December 2011

Evan McMurry


Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta by Aglaja Veteranyi

Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta, a smoldering little work of elision, is billed as Aglaja Veteranyi's debut novel, an odd designation given that Veteranyi committed suicide in 2002, leaving her first novel as her last. But the wonderful Dalkey Archive Press has posthumously published this English translation, introducing Veteranyi to a whole new readership, and the novel's cockeyed narrator would have appreciated that one may still "debut" in this world even after departing it.

Veteranyi came from a family of Romanian circus performers that settled in Switzerland after being exiled from their home country. Much of the novel resembles her biography, though anybody after some vaudeville tell-all should search elsewhere; Veteranyi's novel skips the daily drudge of putting on a circus for the existential swirl of living in one. Veteranyi is concerned with family, its power dynamics and shifting relations; with country, as a home, a legacy, and a curse; and finally with the spunky subjectivity of its pubescent narrator, who confronts the old problems of God and puberty against the exile's always-spinning scenery.

At Polenta's opening, the narrator's family has already been booted from Romania, and is touring the back roads of Europe. The narrator (never named), the youngest of the exhibitionist troupe, alone lacks their spectacular nature, and spends her days wishing for privacy, stability, and return. But the causes of her family's destruction are endemic: her father is a poor-man's impresario who may be sleeping with the narrator's half-sister, while the mother is a fierce and resourceful woman who, for all her growling survival, has had to settle for this louse of a husband and his improvised capitalism. "He's stupider than a wall," she complains, even as she schemes to make her daughter into a Hollywood star, involving her with "producers" who expedite her sexual experience more than her resume.

Illiterate but multilingual, Veteranyi's narrator is the ideal guide to this spiral. The novel is told in what would be her diary entries, were she able to write; instead, we get a sort of found memoir, one not scribed from memory but told, to herself, out of necessity. This conceit works better than it has a right to. Whereas too many first-person novels use the immediacy of voice as a shortcut for the accretion of substance, Veteranyi's novel is lit by insinuation and omission. We don't get the rundown of the father's various incestuous acts; instead, hints of his transgressions stink up the novel, rendering his true vileness without a single lurid detail. Similarly, when a much-foreshadowed accident finally happens, the few brief, palpable images deliver the scene's dread far better than any paragraphs of realist description might have. Writing like this has more in common with poetry or abstract art than it does with narrative fiction, and it is to Veteranyi's credit that she crafts such a compelling story out of the stingiest of structures.

Still, Veteranyi displays the first novelist's delight with her own effusion. Entire pages are given to single, all-caps sentences that probably sounded more dramatic in the author's head than they look to an emotionally-invested reader. "I GET THE FEELING I'M CRUMBLING AWAY," is given its own page, needlessly; ditto, "IN A FOREIGN COUNTRY MY FAMILY IS LIKE SHATTERED GLASS." These lines sideswipe meaning, gaining momentum from the excitement of ideas because they never slow down to bother with the substance of them. "WE'RE DEAD A LOT LONGER THAN WE'RE ALIVE," we're told. "THAT'S WHY WE NEED A WHOLE LOT MORE GOOD LUCK WHEN WE'RE DEAD PEOPLE." That's a head-scratcher for all the wrong reasons, a sentence that puzzles the reader as to its sense rather than its implications. Similarly, "THE FOOD HERE TASTES LIKE BREAKING DOWN THE CIRCUS TENT" is an intriguing notion but an underthought simile, one any editor would have made Veteranyi hone to precision.

The tone of such passages is no doubt native to the narrator's juvenile mind, and a smart -- if slightly academic -- afterward by translator Vincent Kling discusses this problem of the artless, immature narrator versus the artful, adult author. "Creative ambivalence and anomaly reign everywhere in Polenta," Kling writes, the largely blank pages reading "as if the narrator's attempts to arrange the words were burdened by uncertainty, irresolution, hesitancy, and the need to find anchoring points, all arising in turn from the struggle to achieve basic aptitude in written expression."

A fine exegesis. But most of the time Veteranyi has no difficulty negotiating between the verisimilitude of her young narrator and the aesthetic of literary fiction. "My aunt looks different in every picture, as if she were part of the landscape," the narrator tells us. "The trees had had their leaves all packed up, like my mother and our clothes." "We were greeted by a woman who looked as though she had several people under her dress." These sentences perfectly blend the narrator's simple vocabulary and Veteranyi's sharp prose. In short, had Veteranyi lived to write again, she most likely would have broken through the mere mimesis that accounts for her novel's few flaws, and spent more time in the kinetic world from which this book seems an emissary.

Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta by Aglaja Veteranyi
Dalkey Archive Press
ISBN: 978-1564786869
200 pages