OCTOBER 25, 2020
“HERE’S A CLEAN SHEET of paper. I want an accurate biography. Write about the conspiracy. About politics. Not animals.” This is what a Securitate officer yells at István Beczásy, the protagonist of Zsuzsa Selyem’s novel It’s Raining in Moscow, a dispossessed, exiled landowner who is about to be tortured in a Romanian prison in 1952. But Beczásy is not a man easily persuaded to talk about politics. The novel, the first book-length work by this Hungarian author to be published in English (in Erika Mihálycsa and Peter Sherwood’s lively translation), is a bit of a balancing act: it attempts to amend Beczásy’s narrative, all the while remaining faithful to his perspective.
István Beczásy was Selyem’s grandfather, who was indeed exiled and who published a memoir about it. He was the only member of the family, before Selyem, to feel compelled to offer testimony. Selyem describes a moment full of “feverish rage for life-interviews” in post-1989 Romania when Beczásy’s aging daughters (Selyem’s mother and aunt) miserably failed to respond to journalists — one was taken over by amnesia, the other sobbed silently. István Beczásy asked to be recorded by Selyem, yet refused to answer her questions. Instead, he just said whatever he wanted to say. In the recording, the song of a blackbird can be heard.
Such aphasia is also present in the novel’s opening scene — a brief episode, narrated in the third person, that details a soon-to-be-overthrown finance minister’s hunting visit on the Beczásy estate. At the end of the visit, Beczásy’s older daughter, Liliann, watching the dinner-table crowd, is struck by a vision of events yet to come. But, just as she would be when interviewed as an old woman, she is unable to speak.
These details provide a key to the origins of It’s Raining in Moscow, a fictive reworking of historical events that stems from a frustration with human testimony. The engine of the narrative is the contradiction between Beczásy’s refusal to see human affairs as inherently significant and the violent force of history that intrudes into his life. In a series of snapshots, Selyem pieces together key moments of Beczásy’s coming of age, the communist nationalization of his estate, his exile and torture — and his eventual return home after the overthrow of Ceaușescu’s brutal regime and the restitution of his property.
After the opening episode, the novel is composed of a sequence of first-person narratives. Beczásy’s story is defamiliarized and decentered by a host of unusual narrators — animals, even a hemlock tree. Garrulous nonhuman voices fill the gaps in human silence. The few human narrators — Selyem in the above-mentioned chapter, and Beczásy’s wife in another — complicate the emerging, overwhelmingly attractive portrait. They underscore the bizarre alienation and distance through which this serene, balanced person sees even his closest family. Beczásy’s sole first-person account is directed to his dog, Lux, relating the family’s journey to the hinterland of Dobrogea, on the Bulgarian border, in a calm, even tone. His narrative is dotted with interjections suggesting the invocations of a chorus — “Liliann is crying.” From these we grasp that István Beczásy does in fact register the pain of others, though in a distanced way, even while he “communes with the world erotically and the world communes erotically with him” (as his wife sardonically remarks). In the ensuing silence, family members are thrown into history alongside him — yet find themselves alone.
Selyem admits that she could not get her mind around how anyone could think like István Beczásy. Implicit in her bafflement is the recognition that her grandfather survived the quintessential tragedies of the 20th century unmarked by trauma, and that this intactness was somehow related to his inability to take these events more seriously than the mundane tasks of cultivating rice or harvesting apples. Yet Beczásy is not an escapist. He’s a kind of posthuman subject, and Selyem’s attempts to apply the conventional narrative strategies of the family saga and the historical novel to such a person is what makes It’s Raining in Moscow so refreshing and surprising. Beczásy is a creature of the soil, with a profound connection to the nonhuman world. This connection is not built on the negation or surpassing of the human domain; he simply does not need to work his way through the thickets of European cultural history to arrive at nature. Yet unlike famous naturalists, from Horace to Thoreau, Beczásy does not cultivate the land in order to lose or find himself.
In telling the story of this posthuman subject thrown into history, It’s Raining in Moscow takes two approaches. On the one hand, it searches for a form that matches Beczásy’s disposition, in the process reinventing the family saga so prominent in Eastern European literature of the previous century. On the other hand, Selyem’s polyphony offers an ironic homage, splintering her (anti)hero’s story into an array of eccentric narratives — such as that of a cat who, toward the end of the book, portentously remarks: “The Trinity Test thunders across the sky, the Anthropocene is about to begin. There is something new under the sun.” It’s Raining in Moscow is an experimental family saga for the Anthropocene, and an astute and witty one at that.
Animal narrators have been around a long time, of course, especially when it comes to the urge to speak truth to power. Selyem’s chorus offers a bold, Kafkaesque inversion, mixing human and nonhuman perspectives in a hilariously free-handed way. With a good measure of disregard for consistency, her narrative voices offer up a potpourri of anthropomorphisms and scientific details, sometimes mimicking the omniscient narrators of 19th-century European novels. These voices are fully aware of human history and politics, the inner workings of the minds of those they observe, but they often speak from an exaggerated and clichéd human stance. They poke fun at the likes of Jack London’s White Fang or the works of popular Hungarian author István Fekete for their attempts at realism when depicting nonhuman minds. One of the mottos of It’s Raining in Moscow, unfortunately omitted from the English translation, is a quote from Wittgenstein: “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.”
The erudite feline, opining on the Anthropocene, is not meant to reveal what the world actually looks like to a cat. Rather, he is a sardonic commentator, condemning motorization and attributing humans’ bad mental health to a lack of stretching and meditation; similarly, a blackbird laments deforestation, while a fly critiques human gender roles and “deplorably substructured human eyes.”
Their own history is often steeped in an all-too-human pathos:
The great, slow war of the humans did our orbicular-sighted people a world of good. Decaying carcasses lay scattered about everywhere, offering plenty to eat and lay eggs in. With the delicious food smells emanating from every direction, we scarcely needed to take to the air to get a clearer picture. We gorged ourselves, excreted, multiplied & the state of well-being soon advanced our moral and cultural evolution, too.
The wildest section is perhaps the chapter narrated by a bedbug in Beczásy’s prison cell, who sounds a lot like a lifestyle blogger, nonchalantly describing the complex processes of bedbug mating and reproduction before blithely remarking, “I’ve always stuck to the maxim, don’t try to be the only female in his life but the one who counts.”
Selyem’s nonhuman narrators display an insider’s knowledge of the human world akin to Lucius in Apuleius’s classic The Golden Ass, or Ximen Nao in Mo Yan’s Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, or Kafka’s Gregor Samsa. These characters, however, used to be human, whereas Selyem’s animals are not human beings exiled to a profoundly other perspective. Nor are they figures in a sociopolitical allegory, like the creatures in Aesop’s fables or Orwell’s Animal Farm. Ultimately, their function is neither to extend the imaginable nor to channel political criticism. Rather, they populate an absurd, macabre world, their chaotic jumble of voices crowding out the occasionally didactic seriousness of the Eastern European political novel, making space for new forms of speech. It’s Raining in Moscow is a sacrilege of the best kind.
In the final chapter, the hemlock tree observes a circus troupe of squirrels replaying old Beczásy’s life. As his tale of deportation nears its end, thoughts in his head merge with the outside world, his body with the body of the tree — an appropriate fate for such a man, and an appropriate closure for Selyem’s tour de force.
Diána Vonnák is an author and editor based in Cambridge, United Kingdom, and Budapest, Hungary. Her first book, a Hungarian-language collection of short stories, will be published in summer 2021 by Jelenkor. She holds a PhD in social anthropology from Durham University.