Review of Never, Again
“Never, Again: A Hungarian Story With Universal Resonance
It’s 1956, a seminal year in modern Hungarian history. But for the residents of Békes, a village literally at the end of the line if you’re taking the train from Budapest, in many ways it feels like life has barely changed since medieval times. Everyone knows everyone else, people grow their own vegetables and draw their water from a common well.
For Sanyi and Hannah Wolfstein, the village has represented a haven after the Holocaust that claimed many of their family and friends, and seemingly a safe and nurturing place for their only child, son Tomi, who is about to start school. This is where Endre Farkas’s Never, Again (Signature Editions, 212 pp, $19.95) starts, but it ends up somewhere very different indeed.
Farkas, who was born in Hungary and came to Canada with his parents as part of the post-Uprising wave, is an internationally published poet and a crucial figure in the Montreal literary scene; his work has been translated into six languages. After nine books of poetry and two produced plays, Never, Again is his first novel. For Farkas, you strongly sense, it is a book that needed to be written.
For much of the book we’re inside the head of Tomi, seeing the world in third-person through his eyes. Happily, Farkas avoids the common pitfall of making a child hero overly precocious, a miniature adult. Tomi is a typical boy of his age: worshipping the soccer players who have led the Hungarian national team to legendary victories (including two glorious routs of England), spinning fantasies of ancient soldierly derring-do inspired by the handiwork of the village blacksmiths, and generally piecing together his world view from what little material is at hand.
The contemporary outside world intrudes only fleetingly and randomly: a stray radio signal can sometimes be heard bearing not the state-approved patriotic folk music but a strange and excitingly rhythmic new sound from America.
So far, so normal — though the everyday is rendered uncommonly vivid and kaleidoscopic through the detail and immediacy of Farkas’s account.
We can see, though, that Tomi is growing up in an atmosphere of secrecy and carefully guarded trauma; his parents don’t yet consider him old enough to know what they have been through, and it’s not clear when they think that time will come.
Things are no more clear for him at school, where the bullies look more like classic all-purpose victimizers than people with any particular ethnic grudge. The penny drops one day in the classroom: One minute, it seems, Tomi is the teacher’s pet, reciting poems from memory, but the very next he’s an enemy of the people, denounced in front of his classmates as a traitor to the true Hungarian cause.
After class, groping for some kind of explanation, he pulls aside his cousin and closest confidante.
“Gabi, why do people hate the Jews?”
“Because we killed Jesus Christ.”
“Who’s Jesus Christ?”
“He’s God’s son.”
“When did we kill him?”
“I don’t know, a long time ago.”
Gabi shrugs his shoulders. “I don’t know.”
As autumn ’56 proceeds toward winter, the anti-Soviet ferment sweeping Hungary makes its presence felt in the village, and it becomes alarmingly clear that this freedom movement carries many of the uglier features of nationalism. It’s one thing to want the Russians and the Communists out, but unfortunately an older scapegoat gets caught in the same net.
For the Wolfsteins and their Jewish neighbours, there is no choice but to flee — in their case, first for a town on the Czech frontier, then, it’s hoped, all the way to the still-new state of Israel.
From the point where their decision is made, the novel’s narrative takes on the pace and suspense of a good thriller, the family’s bid for freedom intercut with flashbacks to Sanyi and Hannah’s respective harrowing experiences during and after the war.
As the narrative digs deeper into the past and the two timelines increasingly dovetail, the irony of the title grows more and more bitter: As Farkas points out in his Afterword, “Never Again” is, of course, the “call of remembrance” for survivors of the Holocaust, but somehow we keep finding new uses for it. The insertion of that title comma — one small but crucial little bit of punctuation — speaks volumes about where we’ve been and where we somehow keep finding ourselves again.
Never, Again is a remarkable fiction debut.”
More Reviews of this title
“Novel Exposes Hungarian Revolution's Dark Side
The 1956 revolution in Hungary is commonly viewed in the West as a heroic stand against Soviet oppression, but for many Jews, especially those living outside urban areas, there was a dark side to this struggle for freedom.
The chaos of that period is brought vividly to life in Endre Farkas' new novel, Never, Again (Signature Editions), from the perspective of a seven-year-old boy.
The failed uprising 60 years ago unleashed overt anti-Semitism that Communism had kept in check, in Farkas' thinly fictionalized account.
When the story opens in September 1956, a month before the revolt begins, Tomi Wolfstein is living a near-idyllic life in the fictional village of Békes. He loves soccer, rock candy and hanging around the blacksmiths next door.
He wants to be brave like the Magyars of old who defended the motherland against the Turks. In other words, he is a normal boy who feels completely at home, even though there were few Jews in Békes.
He attends an after-school cheder with a rabbi, but has minimal understanding of what being Jewish means.
His parents, Sandor and Hannah, are Holocaust survivors, who lost family members, but he knows nothing about that or even about the war that ended before he was born.
The parents were left scarred and cynical, but thought they could live in peace, if uneasily, in Hungary. The Communist upheaval has wrought a paranoid, restrictive society, but they are able to make a living.
As nationalist fervour builds, Tomi's world gradually crumbles, leaving him confused and fearful. His innocence is lost in a matter of weeks, as he is cast as an unwanted outsider.
He first feels it on the playing field, then it gets more serious.
Once a top student, his beloved teacher turns on him, calling him a traitor and "dirty little Jew." Mobs roam the village streets denouncing Jews for being in bed with Communists.
Terrified, Sandor and Hannah are determined they will not be victimized again.
But escaping Hungary was difficult and dangerous of itself, as it meant trusting people of dubious character. Tomi witnesses the violence in the streets of Budapest, and is hurt by an explosion.
There are parallels between Tomi and Farkas, who was born in 1948 in the town of Hajdunanas to Holocaust survivors: his father had been in Mauthausen, his mother in Auschwitz. Like the Wolfsteins, they fled in 1956.
This is Farkas' first novel. A retired John Abbott College English teacher, he is better known as a poet, who has published 12 books, and a playwright.
Never, Again is not an indictment of the revolution, indeed, he dedicates the book to his parents, children and "those who fought bravely for freedom."
Rather it's more a reflection on how people react under adverse circumstances. Farkas said he is fascinated with human behaviour in a dictatorship, whether on the right or left. Some act with surprising morality, but many turn ruthless.
Goodness can be found in surprising places, like among the simple, rough-hewn blacksmiths who defend the family against the thugs.
The Jews in the story are not always shining examples of character. The Wolfsteins' morality is ambiguous, if understandably so. There's the couple – he a former bunkmate of Sandor at the labour camp – that tries to jump the queue, so to speak, ahead of the Wolfsteins in their trek to the border.
"People don't realize how crazy that time was," said Farkas. "I remember escaping in the middle of the night, going through a no man's land, children separated from their parents were screaming. No one knew who was in charge, there was no rhyme or reason as to who got across the border or not. Those who guided you might turn around and denounce you to the secret police."
Like its lack of acknowledgement of Nazi collaboration, Farkas feels Hungary has swept the ugly nationalism that came to the surface during the revolution under the rug.
He has returned several times to the land of his birth in recent years, and was present for the official commemoration on October 23 of the 60th anniversary of the revolution.
Farkas is disturbed by the official nationalism openly on display, the talk of "pure Hungarians" and the exuberant defense of "Christian" values.
Among ordinary people, he heard conspiracy theories about Jews being behind everything, including the migrant crisis.
"Finally, I felt at a visceral level what I knew intellectually, what my parents spoke of happening before the war," he said.
Farkas, who lectures at universities, has found students know almost nothing about the period evoked in Never, Again. "Under the right-wing Orban government, revision is rehabilitating those who did wrong. Their parents and grandparents do not talk about it, and young people wonder which side they were on.
"I have a complex relationship with Hungary," he said. "I hate it, yet something draws me back. I have good friends there, non-Jews, who deplore the anti-Semitism. I also have cousins there who are less willing to accept, who are more vocal."”
“In Endre Farkas’s novel Never, Again, the protagonist Tomi, a young Hungarian Jewish boy, tries to digest the history that has abruptly been unveiled to him: “He wants to ask his parents so many questions. He wants to know the meaning of big words like de-se-cra-tion. He wants to know what a ghetto is, and what people concentrated on while they were in a concentration camp. But something tells him he isn’t supposed to be asking these questions now. Maybe "that’s what it means to be a grown-up … knowing when to ask questions and when not to.” This reflection captures the heart of the novel’s central themes: When, and with whom, should knowledge of atrocities be shared? Is it always better to possess such knowledge; and is the idea that knowledge of history will keep us safe merely an illusion?
The novel is set during the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. The uprising began as a student revolt against the Soviet-controlled government that had been established at the end of World War II, and quickly escalated into nationwide violence. The conflict led to significant loss of life, as well as many Hungarians fleeing as refugees. Of those refugees, an important percentage were Jewish; many of these individuals were alarmed at how the unrest of the uprising emboldened anti-Semitic sentiment, and feared the possibility of a return to Nazi-era politics.
Farkas chooses to frame these events from twinned perspectives of innocence and experience. Tomi has enjoyed a relatively stable life in a small rural town, and is preoccupied with playing soccer and beginning his education. His parents, Sanyi and Hannah, are both Holocaust survivors; at first, they are mainly seen through Tomi’s perspective, but as the novel progresses, the details of their past traumas are revealed. These are details that have been deliberately withheld from Tomi, who has only a vague idea of what it means to be Jewish, and he is shocked the first time he encounters anti-Semitism. His lack of understanding means that when his parents decide to leave a country that has now betrayed them too many times, the abrupt flight from the only life he has ever known is even more confusing and terrifying for him.
The figure of a child protagonist not yet fettered by the burdens of history lends the novel its greatest strength: a subtle balance between everyday ubiquity and unimaginable horror. Sparse, straightforward prose effortlessly captures the voice of a young boy but can also be redolent with details when it switches into the perspective of the parents. Scents and tastes play a particularly prominent role, such as when Sanyi recalls the first time he met his wife: “He inhaled the lavender fragrance of her hair and the fat flavoured steam of chicken soup, the sweetness of boiled carrots, and the meat-rich sholent. He fell in love.” This emphasis on capturing sensory impressions, as well as the sincerity and simplicity of Tomi’s emotional reactions to moments like receiving hockey jerseys from his aunt in Canada, imbue the novel with a nostalgic fragility. Even while Tomi remains ignorant of both the horrors that have come before him and those that lie ahead, the reader cannot help but see the events of the plot unfolding through a lens of historical knowledge.
The certainty of Tomi’s eventual loss of innocence haunts the novel, as does an even darker sense of cyclical repetition. The strategic punctuation of the title raises the spectre of inevitability. Farkas leaves readers both with the implication that knowledge alone will not guarantee a better future and a lingering unease about what, if any, recourse can ensure that historical catastrophes are not allowed to reoccur.