A beautiful man with violet eyes sequesters himself in a language lab and masters ten tongues yet barely has a word to say for himself. Abel Nema, whose last name, we’re told, translates as “the mute” or “the barbarian,” is a fugitive from a land that no longer exists, living a hand-to-mouth existence in an unnamed European country. Often lost, Abel is periodically deranged, bisexual in his appeal, and a magnet for mayhem; his natural state is ambiguity. In Day In Day Out, Terézia Mora—a fiction writer, playwright, and translator born in Hungary in 1971 who’s lived in Germany since 1990— has fashioned a cyclic, fractured narrative to reflect her character’s psyche. Unmoored in time, her Odyssey-like tale is also mutable in voice, as characters not only take turns narrating but also shift abruptly from third to first person while expressing emotions that range from mordant humor to despair, rage, numbness, delirium, and ecstasy.
Abel arrives in his new world with nothing but a backpack and the name of a fellow expat. Tibor turns out to be a professor willing to help the nineteen-year-old continue his studies, but otherwise the disoriented traveler is on his own. With nowhere to go, Abel sits on a bench at the train station, piquing the interest of con man Konstantin Toti, who asks, “Looking for a place to stay?” In a flash, Abel acquires his second ally, as voluble as our hero is reticent, and Mora has another narrator, one who will establish the novel’s mise-en-scène. Konstantin vamps, “What can I say? These are hysterical times! The whole world seems to be playing musical chairs. Pushing, shoving, whimpering, shrieking. Everyone seeking a place for himself. Or any place. A safe place to put your— sorry—ass. Voluntarily or not.”
Indeed, it is the final years of the twentieth century, and central Europe and the Balkans are in vicious turmoil. A deserter living in exile, Abel has been derailed as well by private upheavals. His father abandoned him and his mother, and when Abel confessed his boy love to Ilia, his best friend, his beloved severed their connection. After Tibor helps him secure a place at the university, Abel— in an attempt to conquer his anguish—fills his head with languages as though consuming alcohol or narcotics. His obsession with language is oddly clinical, even “uncanny,” according to the experts drawn to this freak of nature. They observe that “he learns sound by sound, analyzing frequency charts, rummaging through phonetic codes, painting his tongue black to compare imprints. It’s starting to look like punishment.” As he allows scientists to map his brain, his newly acquired languages fail to connect him to others, but rather increase his isolation. Yet in a cathartic scene precipitated by his impulsive ingestion of mind-altering mushrooms, Abel cries out, “The world as word! My only comfort!” Later, he raves, “I will deliver a long and firmly grounded hymn to language, which is the order of the world— musical, mathematical, cosmic, ethical, social—and its most grandiose delusion.”
Given Abel’s temperament, predicament, and unusual linguistic abilities, the reader might expect Mora’s novel to be about language as a vehicle for meaning. Instead, it celebrates language’s incantatory power, its potential for obfuscation instead of explication. Torrents of words form a scrim, surrounding the characters as the lines between reality and illusion, choice and chance, are artfully blurred. Perhaps Mora has been influenced by her famous compatriot Péter Esterházy. She has translated his stylistically baroque, consciousness-exploring novels. In Day In Day Out, she emulates his brio while striving for his gravitas.
One could say that Abel has a virtual Tower of Babel in his head, which suggests another facet of this whirling dervish of a tale. With his biblical name and oft-remarked-on monkish demeanor, Abel resembles a religious icon. Indeed, his hermetic devotion to language is a form of prayer, and his peculiar linguistic genius is the result of a miracle: a near-death experience that also robbed him of his sense of taste. His meanderings have the trappings of a spiritual trial, and he is all but martyred when assaulted by a gang of boys and left hanging from the jungle gym. And yet the place this mendicant feels “most at home” is a nightclub called the Loony Bin, which encourages epic inebriation and sexual abandon.
For Mora, the sacred and the profane are locked in a perpetual embrace, a mad waltz. The preposterous and the inevitable go round and round on a garish carousel. A woman tells Abel a story that encapsulates this vision. When she was a convent school girl, Elsa says, she joined a throng waiting for a bus, and a statue of an angel on the roof of a hotel lost its head. “Down it flew and hit—nobody, by some miracle. . . . Pow. An angel’s head. Slivers of angel’s hair spreading over cigarette stubs and spittle.”
This language-besotted tale must have presented the translator, Michael Henry Heim, with many a puzzle and a pleasure as he turned Mora’s no-doubt-subtle German into glimmering English. Mora has aimed high conceptually, and not every element hits the mark. Some of Abel’s wanderings merely bulk up the story, and certain characters are brittle caricatures. Narrative complexity occasionally degrades into confusion. Yet this remains an extraordinarily accomplished first novel. A kaleidoscopic saga of dispossession, metamorphosis, and survival, it possesses shades of Hesse and Kafka, perhaps even a touch of Jerzy Kosinski. Mora has created a wry and darkly rhapsodic dramatization of the cosmic battle between anarchy and order.
Donna Seaman is an editor for Booklist and host of the radio program Open Books (www.openbooksradio.org).