My Mother and the Hungarians, and other small fictions by Frankie McMillan.
Christchurch: CUP (2016).
Reviewed by Janet Newman.
Frankie McMillan – a Christchurch writer and teacher at Hagley Writers’ Institute – has previously published a collection of short stories and two collections of poetry. My Mother and the Hungarians, and other small fictions brings together these two writing forms. It contains 49 vignettes ranging in length from six lines to just over one page. Each is a self-contained ‘small fiction,’ perhaps a prose poem. Together they form a novella tracing the lives of refugees to Christchurch following the 1956 Hungarian uprising. The smart cover design of red, green and grey curved arrows mimics WWII maps of advancing forces and escape routes from occupied Europe.
In the first of three sections, the dominant voice is a child whose mother has taken in four young refugee men as boarders. The child relates curiosity about the refugees and describes her mother’s exuberant character. Simultaneously, she reveals a sense of disorientation and a penchant for getting lost – feelings that parallel the situation of the newly arrived refugees. The condensed, sometimes whimsical, writing is absorbing. The narrative unfolds gradually with dates, place names and historical references to orient, but not distract, the reader.
Transition to the middle section is clearly indicated by a change from white to pale grey pages and the quotation or phrase, ‘History is an alternating series of frying pans and fires.’ This phrase indicates a wry tone which appears to mimic the ‘she’ll be right’ attitude of New Zealanders. But beneath the phrase’s nonchalant surface lies the dark terrors of Europe during and after WWII. In this middle section, narrators are located in Hungary before and on the day of the October 23 uprising, including Sandor Mikus, who sculpted the Budapest Stalin statue. A boy watches the anti-fascists pull down the huge, brass statue. A man tries to bury the severed left hand of it in his garden, as if trying in vain to bury the past.
In the final section the refugees’ voices prevail. From the commonplace accounts of their experiences emerges the depth of their trauma, their sense of displacement and loss. They describe living with an eccentric woman who laughs a lot and a curious girl who sneaks into their room when they are out. A child whom they double on their bikes. The telling is light, in keeping with the child’s voice, but reveals past horrors – Stefan’s grandfather died in a famine; Istav was named after an uncle who was murdered in the Holocaust. In their stories, the refugees mourn lost parents, history and culture.
In the sardonically titled “The West opens its arms”, Louis asks of 1950s Christchurch, ‘where were the concerts, the intellectual life and the goddamn street lights’ (p 69). Realising the hopelessness of translating their reality to locals (either ignorant or fearful of foreigners) the refugees quickly learn the idiom: ‘in another month we would raise our heads and say, we’re ok, right as rain, box of birds, we are’ (p 69). The refugees resign themselves to giving up individuality, as “The geography of a name” explains: ‘In our new country, we became the one name, ‘the Hungarians’.’ (p 107) and:
copied the Kiwi way and we laughed, we praised the weather, the sport, the churches, the mutton and we held our Magyar tongues. But in our dreams we
sometimes heard our mothers calling us. Our names! Across oceans, continents, borders, the sound insistent as a wingbeat, and we woke in the dark, crying, ‘I am here. I am here!’ (p 108).
This poignant evocation of displacement echoes the disorientation of the growing child who loses her way in familiar streets and whose grandfather writes directions on notes, including one she carries with her which says ‘You are here’ (p 19). By relating the importance of place and family to the child, McMillan heightens our empathy for the alienated, young refugees.
Beneath the sometimes humorous narrative lies confusion and uncertainty, echoing the ways in which the refugees hide their pain and bewilderment. A ‘child opens her mouth, forms a single strange word. It could be ‘hullo’ or it could be ‘help’’ (p 45). There is a sense of hidden menace, ‘secrets as dark plums’ (p 39).
In the helpful list of ‘Notes’ at the end, McMillan reports that two of the vignettes’ titles come from “Peace, Dread,” a poem by Miklos Radnoti (1909-1944), the Hungarian Holocaust poet who was forced into a Jewish labour battalion and shot during the Nazi occupation. Many of Radnoti’s poems pit the values of a Hungarian native son against the inhumanity of bomber plane pilots from other countries. In her work, the writer reveals the human side of displacement through war by the day-to-day lives of native sons turned refugees, a horrific ‘past’ that increases awareness of such continuance today. Frankie McMillan skilfully – and ominously, given current refugee crises – evokes the Hungarian refugees’ awareness of dread at odds with the peace and complacency to which they have been transported.
This is a moving and masterful collection.
Janet Newman has completed a Master of Creative Writing at Massey University. Her short stories, poems and essays have been published in New Zealand journals. Her poem, “Biking to the Manawatu River”, won the 2015 New Zealand Poetry Society International Poetry Competition. “beach . river . always” was runner-up in the 2014 International Writers’ Workshop Kathleen Grattan Prize for a Sequence of Poems.
First published takahe 90