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György Dragomán: Worlds out of Axioms

10th August 2006

György Dragomán:

Worlds out of Axioms
(Expressing the New. My themes and style)

I wrote this short essay about may work for the 2006 Seoul Young Writers festival. The main theme of the festiwal was “newness” which I learned is a crucial Confucian concept in Korea

So far I have written two novels: Genesis Undone (A pusztítás könyve), a book about three days leading up to a genocide, and The White King (A fehér király), a short-story novel describing six months in the life of an eleven year old boy living in an Eastern-European communist dictatorship, from the moment his father is taken away to a labor camp to the moment his father returns as a guest for his own father’s funeral. I consider both works highly experimental, each testing the structural and stylistic possibilities of the novel in a radically different manner.
Writing experimental fiction has not always been my intention. At the very beginning my urge to write was not driven by any theoretical consideration, it was rather a practical affair, I merely wanted to get rid of an image which was visited on me with the painful clarity of a revelation. I was thirteen years old when it happened, all of a sudden I saw golden shell casings falling to the ground, the copper of their metal glistening in the sun, as the casings spun, almost in slow motion. I saw all this with clarity of a dream, yet it was not a dream, it was just a trick of my imagination. The image hunted me for days. It was a strange and unsettling experience to see it so clearly with my inner eye, the image has slowly grown on me, grown with me, hidden details kept emerging, small flecks of dust on one of the casings, a small dent in another one, and then slowly the background, a muddy leaf covered hillside, sometime in late autumn. It took almost a week to realize that the only possible way of escaping this vision – by that time I could not call it anything else but that – would be through writing it down, through capturing it on paper.
Ten years later, after countless attempts of getting rid of the vision, I came to realize that, during the years, the original image expanded well beyond the boundaries of a short story, and I had a novel on my hands. I did not know how to write a novel. I set out to do it anyway. Needles to say, I failed. The writing I produced was not awful; it just did not seem to work. I did not even have to show it to anyone, I just knew it instinctively. Then I was granted another revelation. I suddenly understood that attempting to get rid of the image had been a mistake, I must embrace it instead, must use its frightening realism as an axiom, must make it a cornerstone of my writing. I knew that the book I was going to write would be an experiment based on the axioms drawn from this image. All of a sudden, everything snapped into place. I have seen something, and I did not know anything about the thing I saw, and by accepting this, I realized that this is what my novel must be about, about not knowing, about the clarity of existence which is not marred by any reflexive or rational thought, about being in the middle of something, experiencing it in its totality without understanding it, without knowing what it was. And as soon as I understood this, I knew everything. I knew that my book would be a novel taking place in the middle of a genocide, showing everything from a single perspective, showing how someone indirectly involved in such events sees and experiences that which is happening, without the benefit of hindsight. I knew I would be showing the elusive nature of the notion of sin, I would be demonstrating how history is only a creation of reflexive thought.
In order to achieve this, I set out to write a novel based on an empiricist representation of the mind. I decided to try to attempt recreating the totality of sensations experienced by the hero of the book, Fábián, a military engineer exiled into a remote outpost as a punishment for disobeying an order. I decided to use a third person perspective, a camera-like, objective entity, which records everything Fabián sees and experiences, but refrains from thought or generalization, or indeed any kind of interpretation. The resulting text is devoid of any formulated thought, there is absolutely no reflexive thinking, absolutely no analysis, experiences relate to other experiences creating a mesh of hyper-intensive and sensitive reality, where extremely long and rhythmical sentences recreate every breath, every feeling, every glimpse, every sensation, the whole living-breathing totality of existence.
This approach had another crucial consequence, that of the timeframe. Reality and time are stretched and compressed by thought, by the reflexive analysis we call memory and mind, but as soon as mind is separated from sensation – and this was a direct consequence of my approach – time is annihilated, we are locked into the eternal present of the real-time. The basic axiom of using an empiricist approach has all of a sudden solved for me the other important question of novel writing, that of manipulating time. In Genesis Undone time is not manipulated, there are small cuts in the narration, but apart from this, everything else is real-time, as defined by the experiences – so much so, that the book can be read in the three days it describes.
Having written Genesis Undone I learnt that my writing must be experimental meaning that the writing had to be based on a set of more or less radical axioms, axioms which were to be treated as fundamental truths, on which a whole fictional creation, the novel, must be built.
For my second novel, The White King, I picked a radically different starting point. The axiom was not an image, but a sentence, a sentence spoken by an eleven year old boy talking about soccer practice, taking place on the day following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster: “And the colonel told us, that we goalies should avoid contact with the ball, because it gathers radioactivity from the grass”. I could clearly hear the voice, its breathless intonation, and I could see the boy, a fast talker, for whom silence is not an option, talking as almost in a frenzy, telling us all about his life, all about his world, one story at a time.
Using this kind of first person singular narration had many its own consequences, resulting in a style differing greatly from that of my first novel. I welcomed this change, as I knew that the enhanced realism, which I had carried to its very limits in Genesis Undone, would be impossible to continue. Similarly, by using this type of narration I could break loose from the total lack of reflexive thought, indeed this would be the very opposite, as everything would be just a recounting of a tale, a highly reflexive theoretical construct created by memory, a sort of personal history. The third important consequence of the axiom was the breaking up of the time frame. In case of The White King the period of the novel is much broader and much more fragmented – we only see eighteen, one or two hour long periods from a half-year long story, and the chronology, though well defined, is quite loose, the gaps in the story must be filled in by the imagination of the reader, thus creating a complex fictional world.
The voice also defined the perspective. In The White King a brutal totalitarian regime is shown exclusively through the eyes of a child. I knew the relative innocence would contrast with the brutality of the world the protagonist is experiencing, thus conveying an important source of tension, and revealing the kind of absurdity, which had already been manifest in the very first sentence. A child’s perspective offered a glimpse in the workings of a totalitarian regime, as the world of the children is very susceptible to violence, and the power structures which are often hidden in the world of the adults are far more clearly marked in the society of children – but the voice of a child also holds a kind of almost magical optimism, creating a mythical world, where everything is possible, and the rigid brutality of a dictatorship may turn into magic, where construction workers may lead secret lives as voodoo wizards, possessing a huge flock of birds trained to sing in a magically harmonious manner.
By consequently following the axioms I found to be the corner stones of my writing, I learnt that novels are worlds which construct themselves out of these axioms, each radically different, each unique and without precedent, each one of its own kind, re-defining the concept of the novel for the sake of its on self, solving the problems of style, time-frame and point of view in such a way that a self-sustaining fictional entity is created, a whole new world of fiction.

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