As well as being the first published novel from Noémi Szécsi, released in her native Hungary back in 2002, The Finno-Ugrian Vampire is also her first work to receive an (overdue) English translation. Having won the European Union Prize for Literature in 2009, for her second novel – Communist Monte Cristo – it will be surprising to some that this publication of her debut has taken so long. Released through Stork Press, an innovative and new London-based publisher that specialises in translated fiction from Central and Eastern Europe, Szécsi’s first novel – a unique spin on vampire-lore – is well placed amongst a collection of initial releases that aim to soothe British hesitancy surrounding new literature from this region of the continent. Now that the wait is over, what can the reader expect?
To begin with, one immediately recognises that the mordant and exacting title distances The Finno-Ugrian Vampire from other such tales. In-keeping with the sharp wit Noémi Szécsi displays throughout, the reader is faced with a folkloric creation that lovers of Bram Stoker, John William Polidori, and even Anne Rice, will be unfamiliar with. As Jerne, the novel’s disenchanted young guide and narrator, muses: ‘But there’s no such thing as a Finno-Ugrian Vampire. “Finno-Ugrian” is a linguistic or ethnographic term. What’s wrong with “Hungarian vampire”?’ Here, moving beyond the unearthly deeds of Nosferatu, the vampire motif is delicately rewoven to chart a young person’s transition to adulthood. For The Finno-Ugrian Vampire understands that finding one’s own place in the world, the struggle to move beyond the parental yoke, is a far more terrifying reality than falling prey to a creature of darkness.
Living in modern Budapest with her vampire ‘grandma’, Jerne (pronounced YEAR-ney in the Magyar palate), exists on the outside of both human and vampiric society. Having returned to Hungary after a period of study in England (grandma loves to poke fun at Anglo-Saxon vampires – one of many satirical jibes in the novel – as British romanticism and popular culture has done far more to propagate the vampire myth than anything in Hungarian literature), she is found struggling to balance her life as an inspiring author of children’s literature (animal tales), with a career in a publishing house, as well as her glamorous two-hundred year old grandmother’s demand that she must soon join the un-dead, ‘Unless you start sucking blood soon, there’ll be hell to pay.’ On top of this, she also has to contend with the overtly sexual advances from an old school-friend, Somi, and her egregious managers, whom she later learns are also partial to a bit of hematophagy.
Choosing to live in a regular Budapest apartment, taking family holidays to Siberia (albeit using the trips to stock-up on reindeer blood), Jerne and her Grandma deliberately choose to maintain a low profile. Avoiding suspicion wherever they can, such living has served Grandma well throughout the centuries; she has amassed a considerable personal wealth, and even now, in modern times, she dabbles on the stock exchange. As is perhaps already noticeable, the “vampish” grandmother is the most colourful character in the novel. Flamboyant and demanding of Jerne – her hesitant familial mentee whom faints at the sight of blood – The Finno-Ugrian Vampire only approaches a conventional ‘horror’ when grandma is present, with her sardonic anecdotes about feasting upon young men, and proud reflections of her life as an old blood-sucker. Certainly, it is in these moments that Szécsi’s talent as a dark humorist shine through:
‘Grandma! Grandma! I know you can hear me even in the coffin.’ I flipped the lid open. And indeed there she was, eyes tightly closed. I bawled in her eye.
‘What is in the bathtub?’
‘My dear, why don’t you let me rest? I’m going to have a tiring night. Is it my bloodbath that’s upsetting you?’
‘So, it’s a bloodbath.’
‘Take a dip yourself! You’ll see, it’ll do you good. It rejuvenates.’
‘Hot water would do me. I got chilled to the bone on the way home.’
‘It’ll warm you up, too.’
‘You’re not seriously suggesting I get into a bathful of blood?’
‘Why not? It did the trick for Elisabeth Bathori.’
‘That was a show trial, Grandma, did no one tell you? I’m going to drain the bath if you won’t.’
‘You’ll do no such thing. It took all the blood from my pets to get that. I put in some anti-coagulant, too, so I can take a bath tomorrow as well. Don’t you dare touch it!’
The mention of Elisabeth Bathori (a 16th century Hungarian noblewoman accuses and brought to trial for an alleged centuplicate of child murders) is just one of the many tongue-in-cheek references to Hungary’s history. Though secondary to the bildungsroman narrative, they nevertheless are amongst the novel’s most intriguing moments, offering satirical taunts about Hungarian society past and present, chiefly through grandma’s reminiscing over cultural icons such as novelist Mór Jókai, as well as her unique brand of patriotism: ‘My dear, I’m not exaggerating, but tears welled up in my eyes when I saw the national flag at the airport. Red for blood, green for bile; happy is the person that sucks blood here.’ As with all good literature, The Finno-Ugrian Vampire subtly teaches and informs the reader in abundance.
Yet it is always Jerne’s path to adulthood and independence that is at the hear of the book. Split into two sections – ‘living’ and afterlife – Jerne’s narration describes her evolution from a vampire-in-waiting to fully blown vamp. Life doesn’t get any better post change: her dedication to bloodsucking is never enough for her grandma – whom swiftly leaves Jerne alone in Budapest, taking an extended break in Finland (of course); in being alone, she wrestles with only having her foppish Uncle Oscar for intelligent company; simple pleasures such as food and taste cease; her struggle to maintain her writing ambitions and commitment to the arts, ensures that she has an increasingly busy timetable, (This is how I spent my life on the margins of society and reality’, she at one point states, especially when she amusingly takes a job in a vegetarian restaurant, after losing her role in the publishing house; and mistakenly, she’s also fallen in love with her female Hungarian language instructor – ‘O’ – a natural romantic, dreamer, and dilettantish poet, whom Jerne cannot bring herself to feed upon.
Though the second part of the novel lacks some of the verve found earlier in the read, notable due to the absence of a glamorous and horrifically witty undead grandmother, The Finno-Ugrian Vampire offers a steady and highly enjoyable read about the struggles of a maturing young woman. Textured with a witty and ironic language, the novel takes no prisoners, attacking its characters and wider themes of nationalism, Eastern European stereotypes, and identity, with the vigour of the vampire metaphor that Noémi Szécsi has chosen to singularly adopt. Littered also with fanciful references to historical and literary figures – Hans Christian Anderson, Oscar Wilde, and Dostoyevsky, are sweetly omnipresent – the English language reader, perhaps unfamiliar with the Magyar-centric elements in the book, should not be deterred and welcome this translation with open arms (or fangs).
A Train in Winter, by Caroline Moorehead