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Three Monkeys Review

To Err is Divine - by Ágota Bozai

By Rita Balla

Ágota Bozai, Hungarian journalist and writer, treats us to her second novel, where she has a go at a sort of post-socialist magic realism and delivers this satirical account of what happened in the east European Countries when ‘at-all-costs capitalism’ sprung up from the ashes of the previously Soviet-controlled governments. The author, in a candid and almost subdued way, presents a merciless portrait of the corrupted binomial between entrepreneurial and ruling classes, seasoned with heavy and futile bureaucracy and a blinded yearning for spirituality. Actually, reading back the last sentence you’d be forgiven for thinking that the novel is set in Italy…


Coupled with its, sadly, infamous corruption and brown paper bag payments, Italy is also undergoing a revival of its own particular brand of Catholicism. A recent referendum to cancel the most draconian elements of a law on assisted reproduction produced, for the most part, disputes between liberals and Christian conservatives instead of debates on the scientific or medical implications of the techniques now available and yet prohibited by this law. A law strongly supported by the Church and by centre and right wing politicians, who, I am certain, would only love to share Anna Levay’s destiny and get a well polished halo shining on their head!

Mrs Levay is the protagonist of Bozai’s book: a literature graduate close to retirement, not religious, actually a convinced atheist, but not particularly sinful either (in religious terms). She lives in a smallish town, spending her time between the public school where she teaches and her modest apartment, and trying to make ends meet. She is a very lonely and methodical person, who does not expect her life to bring any excitement any more, until the evening when a peculiar light begins to shine around her skull. After the first moments of panic and a couple of days of ‘adjustment’ to her newly acquired feature, the teacher slips back into some sort of routine until she becomes involved, despite her will, with a fancy health spa, set up by an acquainted neurologist with the aid, and the money, of crooked local politicians. The shrewd physician has in fact sussed Anna’s miraculous healing powers and puts them to profit in the clinic, which soon starts to attract, thanks both to word of mouth and a clever use of the media, thousands of sick and unwell people. The neurologist and his doppelganger, the mayor, see their turnover get bigger and bigger, and the town itself also profits from this pacific invasion of pilgrims ready to spend all their hard-earned money to get cured from their ailments.

Again, the image of masses of pilgrims invading cities drags to mind Italy and the crowds occupying St. Peter’s square last april, or the busloads of sick devotees who every year land in Rimini for the ‘Rinnovamento dello Spirito’ congress [an annual meeting where among masses, celebrations, prayers, music, etc. the “intercession for the infirm” is held, during which, allegedly, more than one miraculous healing has been unofficially reported]. The fanatic urge that pervades these reunions is probably the sort that Borzai has in mind when she describes the apocalyptic scene at the tourist office, where Anna walks in and performs one of her involuntary miracles.

The idea is original, story and characters are well depicted, and the book is at times quite entertaining, yet there is that ‘something’ missing: call it oomph, call it subtlety, call it political strength, … Perhaps this impression derives from the fact that the author keeps adding elements, descriptions, tassels and at the end fails to deliver the grand finale or a moral, a message, some sort of lecture to her readers. Did Anna get this gift because she has remained faithful over the decades to the memory of her heroically dead husband? Or did she receive some sort of embarrassing counter pass punishment for being an atheist? (… hum, yes, embarrassing: I personally would not like to be ‘blessed’ with a hardly concealable halo!).

The bureaucracy and the corruption are – ironically or realistically? – taken for granted in a society where a school teacher that has offered to her country and her fellow countrymen a life long education service is almost expected to be penny-pinching to be able to get to the end of the month. Yet Anna does not rebel, and more to the point she does not take advantage of her new powers, neither does she expect any of the health spa profits. She does not seek revenge for years of humiliations, nor does she intend to settle scores for her hubby’s death. Perhaps was she to do that, the halo and the powers would instantly disappear, yet again, the catholic God we know, who notoriously sports quite a vengeful temperament himself, might appreciate a bit of action in that sense ... The only thing she seems really unable to stand is arrogance and she will, seeminglyy unconsciously, punish a couple of people for having lacked good manners towards her. Only towards the end of the book, does she finally feel the weight of her whole life becoming unbearable and finally gives out, albeit, arguably, to the wrong recipient.

The style of the book effectively reflects somehow the greyness and dullness that Anna Levay’s life must have been, growing up and living in a communist country small town. The account of the route she takes every morning to go to work, or the description of her apartment building is certainly what you would expect in your stereotypical ex-socialist Hungary. The linear narrative gives the idea of the routinely and boring existence of a widow who spends most of her time on her own (husband killed at the time of the 1956 Hungarian revolution; son emigrated to the US; very few friends, primarily colleagues and ex-students). The characters, we were saying, are well presented, especially the cunning doctor, with his greed, falsity, and acumen that fail though to protect him from exposing himself to ridicule on more than one occasion. All in all this is a thoroughly enjoyable book, yet don’t expect a new Isabel Allende.

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Being a writer and literary translator is a style of living, an unmatchable, pestilent and pleasant condition. Processing texts requires humility, fluency, unconstraint, intentness and an overmounting sense - that's a remarkable composition with an exquisite equilibrium I live and learn. This process of studies is documented here.

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