The Sinistra Zone
(New Directions, 2013)
Die Zeit, a weekly national German newspaper, describes Adam Bodor’s new novel, The Sinistra Zone, as “linking intense realism with a boundless imagination, this fascinating novel could have been written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.” True, The Sinistra Zone fuses what seems real with what seems fantastic, demanding its magic realism sticker and thus practically begging for the Marquez comparison. In the novel, corpses are nailed to mountaintops like flagstaffs, dead birds rain out of the sky, and black umbrellas fly around like giant bats. The death of the mountain infantry commander, Coca Mavrodin, is nothing short of poetic:
Having dozed off in the woods, she was caught unprepared by a freezing rain, and, motionless, like a sleeping moth, she froze into a crystalline mass under the ice. Later the wind tipped over this block of ice, which broke to pieces and melted.
Bodor is masterful at creating sharp contrasts between the beautiful and the grotesque. The Sinistra Zone is a first person account (at times haphazardly switching to a third person) of Andrei Bodor who enters an authoritarian militarized zone in hopes of finding and rescuing his adopted son. This zone is a generic Eastern European country, an old-fashioned Communist state, the way your grandma used to make it, but taken to an extreme. It comes with government issued names, dog tags, housing, and job assignments: Andrei wins the favor of the commander Coca Mavrodin by knifing a man in order to obtain a highly desirable post of a part-time corpse watchman at the morgue. As an additional bonus, he is even allowed to select the woman he can have sex with. Aside from Andrei’s incredible luck, life in the zone is a peculiar board game. Every individual is a sacrificial pawn and faces the violent whimsies of unpredictable authoritarian moves.
Bodor, born in Hungary in 1936, a fervent anti-Communist, portrays the regime with the aptitude of a true insider. The depth in the novel comes not from the absurd violence (on the orders of Coca Mavrodin, Andrei Bodor fills with cement a “gaping black cavity in the earth” where a fugitive is hiding), but from how the characters adapt to the regime: desensitization, indifference, and deceit.
When Andrei takes his post as a part-time corpse watchman, he has no reservation about wearing the socks of his dead predecessor. “If someone starts badgering you with questions, go ahead and lie.” This is the advice given to Andrei to address his lack of identity papers. The woman Andrei Bodor has sex with, on skis no less, is married but her husband helps her to primp for her first “date” with Andrei as per the commander’s directive. For hours, people line up in front of the clinic to receive inoculations against the deadly Tungusic Flu, only to have the authorities disperse the line and then stomp out vials of medicine in the yard.
The scenes of brutal murders (the commander orders the burning of the house where the presumed victims of the Tungusic Flu are jailed) are placed side by side with lyrical descriptions of mountaintops. The effect is striking. But Bodor’s contrasts and somewhat cardboard characters are difficult to compare with Marquez’s melodic voice and blended beauty. While Marquez moves seamlessly between the real and the fantastic, submerging the reader into an endless world of shades and dimensions, The Sinistra Zone is more akin to a pencil drawing with sharp corners and clearly delineated shapes. The rain in Marquez’s world has more than a dozen of colors and temperatures; the snow in Bodor’s world is uniformly white and undeviatingly cold. With shades come subtlety, and with subtlety comes the gentle melancholy and humanity of Marquez’s characters. Bodor’s novel remains in the realm of a political fairy tale.
But it is a political tale with boundless imagination, Die Zeit is right. Those who seek a steadily progressing plot or likable characters may not find what they are looking for in The Sinistra Zone. However, those who could be satisfied with a magnificent surreal mix of beauty and cruelty may walk away content. This novel is for the ones who believe in little girls whose eyes glow in the dark and a flying umbrella with a life of its own:
As night fell, an enormous bat suddenly swooped down over the plateau, its shadow rocking back and forth above the hoarfrost-covered mountain spruces and junipers until it, too, flitted off into the darkness—the late forest commissioner’s stray, ownerless umbrella.