The Death of Nadas
by Michael Blumenthal
Issue #26 • September 10, 2003•Sold Out!
Edited by Hannah Tinti
When Aunt Etus’s son’s dog, Bori, bit Kormány Lájos in his right leg among the vineyards of Szent György Hill, it seemed only logical to the bored and unemployed men of the village—Gyula, Roland, Feri, and Kormány himself—that the dog had to be shot.
Because Etus’s son, Árpi, was a large man, however, known to have a bad temper, especially when drunk, self-preservation dictated a wiser course: namely, to shoot Etus’s small puli, Nádas, instead. So the four men, after borrowing Uncle Dönci’s old Hungarian World War I police rifle, grabbed the innocent looking dog from Etus’s front yard by the ears, bound him into an oversized potato sack, and took him up into the back of Gyula’s winemaking house, where they fired a round of six cartridges into the helpless animal, who yelped and twitched when the first bullet entered his abdomen, and then moved no more.
Michael Blumenthal is the author of six books of poetry and the novel Weinstock Among the Dying, which won Hadassah Magazine’s Harold U. Ribelow Prize for the best work of Jewish fiction in l994. Formerly Director of Creative Writing at Harvard, he has held Senior Fulbright Fellowships in Budapest, Berlin and Haifa, Israel, and also been the recipient of Guggenheim and Rockefeller/Bellagio Fellowships, the Academy of American Poets Peter I.B. Lavan Younger Poets Prize, and several Pushcart Prizes. His journalistic and literary essays have also appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the New Republic, and Time. His most recent book, the memoir All My Mothers and Fathers, has just appeared in paperback by Harper Collins. He lives in France, where he teaches American Civilization at the Université François Rabelais in Tours, Creative Non-Fiction at the Institut d’Études Politiques in Paris, and spends his summers in the small Hungarian village of Hegymagas near Lake Balaton.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
MB: I have spent summers for the past five years at my small house in the village of Hegymagas, Hungary. While I am there I hear many wonderful anecdotes and stories from/about my neighbors and about the village in general, which is rife with folklore and fascinating characters. This particular story simply came from hearing that the dog of one of the village “nénis”—elderly women—had been shot. That was all I heard: the rest of the story is entirely imagined.
HT: What made you want to set this story in Hungary?
MB: I lived in Budapest for four years between l992-1996 as a Fulbright Scholar, then bought my little house near Lake Balaton in 1998. I adore Hungary and Hungarian culture in general, am fascinated by Hungarian history, and love being able to respond, somehow, to a culture and place so different from my own, which at one and the same time triggers my curiosity and releases my imagination from its habitual, more constricted, ways of functioning. There is a certain freedom, I think, in writing about a place and people one doesn’t know, or understand, too well, which allows writing to become a kind of anthropological fieldwork as well.
HT: Is the Hegymagas in “The Death of Nadas” true to the real village?
MB: Only obliquely so. I tried, in the story, as well as in many others that I set in the village, to be true to the SPIRIT of the village, though absolutely not to its facts. In some cases, the characters are composites of actual people in the village, many of whom I know only superficially; in others, they are entirely invented. What IS true to the village is the fact of a rather large population of mostly unemployed younger men, who spend a lot of their time drinking in the village’s one bar, and of a considerable number of elderly widows—the nénis—most of whom are extremely kindly and large-spirited, and who lend the village its atmosphere of being, somehow, of another time.
Nonetheless, many of the things that actually take place in the story would never have happened in Hegymagas—I hope!—and yet I try to remain true to the “atmospherics” of the village—its sense of intimacy, humor, intermingled histories, idiosyncratic characters, wonderfully consoling rituals, etc. etc.—without necessarily feeling tied to its actual facts.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
MB: As the editors of One Story (who were of great help to me) are well aware, it was finding some sort of satisfactory and believable ending. I am, I believe, a rather decent writer, but also a rather weak storyteller, by nature. Finding some sort of believable and forward-moving “narrative arc,” rather than the writing itself, is always the greatest challenge for me particularly as it is, in some sense, “narrative arcs” themselves that least interest about a story. Most of the time, in fact, I much prefe the more ruminative, aphoristic, philosophically rich nature of European fiction to the “Would it make a good movie?” obsession with storytelling in American fiction.
HT: Your style brings Anton Chekhov to mind. Have you been influenced by his work?
MB: That’s a wonderful compliment, whether or not it may be true. I know of NO writer who wouldn’t at least like to think he/she has been influenced, by Chekhov, who is all of our master. Whatever “influence” I take from him, however, is certainly—like most influence—oblique, and via a kind of literary osmosis...as it is, I would hope, with someone like Philip Roth. In this story, however, I was, more aware of being “influenced” by Marquez, whose ability to make a place feel at one and the same time both real and fictional I very much admire.
HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
MB: I worked on this story, on and off, over a period of three years, of course very intermittently. I tend, with these “Hegymagas stories,” to work on several at the same time, working on one as long as I feel the “flow” of the writing is going well, and then sometimes returning to another that is in progress. This allows me to keep the “feel” of the village atmospherically alive, while at the same time retaining, I hope, a kind of freshness and “inspired-ness” in the writing itself.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
MB: Nadine Gordimer: “One must write as if one were already dead.”
HT: What are you working on now?
MB: A novel, set in Hungary, entitled Weinstock Descending, that I have been working on now for over ten years, and an ongoing series of interlinked “Hegymagas stories,” very much like this one, involving some of the same characters. And, of course, whenever the Muse feels like visiting, I am always working on poems, a new manuscript of which, entitled Mixed Blessings, I’ve just completed.