Review: Maja Pluvo (Don HARLOW)

Maja Pluvo

by Julian Modest

Chapecó: Fonto, 1984. 94p. Fonto-Serio 4.

reviewed by Don Harlow

originally appeared in The ELNA Newsletter, Mar-Apr 1987

   During an unseasonably hot and dry May in Budapest, unwelcome news comes to the summer dwellers on Wolf Hill: the Communist government has viciously banned all watering of gardens. Mladen, a young Bulgarian expatriate living with his Hungarian wife and parents-in-law, is outraged. He and Emola, an old school friend of his wife's with whom he has been carrying on a passionate love affair, lead a small band of ragged partisans in a partially successful attack on a Russian military unit. Tanks are destroyed. Russian bombers explode on the ground. Emola is killed. Mladen is in despair. Then, as if by magic, Sylvester Stallone appears...

   Well, no. It really doesn't go like that at all. But if you only want to read books written by American authors, aimed only at American audiences and pandering to American prejudices (better: conditioned reflexes), then you probably shouldn't read this book. At the very best, it is probably far too mild for the average American reader.

   The story mainly concerns young Mladen, happily married to Anna, and his growing conviction that his life, already twenty-five years long, is not really going anywhere. The chief symbol of this stagnation is his father-in-law's summer cottage and garden on Wolf Hill, a former wasteland divided up by the government among city-dwellers who have evinced a desire to have their own place to grow things. Not too far awan, on Pine Forest Hill, lives Emola, whose life -- in other ways and for other reasons -- also seems to be turning every more and more meaningless. Modest, with a minimum of pyrotechnics (the only violence occurs offstage, in chapter 13), attempts to show just how these two young people come to terms -- in radically different ways -- with the conflict between expectations and reality.

   As I suggested, many American readers would find the book a little hard to take, because it doesn't follow the patterns to which they have become accustomed. Far from having an affair with Emola, Mladen -- who encounters her exactly three times in the course of the story -- hardly notices her as a woman. The local "militiamen" (Communist equivalent of policemen) who appear in Chapter 13 are as polite and well-spoken as British Bobbies. The only official-type personage in the story is Viktor, who owns a neighboring garden, and he is shown, although not in the best of lights, as being guilty of superciliousness and officiousness, not of totalitarian tyranny.

   On the back cover William Auld describes this as "[Modest's] first novel," which is not quite correct -- La Or Pozidono appeared earlier, although there is really no way to determine the order of writing. I would guess that, indeed, Maja Pluvo is a later work. The protagonist is older -- Emil Vasev of Pozidono was in his late teens; Mladen is in his mid-twenties. Pozidono attempts to elicit the Esperantist reader's sympathy by having all the main characters speak Esperanto; Pluvo does not even mention the language (though I suspect that both Mladen and Anna speak the language; they apparently have never had linguistic problems, though several times it is mentioned that Mladen learned Hungarian only after coming to live with her in Hungary). And the style and grammar of the book are somewhat better; I particularly noticed a better discrimination between the use of adjectives on the one hand and adverbs on the other. Some lacunae remain. Modest, like many another Esperantist, sometimes has trouble with the -IG- suffix with transitive verbs (p.6: "Mi deziris surprizigi vin"). And when he has Anna's father, on p. 56, tell Arpad that "Mi estas mava komercisto," he is simply making the old man sound unreal -- I have never heard anyone use this pseudo-poetic synonym for "malbona" in ordinary conversation.

   But the main problem with the book is that it isn't longer. Although the characters are well described (particularly Emola, and Anna's father), they simply don't have space for real development. I think that Modest's forté will be in the long novel. Whether he will be willing to apply his time and abilities to such a (currently) thankless field is another question.

   The book is well put together and attractive. Typos exist, but are few and far between, and not really bothersome.

   Oh, yes ... my introduction. In fact, at one point the vile Communist government does ban all watering of gardens. And how do the people of Budapest react to this tyrannical edict? Just about as the people of California would (and did); they ignore it, and keep on watering their gardens. As is to be expected...

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