Hailed as a surprisingly mature first volume, Unhappiness at the Aurora Housing Estate (2014) is a collection of fourteen short stories organized in three cycles. The narrators and main characters of these stories are often intellectuals – students, artists, scholars – and other middle-class characters who are trying to find their place in the world. Many of them are frustrated and self-reflective, intent on changing their lives and achieving happiness and success, yet more often than not they fail to do so. They are scared of looking and behaving like their parents or becoming like the people around them. Their strategies and the difficulties they face are described with an irony and sharpness that does not spare anyone yet seems to understand everyone, from the successful performance artist to the grandmother who feels unloved by her family.
Many of the stories are centered around the topic of coming-of-age, the loss of youth, and aging. From the seventeen-year-old twins trying to find their identity while struggling with depression, bulimia and lack of love (“So Long, Adolescence”) to the university lecturer who is jealous of her young students (“Two Soft Slaps in the Face”), these characters are afraid of alienation and loneliness. Their strategies vary from esotericism (“Every Line”) to trying to find a companion on dating sites (“The Portrait”).
In other stories, the conflict between East and West, or between Budapest and the rest of the country appears as one of the causes of the characters’ inability to find their identity. Mán-Várhegyi is at her best when she describes intellectuals and artists who are hovering between East and West, like the performance artist in “The Weight of Inspiration,” disdained as an overentitled rich woman in Hungary and admired as a wild Eastern European in the US.
The stories that end each cycle are stories of Kafkaesque transformations in which the narrator wakes up in another body: a woman becomes Lionel Messi (“Woman Striker Has Killer Left Foot“), a three-year-old boy believes he is a woman (“Root”), someone becomes her own grandmother (“Good Faith, Bad Luck”).
In Mán-Várhegyi’s stories, there are no big conflicts or traumas, only the unhappiness and hopelessness of everyday life, narrated in a provocative yet natural, steady-paced, non-triumphalist tone.
Italian, Spider and Fish