TO ERR IS DIVINE
By Agota Bozai
Translated from the German by David Kramer
Counterpoint. 244 pp. $24 Anna Levay, a cantankerous schoolteacher with a weight problem and a tendency to sweat, is taking her evening bath when a halo appears on her head. An atheist, she struggles to accept that sainthood has been conferred upon her, and with it a wide repertoire of miraculous powers, including the gift of healing, spontaneous command over wild animals, and the ability to speak in tongues. Smelling a business opportunity, a neurologist at Anna's local hospital quickly moves to exploit her, and so the ill and infirm descend upon Anna's town, cash in hand, looking for a cure. To Err Is Divine, the second novel by Hungarian writer Agota Bozai, satirizes the grotesque opportunism of the 1990s, when former lackeys of the communist regime discovered the joys of capitalism.
Bozai contrasts the greed of the new entrepreneurs with Anna's generous devotion to her job, for which she earns a pittance. It is only through thrift and industriousness that she survives at all, receiving private pupils after the working day, turning down the heat in her flat, and fixing runs in her stockings with drops of nail varnish. She draws dignity from her work ethic and her commitment to high culture. She cherishes learning as a source of consolation, albeit of a limited sort. "In the West one has read that many responded to Communism's reign of terror by educating themselves extensively, to keep themselves busy," says a Basque tourist whom Anna impresses with her mastery of his native language. "The newspaper had also written that they in fact particularly studied the most irrelevant and abstruse subjects, so as to pass the time . . . in doing something of purpose." Refusing to romanticize the fate of intellectuals trapped behind the Iron Curtain, Bozai shows us the desolation that throbs behind Anna's stoical poise. Her life has atrophied with the loss of her husband -- killed in the 1956 uprising -- and of her only son, who emigrated to the West, never to return. Scholarly pursuits may pass the time but they provide little consolation: "She knew the names of none of the stars. Rather, she knew the names, but she could not associate a name with the appropriate star. This made her uneasy. She thought of the Babylonian astrologers, medieval scholastics, free thinkers of the Renaissance, and scholars of the Enlightenment who knew more about these things than today's educated men and women, and she was overcome with the insight, which seemed to her a cold reality, that to each of us, the workings of the world are unfathomable."
Bozai's use of religious fantasy recalls the luminous fiction of the Russian novelist Mikhail Bulgakov. His Master and Margarita, written under Stalin, was said to be the second most popular book in Russia during the 1990s, surpassed only by the Bible. Bulgakov, whom Bozai twice evokes by name, used biblical elements to overwhelming effect. To Err Is Divine is a drier and much more disillusioned work. Dramatic tension is needed to relieve the emotional flatness of its satire, but the isolation of the saintly protagonist seems to prevent genuine interaction with the other characters.
The traditional purpose of hagiography is to edify the faithful through the commemoration of exemplary lives. Bozai's novel, for all its satirical bite, is also a fairly conventional portrait of virtue standing apart from a wicked world. Exploited by a doctor who makes immense profits from her miraculous cures, Anna is embarrassed by her strange condition. Her reluctance to recognize her own powers is a source of comic touches. Collecting rosehips for the winter, she fails to notice the mesmerized rabbits, dogs, foxes and wild boars that rush up to her because she has left her glasses at home. Less whimsical, and more affecting, is the description of the work involved in pulping and boiling the rosehips into jam. Anna's drudgery surely typifies the experience of thousands who saw communism crumble and a consumer society replace it.
To Err Is Divine reaches out for something more enduring than either, and for this it deserves to be commended. Yet it has to be said that the unbearable record of lives reduced to mere survival under Eastern Europe's utopian regimes has found more powerful witnesses elsewhere -- take the reportage-fiction of Alexander Solzhenitsyn or Rebecca Feig's outstanding documentary film "Bye-Bye Babushka" (1996). Maybe the stories of secular saints and martyrs are more edifying when no obvious morals are drawn. *
Philip Landon writes for the Review of Contemporary Fiction.