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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Birds of Verhovina

Bodor Ádám

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To purchase The Birds of Verhovina

Title: The Birds of Verhovina
Author: Bodor Ádám
Genre: Novel
Written: 2011 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 276 pages
Original in: Hungarian
Availability: The Birds of Verhovina - US
The Birds of Verhovina - UK
The Birds of Verhovina - Canada
Les oiseaux de Verhovina - France
Die Vögel von Verhovina - Deutschland
Boscomatto - Italia
Los pájaros de Verhovina - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Jantar Publishing
  • Hungarian title: Verhovina madarai
  • Translated by Peter Sherwood
  • With an Introduction by Szegő János

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Our Assessment:

B+ : darkly atmospheric and neatly done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Monde . 19/9/2016 Alice Zeniter
la Repubblica . 3/2/2019 Leonetta Bentivoglio
Le Temps . 9/12/2016 Isabelle Rüf
TLS . 24-31/12/2021 Diána Vonnák

  From the Reviews:
  • "La prosa di Bodor s'inerpica, s'affossa, s'attorciglia, torna su sé stessa, distrugge ogni realismo e con perverso gusto del grottesco si tuffa nel fondo della barbarie. L'artefice di Boscomatto è un ridanciano e disperato nichilista che nega ogni bellezza, intesa ed armonia. La Storia non avanza, la gente si divora, non esiste alcun progresso etico, il tempo è trasversale, certi remoti secoli selvaggi equivalgono al presente e nella vita tutto resta implacabilmente uguale." - Leonetta Bentivoglio, la Repubblica

  • "Le roman date de 2011, il présente des signes de modernité, mais il pourrait aussi bien se situer dans des temps très éloignés, à l’écart du monde des vivants, dans la légende. Le grotesque et le macabre se mêlent au réalisme. (...) Comme le narrateur ne s’étonne d’aucune bizarrerie, ce qui domine au bout du compte, c’est un sentiment d’absurdité fatale et comique." - Isabelle Rüf, Le Temps

  • "There is not much plot: the book proceeds through a series of interlinked episodes that cohere into a portrait of a place -- and of a crumbling authoritarianism. Bodor’s prose, in Peter Sherwood’s lithe translation, is casual and chatty, but also nuanced, sensory and bleakly humorous. Verhovina is one of those places you can visit but might never leave; it is reality on its way to becoming allegory." - Diána Vonnák, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Birds of Verhovina is set in desolate Yablonska Polyana, a settlement in the fictional Verhovina, a place one can imagine somewhere in the hinterlands of the Hungarian/Romanian/Ukrainian intersection, a region with an: "ever-mysterious history". Yablonska Polyana and its surroundings had once all been in the hands of a single family, the Czervenskys -- but: "one night, without warning, they unexpectedly upped sticks and, leaving everything behind, disappeared from the settlement". It's that kind of place: largely abandoned, practically forgotten. When the novel opens the train still runs, but the timetable has already been cancelled, so it shows up more haphazardly, rather than on a strict schedule; by the end of the novel, a few years later, it's long since stopped coming at all.
       Among the features of the place are its foul-smelling hot springs, from which:

Curtains of a steamy, nausea-inducing brownish haze ripple day and night above the meadow, unless some fierce wind from the north should happen to come and sweep it away, and shrouds the valley, settling on the courtyards and seeping into the houses, the larders, the wardrobes, into the very depths of the dresser drawers.
       The place literally stinks, as does the motley assortment of individuals who live there -- an ever-shrinking community. What economy there is here doesn't even bother with currency, as the locals trade in coupons rather than cash, or simply outright barter. There's barely such a thing as gainful employment; indeed, there's practically nothing to do here. Ultimately, they're just biding their time:
Perhaps someone will come and tell us why we are here. Or perhaps no one will ever come here again.
     If truth be told, we are just waiting for time to pass.
       Even though life here is in many ways close to nature, Yablonska Polyana is an unnatural place. The town square features a statue to a local legend, the Three-Legged Woman, St Militzenta, reputed to live in the nearby Mute Forest, while the length of human gestation is two years ("hereabouts winters are long, summers short, and the embryo spends more than twenty-three months inside, in the warmth of the womb"). Among the springs is one whose water is poisonous and "glints dark black and blue", preserving also anything -- or anyone -- submerged in it, in a: "secret blue realm of the hereafter". And as to the birds of the title, they are few and far between: even the birds abandoned the place, and even: "migrating birds kept away from Verhovina".
       The novel is mostly narrated by Adam, brought here from a reformatory as a youth, one of the misfits regularly taken on by Brigadier Anatol Korkodus, who himself had shown up one day in Yablonska Polyana and settled down -- in the old Czervensky estate -- to establish and run a local Water Conservancy Supervision Brigade. The novel opens with Adam going to pick up the latest recruit, a fine way of introducing the newcomer -- and the reader -- to the strange place that is Yablonska Polyana. While Adam has stuck around -- and continues to do so -- none of Anatol Korkodus' other wards last too long:
But he never got very far with them. Nor did he delude himself that he did. He called them his birds, knowing it would always end, one fine day, in their flying away.
       No one really seems to fare well in Yablonska Polyana, especially not youth. There were children in the settlement, but a tragedy wiped many of them out. This is the sort of place where, when a baby is eventually born, naturally the mother: "heard us talking about some Nikita or other, that it's a nice name and she liked it. She thought that, boy or girl, the baby should be called Nikita" -- unaware and then indifferent to the fact that hereabouts: "Nikita is the name of death". (If not immediately apparent as such, the wunderkind is nevertheless certainly also fittingly unnatural in other ways -- though (and perhaps also unsurprisingly for the place) even after more than five years: "no one apart from her mother has ever seen her".)
       Adam chronicles no small amount of tragedy and death here, but it's all part of life in Yablonska Polyana; there's no shock or outrage in his account; it's not indifferent but is casual, and accepting of fate. The settlement is not entirely a bubble: from the regular water-collection to a variety of strangers who visit, some of the outside world does seep in -- but little seeps out. So also the visitors fare poorly -- but then so do the locals. Getting by in mostly dreary routines, their ranks are thinned as time goes by.
       Bodor weaves the very oddity of the place in well into the unemotional narrative. There are some very striking and vivid incidents, remarkable bits, but practically nothing can unsettle the settlement and its denizens -- or really rouse them from the torpor of the place. There is life and love and lust here, but it's also all tamped down; like much else, feelings can barely escape here. Even the extremes -- like the very stench of the place, and everything and everyone in it -- come across as almost incidental: pervasive though the smell is, and vividly described by Bodor at several points, it nevertheless sinks easily into the background, just as it has for the locals, something they barely even notice any longer.
       The Birds of Verhovina is an evocative portrait of place, people, and system, appealing unreal and yet entirely persuasive. Everything here is slightly off, and yet is accepted just as the way things are; the overall sense is, in many ways, one of a kind of surreal serenity. Despite some of what happens, little is, at first, truly disturbing, presented straightforwardly as it is -- but the overall effect goes much deeper, and it's there that the book lingers and haunts on.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 March 2022

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The Birds of Verhovina: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Romanian-born Hungarian-writing author Bodor Ádám was born in 1936.

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© 2022 the complete review

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