Category: Fiction

Melinda Nadj Abonji
[Tortoise Soldier]


The poetry of gentle resistance

In 2010 the German Book Prize was awarded to a Swiss writer for the first time. Melinda Nadj Abonji - who was born in 1968 into a minority-Hungarian family in what is now Serbia, but moved to Zurich with her parents at the age of five - won the award for her novel Tauben fliegen auf (Fly away, Pigeon). Whereas in that book she wrote essentially about herself - about the childhood home she had lost but still pined for, and about the problems faced by her family when they left Yugoslavia and had to integrate into the hyper-clean idyll that was Switzerland - she has centred her new novel Schildkrötensoldat (Tortoise Soldier) on a hero, or rather anti-hero, who bids fair to become an unforgettable if not undying figure in the literary firmament.

This novel, too, takes place in Melinda Nadj Abonji’s birthplace, the multi-ethnic province of Vojvodina, and takes the reader back to 1991, the year the Yugoslav wars began. Zoltán Kertész, nickname Zoli, the son of a half-gypsy father and day-labourer mother, grew up in rural poverty, and although he is regarded by others as mentally retarded, he is in fact an exceptionally sensitive outsider and highly imaginative dreamer who is completely out of place not only in the rough-edged community of his village but also in his dismal family home, wrecked as it is by drink and a pervasive sense of hopelessness.

What Zoli most likes doing is spending his time in the garden, talking to the trees and flowers and to his dog Tango. He bestows a certain order on the incomprehensible world around him by making up crosswords, and breaking words down into their constituent elements. By dint of a sort of gentle friendship he enjoys a warm bond with his cousin Hanna, who has emigrated to Switzerland, and who is clearly the author’s alter ego. Following Zoli’s premature death she travels to Serbia to investigate the background to this sad turn of events. Her narrative voice is deployed to parallel and mimic that of the protagonist, who - fully aware of his disability and his otherness - speaks about his life in an idiosyncratically poetic language that verges on the surreal.

The baker he worked for having beaten him half to death, Zoli shows symptoms of epilepsy, and appears no longer fit for any kind of work. His parents, as ignorant as they are feckless, want to make a ‘real man’ out of him and force him to join the army. There, he tries to save himself by behaving like a tortoise, doing everything slowly and retreating into his shell at every opportunity. But a gentle eccentric and ingenuous innocent such as Zoli can’t help but be destroyed by the brutality of the military machine with its dirty tricks and its humiliations. When the relentless drills bring about the death of his only friend, Jenö, he goes completely to pieces and is discharged from the army as ‘incurably insane’, and dies soon afterwards from an epileptic seizure.

Melinda Abonji shows the hidden side and inner make-up of the violence that wreaks such destruction at the front line of the war. But she also shows that the engine that drives all wars - the dull but oppressive routine of power and subjugation, of orders and obedience - can be subverted by the wilful use of inventive language combined with a rebellious imagination. The rebel with the mind of a child may meet a tragic end, but the author - a musician as well as a writer - endows him with his own special voice and his own special language (a considerable challenge for translators!), and in so doing flies a flag for the world’s misfits and dissenters. At the same time, too, this moving story is a stirring monument to a broken land, and a homeland now lost.
Kristina Maidt-Zinke

By Kristina Maidt-Zinke, 08.05.2018

​Kristina Maidt-Zinke is a literary and music critic for the Süddeutsche Zeitung and writes reviews for Die Zeit.

Translated by John Reddick