Zsófia Bán – When There Were Only Animals
We only ever have one greatest adversary.
Anna's mother lies dying in a hospital. Anna watches her and wonders if there is any point in recording these last moments, whether through photographs, diary entries, or even memory. She asks herself,
Will it make you feel better to have a picture of her looking like this, a picture that won't even be of your mother, but of a stranger camouflaged as a corpse? Whose nose is this, whose mouth, and what are those tubes? Where the hell does that get you?
And yet, while she stands there and waits she can't help but think back, to remember, and in doing so burns the memories deeper into her mind, combining their previous importance with the emphasis of her mother's dying and death. These aren't happy memories, but rather Anna remembering the times when her will came into contact with her mother's and, inevitably, one of them lost and one of the won, which is a fancy way of saying they both lost.
Then there's the other half of Hungarian author Zsófia Bán's When There Were Only Animals. These parts, set some unspecified time after Anna's mother has died, take place in Antarctica, where Anna works with other scientists researching glaciers, ice floes, and penguins. The stand-out character here is Gina, who has something to say about everything (though she seems misplaced within the story), but the primary purpose of this section is to provide contrast to the hospital scenes. The two sections alternate, with each sub-section coming in at roughly a page to a page and a half. The hospital scenes are quiet and reflective, while the scenes in Antarctica hammer home the concepts of loneliness and isolation that are only marginally developed within the hospital. The similarities between the blankness of snow and ice and the blankness of death is made abundantly clear, but although the two sections come together right at the end in the final sentences of the story, their connection isn't strong enough to withstand the weight of the story. At 15 pages, a good four or five pages could have been trimmed from Antarctica (probably Gina, though she is easily the most entertaining of the secondary characters) in favour of greater exposition during the hospital scenes.
To return to them: Anna's mother dying in a hospital bed causes her to think about their relationship, with Anna's thoughts primarily focusing on the ways in which their personalities approached one another but never quite came together. They were always apart, unable to properly connect or understand. Anna's mother comes across in these memories as headstrong and forthright, a complete individual who sees her daughter as a burden to be carried about rather than a child to be nurtured. Anna's mother wasn't a mother so much as a person who had a child, and now that Anna sits beside her in a hospital watching her die, it becomes clear to her that she doesn't really know her and now never will.
...when this came to her mind as she watched her mother's blue-veined hands resting upon that wrinkled bedsheet, hands speckled with faint brown spots, it seemed to her that all of this – childhood, the past, and even this present, suffocating moment – had indeed happened in some strange, distant space and time.
Anna's personality develops primarily in opposition to her mother. Her mother, who never speaks or moves or does anything except within the memories of Anna, nonetheless provides a suffocating weight to the story. She is, more than anyone else, the most substantial, even in the Antarctic scenes, in which she figures not at all. Anna can't help but think about her, can't help but acknowledge the outsize impression her mother has made on her, and can't help but feel burdened by the sudden loosening of her mother's expectations. Before, she had an identity in her willingness to reject or affirm her mother's sensibilities and desires. But now? What can she push against?
When There Were Only Animals is at its best in the hospital. Anna's memories are vivid and well-told; her mother's character comes through clearly and viciously, and it's no wonder the young woman feels chained to her. But the Antarctic sections are a mistake, or at least their length is – they make sense when considering the needs of the story's construction, but they are too long, slightly off in tone (Gina), and don't quite match up with the emotional weight of the hospital scenes to which they are supposed to provide a reflection. The hospital scenes are so good, so deeply felt and true to the complexities of having an impenetrable, eternal, immutably solid and overbearing parent suddenly become vulnerable and frail, that it's such a shame that the Antarctic scenes carry such little emotional weight. While well written and entertaining, they just don't fit the primary thrust of the narrative. The character of Anna's mother is sufficiently outsized as to overburden the rest of the narrative, which unfortunately collapses into a flabby mess. So, I suppose, in that instance, we finally understand how Anna feels.
When There Were Only Animals by Zsófia Bán is a short story from the Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2012
Other stories from the Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2012, include:
------Belgium (Flemish): de Martelaere, Patricia - My Hand is Exhausted
------Croatian: Hrgović, Maja - Zlatka
------Spanish (Galician): Fernández Paz, Agustín - This Strange Lucidity
------Polish: Rudnicki, Janusz - The Sorrows of Idiot Augustus
------Irish: Rosenstock, Gabriel - “...everything emptying into white”
------Swiss (Rhaeto-Romanic and German): Camenisch, Arno - Sez Ner
------Portuguese: Zink, Rui - Tourist Destination
------Georgian: Dephy, David - Before the End
------Irish: Hogan, Desmond - Kennedy
------Russian: Davydov, Danila - The Telescope
------Czech: Kratochvil, Jiří - I, Loshaď
------Estonian: Kõomägi, Armin - Logisticians Anonymous
Best European Fiction 2011 short stories under review
Best European Fiction 2010 short stories under review
Index of titles by The Dalkey Archive Press under review
Index of short stories under review