Hungary, 1956: A woman flees the Communist regime, abandoning her two children. The family tries to find new meaning amid great despair. Zsuzsa Bánk's novel is not a history novel, but a moving family drama.
The Swimmer has a remarkable back story: before it was even published, writer Zsuzsa Bánk had already received an award for her manuscript: The young, talented author received the renowned Literature Award of the Jürgen Ponto Foundation in 2002.
She could not believe her eyes when the book then hit bookstores in fall of the same year. "When I saw it for the first time, I thought, 'this can't be my doing,'" she told the German Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung paper at the time of its publication. "All I did was help someone make it come true."
Losing hope, losing home
The book centers on a family drama: the mother of a family escapes to the West — without even saying goodbye. Kata, considered to be a courageous girl among her peers, can't come to terms with this.
"My father said, 'She left on the early train; you were still sleeping.' I knew there was no early train. And so I knew that something had changed. That something had shifted that morning and the night before."
The entire narration takes place from Kata's point-of-view. Kata and her younger brother Isti lose much more than just a parent; they lose their whole sense of belonging, their entire social framework. They spend all their time with their father, who appears to be immersed in a threatening silence, hardly uttering a single word at times.
Occasionally, the two siblings have to spend some time with family or with their father's friends — sometimes for months at a time. No one really looks after them.
"Even though it was cold, she allowed me to sit in the yard, on a bench wet from the last rain. I slid my fingers over the wetness and waited for the next downpour, which soaked my coat, my stockings, and my boots. I wished it would soak through me too, this rain, maybe make me dissolve, so I could glide away with the water to somewhere, anywhere."
Zsuzsa Bánk, who was born in 1965 had no intentions of writing an historical novel. Instead, she wanted to turn a "road movie" depicting the 1950s into words. Her narration is impressive — such as when she recounts the aftermath of the failed Hungarian Uprising of 1956 from the two children's perspectives and the ensuing atmosphere.
Many Hungarians fled to Western countries after the crushing of the 1956 uprising
Nothing seems to have any inherent value anymore. Everyone around them is feeling paralyzed, waiting for something to happen. The brutal crushing of the revolt, which practically the entire nation took part in, extends into all areas of life:
"I knew that anything I left behind — a dirty cup, a knife — would be put away immediately, long before we got off the train or bus somewhere else. No traces of us. We left nothing behind."
A sense of total hopelessness spreads among the Hungarian people. But these and other political circumstances are only discussed as the backstory to the family drama, as if they were briefly highlighted by flash photography. From the Soviet invasion of Hungary to the mass exodus of Hungarians over into Austria to the political stagnation and complete demoralization of the country, young Kata feels these moments of utter despair.
"It was as if someone had stopped all the clocks, as if time were not passing for us. As if someone had dropped Isti and me into syrup and then forgotten about us."
The two children later learn the actual reasons for their mother's departure from their grandmother, whose brutal honesty completely destroys Isti's little world. He withdraws into a world of deranged daydreaming and silence, barely able to lift his haunted eyes from the ground.
A creative masterpiece
Zsuzsa Bánk explains that the novel is not in any way autobiographical: "All I'm adding that's authentically me is my point of view." Though born in Frankfurt, the German writer's links to the narrative of her book are obvious: her parents fled from Hungary to Germany in 1956. Bánk collected countless stories from her family, researched the details meticulously and presented all of this as a poetically charged novel.
After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Bánk traveled to Hungary several times to visit relatives there. One of the places she frequented over the years was Lake Balaton, which also plays a central role in the book: whenever Kata and Isti had a chance to go swimming at the famous lake with their father, they would experience the only moments of true joy in their childhoods.
Zsuza Bánk: The Swimmer, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (German title: Der Schwimmer, 2002). English translation: Margot B. Dembo.
Zsuzsa Bánk was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1965. She grew up bilingually as the daughter of Hungarian immigrants, who had escaped to West Germany after the deadly crushing of the Hungarian uprising in 1956. After completing an apprenticeship as a librarian, she studied literature and politics in Mainz and Washington D.C. After graduating from college, she worked as a television journalist. Her first novel, The Swimmer, won several awards, including the 2002 Aspekte Literature Prize.