Mihály Kornis - The Toad Prince
Mirrors, egoism, the 'badness' of lying, ugliness and vanity, and an enlarged sense of personal identity and continuity with one's environment - these are the traits of the narrator from Mihály Kornis's The Toad Prince, a self-styled ugly lying toad, who happens also to be a little Jewish boy.
For some stories, plot is secondary to characterisation, and this is very much the case here. The Toad Prince is all voice, a flood of the id onto the page, a tumult of memory, accusation, contemplation and sheer screaming ego. The narrator needs to be heard, even if it's only by himself.
And he considers himself to be terribly bad. After all, there's so much evidence:
Just now when I looked at my doleful face in the mirror, at how terribly ugly I am, it hit me like a bolt of lightning: I am ugly because I am bad.
While they think I’m good. My poor parents.
For a long time I was good.
But then I couldn’t keep it up anymore.
Maybe I am ugly because I am bad.
Kornis has constructed his story as a succession of stream-of-conscious episodes linked together purely by the force of the narrator's roaming mind. The narrator will think one thing, then remember something attached to that, then go off on a tangent related to the memory, then recall a friend he had and the friend's father's tailor shop's mirror, which reminds him of mirrors, and...
And on it goes. Once we realise that a coherent narrative structure is being deliberately avoided by Kornis, the forceful voice of his narrator becomes a pleasure to read. The self-loathing of the narrator becomes self-reinforcing, echoing with increasingly greater intensity within the confines of his unhappy mind. It is unclear exactly from when in the narrator's life he is writing - be it as a child, an adult, or a strange mix of both - but the narrative slips back and forth where it will, following the associative links wherever they end up. The narrator's obsession with himself above all makes of the externalities of the world a haze, amorphous and constantly shifting. There is one concrete for the narrator - himself - and everything else fades in comparison to his own intensity.
I am lying.
I am so good at it, mostly they don’t even catch on. Laci Séth took me down to the boiler room and showed me Popeye’s bawdy house. His father’s creation. Photographs taken of a comic strip. There’s no way I’m going to tell them. I play the innocent. The Tessényi twins gave me such a beating today, I’m practically deaf in one ear. I’m not telling them this either. They won’t catch on. Only Dános still talks to me. But even he’s ashamed of me. In front of the others he pretends he doesn’t know me. He doesn’t want them to spurn him too.
Nobody is hated as much as I.
The narrator is bad and ugly and toad-like because he is. That's all there is to it. Certainly, some of the characters mentioned reinforce these thoughts, but they appear to have come directly from the narrator, and he doesn't seem unhappy or pleased that this is the case - it simply is. This isness propels the story forward, or more accurately, hurtles it along, because the predicament of the narrator is such that his mind can't avoid constantly dwelling upon it. To know - to just know - that you are bad and ugly and deserve worse and worse, without knowing why, would cause anyone to run around in mental circles trying to figure it all out. And that is what the narrator does.
Every day when I go to school, I think this will be the last. All hell’s going to break loose today because if they try to beat me up again, I am going to bang my head against the ground until it splits open. Then the day goes by somehow, and when I head for home and I see that they’re not about to grab me today, I shake it off and don’t want to think about it any more. I go into our house, run up the stairs, ring the doorbell, pretend cheer, fling my school bag into the corner, go out on the balcony, or go stare into the bathroom mirror. And spit. I don’t tell them anything of what happened. These toad eyes. These toad lips. Pulled out of his mother’s oven, black. Urine, dust, and ashes. I have fallen into the well.
The narrator's personality comes across clear and strong; he has opinions, perhaps unpleasant, which are made abundantly clear; he has memories of recent Hungarian history which, while distorted, are presented in a coherent manner. In short, the narrator is consistent with himself, while seeming at the same time to be something of a chaotic mess. It's an impressive juggling act, requiring Kornis to remain teetering on the knife's edge for the entire piece, and one small slip could ruin it all.
The Toad Prince is a story that gathers speed. The narrator layers himself upon himself, adding more to more, substituting everything for his own fractured thinking. The sheer force of the narrator is the story, and without there's nothing. We are, for a moment, caught up in his whirlwind, subjected to the constant buffeting of ego, rage, intense self-loathing, and extreme self-absorption. The narrator's mind is a tremendous cacophony while remaining, brilliantly, a single, sustained note.
The Toad Prince by Mihály Kornis is a short story from Words Without Borders' August 2010 edition, Writing from Hungary issue. All of the work reviewed is freely available online.
Other stories from the Words Without Borders August 2010 edition, Writing from Hungary issue include:
---Esterházy, Péter - Kornél Esti’s Bicycle Or: The Structure Of The World
---Háy, János - Lou's Last Letter to Feri's Wife
---Lázár, Ervin - The China Doll
---Parti Nagy, Lajos - Oh, Those Chubby Genes
---Tar, Sándor - Slow Freight
Also of interest: Index of short stories under review