FICTION

Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, May 11, 2008

THE WHITE KING

By György Dragomán

Translated from the Hungarian by Paul Olchváry

Houghton Mifflin. 263 pp. $24

Literature about children living under repressive regimes is as upsetting as it is invaluable. One's appreciation for each new book is mingled with horror at what a young person endured to produce it. How many of us finally understood the ferocity of Sierra Leone's civil war by reading about Ishmael Beah's unbearable ordeal in A Long Way Gone? Last year, Libyan writer Hisham Matar provided a chilling perspective on what it means for a child to live in a state of political terror. In the Country of Men, his autobiographical novel about a 9-year-old boy, describes a family struggling under the rule of Col. Moammar Gaddafi.

The latest contribution to this heartrending genre comes from a 34-year-old Romanian writer named György Dragomán. Published in more than 20 countries, The White King is a collection of connected short stories inspired by Dragomán's experiences during the 1980s. The narrator, 11-year-old Djata, is a resilient but sensitive boy living in a world that seems designed by Joseph Stalin and Roald Dahl. Dragomán creates a nostalgic childhood, full of the games and pranks that mischievous scamps have always pursued -- playing hooky, pestering weird neighbors, daring each other to eat this or jump over that -- but in the dark days of Ceausescu's police state, the atmosphere is so poisoned, physically and psychologically, that boys' make-believe dangers constantly risk becoming deadly.

Except for his weary mother, the adults whom Djata encounters are bizarre or frightening. Government thugs taunt and threaten him. His teachers are joyless and strict, prone to shrieking. The principal threatens to impale anyone who doesn't stay seated during a dull movie. His math teacher makes a student stand on one leg on an upside-down trash can -- and then kicks it out from under him at the end of class. When Djata claims that "other kids had already died in Coach Gica's hands," it seems like the ordinary stuff of gym legends, but then we see one of the coach's sadistic morning practices, carried out with beatings and his special "goalie-terrorizing machine." By the end, the field is covered with slime and blood, but the way Dragomán has constructed the story allows it to reflect ominously on a far larger disaster spreading across Europe.

One of the most powerful stories, "War," begins with an idyllic boyhood afternoon, described in Djata's bounding, adolescent voice, wonderfully conveyed by Paul Olchváry's translation: "Puju and I were lying on our bellies in the wheat field, and it was hot, really hot, sweat was pouring from us in buckets, it flowed right down my face and washed off the black war paint we'd made from burnt corks, the sweat flowed salty and bitter into our mouths but we couldn't spit it out and we couldn't rinse our mouths, no, we didn't have any water with us, neither one of us thought of bringing a canteen along with our weapons." The kids are improvising a rough version of kick-the-can -- with homemade slingshots, cardboard armor and stew-pot helmets -- but over the course of the afternoon, their play slips ominously toward something more sinister, even apocalyptic. The ending, as in several other stories, is exciting and powerful, a shattering statement about the kind of world in which these children and their parents are trapped.

Throughout the novel, which covers about 18 months, Djata is waiting for the return of his dad, a well-connected scientist who fell afoul of the government by signing a petition. He'd been told that his father was going for a week to "a research station by the sea on some urgent business," but in the scene that Djata describes we know those "colleagues" who come to the house are, in fact, secret police; that gray van is no limousine. On one level, he realizes his father has been arrested, but, he says, "I didn't completely believe he was really in a labor camp even though we'd already got a couple of prewritten camp postcards, no, I thought that maybe Father wasn't in a labor camp at all but only working in a secret research institute, just like he told me when they took him away." That conflict between what he hopes and knows runs like a scar through the novel.

Dragomán allows himself some room to experiment with tone and style, including a couple of oddly funny episodes and a surreal encounter with a hideously disfigured man who cares for hundreds of song birds in his dank lair. Among the most moving chapters are those that describe Djata's infrequent meetings with his elderly grandfather, a decorated politician who was forced into retirement by his son's arrest. Though doing his best to resist this public humiliation and maintain his formal dignity, the old man is clearly becoming an alcoholic, and his awkward efforts to reach out to his only grandson are full of unspoken remorse. At what turns out to be their last meeting, he takes the boy to a favorite vista and parks the car. "He said he'd have me know that this was the loveliest town in the whole wide world, even in this dull gray weather it shimmers and it shines, but he'd advise me to leave it at once if I ever got the chance, to leave and not come back ever again, to leave not only the city but the country too, to leave my home behind. He fell silent, gulped down the last of the beer from the bottle, and then suddenly flung it straight toward town."

Young Djata can't always comprehend the full magnitude of what he's witnessing, but through the simple, vivid voice of these scary and oddly mirthful stories, we can. ·

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. He can be reached at charlesr@washpost.com.


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