Books

Sándor Jászberényi
The Devil Is a Black Dog

Sándor Jászberényi writes world-weary prose that drinks heavily, dangles a cigarette from its lips and has a $5-a-day whore on its arm. It likes short sentences and doesn’t worry too much about literary niceties, such as avoiding repetition. (Or is that just the translation?) It fancies itself a little bit Hemingway, and likes an old-fashioned twist in its tales. Its narrator who, like the author, is a Hungarian photojournalist with extensive experience of the conflict zones of Africa and the Middle East, is prone to a particularly macho variation of the humblebrag. He informs us, for example, that he has “always had difficulty stomaching corpses that were swarming with vermin”. Yeah. Me too.

Only on page 67 of this collection of 19 interconnected and only narrowly fictional stories do we meet a woman who is not a victim of war or an African prostitute with flashing white teeth. Jászberényi, while hardly prettifying his jaded narrator, saves some of his cruellest characterisations for the white women working in the conflict zones: the young, good-looking female war correspondent who can still smile after being gang-raped because, her male colleague cynically presumes, it makes her the centre of attention; the matronly humanitarian grimacing at cold coffee while (unbeknown to her) her African protégé is dying. 

The humanitarian’s betrayal of her African friend, at least, was not intentional. You couldn’t say that for the narrator’s hairy-chested treachery towards his faithful informant in one story, who will be murdered if he won’t wait a week before publishing his story or, in another, the woman whose life he could save for the cost of a plane ticket. He notes but does not agonise over these decisions; they are no Sophie’s choice. He seems more interested in the tension between his own sceptical, European sensibility and the world of religious belief and magical superstition in which he immerses himself. “I never wanted to live a sensible life,” he declares in the first story. “… I have answers only when the circumstances are clear, like life and death; that’s when I feel best, when the questions are easy, uncomplicated by the reflexes of a dying civilisation.” Intelligently, the stories themselves suggest very few easy questions. As a reader, I have but one. The narrator stubs his cigarette out on the side of his sandals. Why? Was the ground that far away?  CG

Scribe, 208pp, $24.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 28, 2015 as "Sándor Jászberényi, The Devil Is a Black Dog". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: CG