European Union Prize for Literature 2019
Réka Mán-Várhegyi’s novel paints a vivid picture of the life of young academics in Hungary at the beginning of the 21st century. Enikő, a thirty-something feminist sociologist returns to Budapest from New York, brimming with research plans. Armed with state-of-the-art research methods and theories, she leaves her husband, an American performance artist, in order to write a “real self-help book” entitled The Misery of Hungarians. Yet she finds herself struggling with writer’s block. Tamás Bogdán, a star lecturer at the university, a first-generation intellectual, is in a relationship with Enikő as well as with Réka, a student of them both. Réka, who is writing a novel, comes from a dystopian communist-style housing estate, a breeding-ground for neo-Nazi ideologies, which happens to be the subject of Bogdán’s research. The novel ends in Florence, with Enikő and another Hungarian sociologist bathing in the sea after giving their papers at a conference on the poverty and inequality stemming from globalization.
Magnet Hill is much more than a campus novel: through the struggle of the main characters, we glimpse several layers of contemporary Hungarian society, each with their particular milieu, history, prejudices and challenges, from leftist liberal intellectuals and aristocratic families to first-generation intellectuals from the provinces, as well as marginalized groups. This eminently readable, often hilariously funny novel touches upon a number of questions, ranging from female identity to the gaps between theory and practice as well as between the world as seen from the West and as viewed from Hungary.
“If you bring up Eastern Europe at these kinds of events, it can feel as if you’re talking about the moon, except that these days Eastern Europe is no longer of the slightest interest to anyone.”
“Oh, come now, that’s surely putting it far too strongly,” says Regina.
“You’re taking a rose-coloured view. Better to be realistic about your situation at these conferences. You’ll notice how you automatically treat westerners as being of a higher order.”
“Is that what you, of all people, really think?” asks Regina.
“Yes, me of all people,” replies Enikő.
“Surely it’s not the west Europeans’ fault if we regard them as ‘higher order’ beings.”
“Of course not, but then it isn’t our fault either,” says Enikő. “I assure you that you’re not especially important in their eyes, as you have only a narrow little sample of research to offer. ‘But you only work on Hungary, right?‘ they’ll say, quite understandably I might add, since they cover all of Europe, at the very least.”
388 pages, 123 × 18 mm
Italian, Spider and Fish
English excerpt available