This essay is the sixth and final in this series by Sophie Van Llewyn. Read Part I and her other essays on the that explore time in Flash Fiction and unusual structures. Our next Flash Fiction writer in residence is Adam Lock.
Frankie McMillan’s My Mother and the Hungarians is a startlingly personal, and incredibly immersive collection, (mostly) set in 1950s New Zealand. The flashes are arranged as to constitute three different parts.
Author Frankie McMillan said ‘When I was writing the collection my initial impetus was to make sense of my personal history, the forces that had shaped me,’ and this is precisely what the reader perceives on immersing into this first part of My Mother and the Hungarians.
It comprises assorted flashes that have a rather timeless quality, as if all the historical details have been erased on purpose in order to create an ageless story. A first person narrator guides us through her childhood, showing us the first glimpses of the Hungarian boarders her mother kept, to the traumatic accident that caused her to lose her sense of orientation. This narrator morphs into a third person narrator in stories like ‘The woman who wanted to be a homing pigeon,’ or ‘Don’t move, apartmento,’ but the sense of displacement, and feeling lost, clearly lets the reader know we are reading about the same individual.
In ‘The woman who wanted to be a homing pigeon,’ the unnamed female character ‘told her doctor she was tired of being lost.’ The doctor is unfazed: ‘But you got here.’ She tells him how hard it was for her to find her way to his office, and how ‘she lacked certain wiring in her brain’ and if scientists studied ‘homing pigeons, they might be able to come up with some way of rewiring her brain, or at the very least, with a pill.’ The doctor doesn’t respond, and the reader can’t help but feeling that the doctor is an avatar for the many people in this woman’s life who don’t take her condition seriously. After all, it’s easy to infer from the text that the woman doesn’t look like anything is physically wrong with her, even though the most basic walk up and down the street may be a struggle. Finally, she leaves his office, ‘wondering whether to go left or right.’ When the doctor looks outside, he sees the woman ‘walking through a flock of pigeons, her arms raised; but whether in surrender or in readiness to take off, he did not know.’
This first part makes the impression of a sublimated, poetical memoir. Author Frankie McMillan also concedes, ‘Though intended as a fictional memoir, many of the stories in the collection have been triggered by my childhood experiences. I really did fall out of a tree as in ‘A field guide for lost girls.’ (…) During several travels through Europe with my partner I frequently got lost as in ‘Don’t move, apartmento’.
However, part two is very different. Printed on a grey background rather than the usual paper white, these flashes document the experiences of different inhabitants of Budapest during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. The flashes included here are of a much less intrinsic nature, and the timeline is clearly delineated.
This second part catches glimpses of this Revolution, where the Hungarians rose against the communist regime. The government collapsed, but at the beginning of November Soviet tanks flooded the territory of Hungary and the uprising was crushed. 200,000 Hungarians fled from the country .
Frankie says ‘As I began including the Hungarian refugees I became interested in their history particularly the Soviet response to the Oct 23rd uprising. It interests and haunts me the terrible measures ordinary people take when fleeing their homeland. I use a quote in the book by Peter Esterhazy’ History is an alternating sense of frying pans and fires.’ I’m most interested in the frying pans, the domestics of how ordinary people survive in war or natural disasters.’
The focus of this section is on Stalin’s gargantuan statue that was displayed in Heroes’ Square — a symbol of the communist rule. The little boy who serves as a narrator for the first three flashes of this second part shows us how this great figure cast a shadow in their lives. During a field trip where they visit the statue with the whole class, their teacher says ‘Stalin was her father, she told him everything, all her news and sometimes she asked his advice.’
When asked why choose the statue as a symbol for the entire revolution, Frankie said ‘The idea of Stalin’s statue as a focus sprang from research. Even though Stalin’s death in 1953 was hoped to bring in moderate reform, this was not realised and the huge statue, to many, remained a symbol of repressive Soviet rule. I could also see the dramatic possibilities in this narrative.’ So this is a typical example of a flash resulted from research, where the emotion comes after establishing setting and atmosphere — a different process from most of the flashes in part one and three of the collection.
In ‘Everyone has a Stalin story to tell (or not),’ the boy and his father drive to Heroes’ Square to witness the way the bronze Stalin is being dismantled. We are also provided with a date when this happens: ‘Oct 23rd 1956.’ We truly feel that this is a turning point, an important moment. ‘My father said it was history.’ We see through the boys’ eyes how the statue is brought down. The amount of resources required is impressive: ‘They put big steel ropes around Stalin’s neck. My father counted twenty-eight trucks pulling the ropes.’ The crowd is hysterical, and the way these details are painted is a masterclass in scene-setting and rendering of historical atmosphere:
More men came running with axes and crowbars and they hacked and hammered at his body. Some people began cheering.
The scene when Stalin’s statue finally falls to the ground is incredibly emotional: ‘My father lifted me (…) ‘Always, always remember this day,’ he said. (…) But never, never speak of it.’
Frankie said, As a child I was made that under Communism ordinary citizens had to watch they didn’t speak ‘ out of turn’ or express any opinion that the secret police could use as evidence against them. (…) This lasting fear of the authorities and those wearing uniforms can also be seen in ‘ The happy word’ — (…) also inspired by events as I remembered them.’ For the historical flash fiction writer, the interweaving of memory, awareness at a young age and research is a continuum.
The third part of the collection revolves around the Hungarians, their feeling of displacement, the way they try to find their footing in their new land, and their relationship to the narrator and her family. When questioned about the genesis of these flashes related to the Hungarians, author Frankie McMillan said ‘When I was 6 a number of Hungarian refugees came to board with us in our house. They were mainly young males fleeing the events of the Hungarian Uprising. ‘My mother kept boarders like other people kept chooks or stray dogs.’ Their foreigness fascinated me and I spent a lot of time spying on them, trying to understand who they were and what terrible events they were fleeing from. (…) I was particularly watchful of how the young men interacted with my mother.’
This part is clearly inspired by personal experience, and flashes of memory served as the starting point for different pieces, according to the author. ‘Single instances that triggered memories include arm wrestling as in ‘The Hungarians roll up their shirt sleeves’ and how my sister and I tried to trick the men into believing that ‘mussolini’ was the name for arm muscle, the exploding vegetables from the pressure cooker as in ‘The West opens its arms’, and my mother’s battles with the govt authorities eg Social Welfare ‘My Mother is becoming a Hungarian’.’
The resulting flash fictions are rich, brimming with details about life in the 1950s in New Zealand, and, most of all, human emotion. The displacement of the Hungarians is a raw wound, and their trauma surges again and again in the normal circumstances of life. It’s written with a huge amount of human understanding, and it looks at the issues of the refugees from their own perspective and from the perspective of their hosts — two worlds clashing, mingling, learning how to live with each other.
‘The West opens its arms’ is a flash in two parts. The first is written from the POV of the Hungarians, as a 1st person plural. It’s a long, relentless sentence that takes up half a page, seeping with a feeling of dislocation (‘went to our rooms pretending not to be surprised the doors opened the wrong way’), being torn between gratitude and the sense of loss, but also announcing the beginnings of integration (‘in another month we would raise our heads and say we’re ok, right as rain, box of birds we are).
The second part is told from the POV of the child narrator. Her mother ‘cooks vegetables in a pressure cooker.’ One day, the cooker ‘blows its top (…) and vegetables shoot all over the ceiling.’ The Hungarians’ reactions show the extent of their trauma. ‘József runs outside, a cigarette trembling in his lips. Stefan runs up and down the hallways. ‘Taxi!’ he shouts.’ The mother comes running from the neighbours, and never has the perception of a situation been more different:
… the Hungarians are suspicious. Such a terrible waste of food and why is my mother laughing like that, doubled over, clutching her skirt.
But what accounts for the true magic of transporting the reader in 1950s New Zealand? When asked about writing historical flash, Frankie said ‘I looked for defining characteristics of the era and incorporated them into the stories. eg NZ in the 1950’s was a welfare state, rather conservative with a big emphasis on home ownership. Few people of my parent’s generation had travelled overseas (apart from those who had served in WWII) and there was an emphasis on conformity and ‘ fitting in’ with others. Foreigners were often regarded with some hesitancy if not suspicion. Food was very bland; there was only one or two cheeses, very few drank coffee or wine, very few restaurants existed. Not much cultural life but instead a shared interest in the outdoors and sport etc. ‘The West opens its arms’, ‘Mostly’ etc touch on these aspects. (…) I’ve taken care in the language to include the 1950’s common expressions of the day. Eg. ‘By Hokey!’ ,’A box of birds’ etc. Also created story titles using verse from Hungarian poets popular at the time.’
Each and every of our three authors whose work we looked at highlighted, fundamentally, one process as the core of their most resonant work: blending human experiences that evoke emotion (perhaps their own, or a relative’s, or an external experience pertaining to a different time and age), ‘transplanted’ in a well-researched historical setting. All three writers of historical flash fiction sometimes used a kernel (or a flash) of memory as the starting point, and then encased it in fiction.
So this is an exercise for you now: try to think of a story your grandparents or your parents told over and over again. Something that changed their lives, something they couldn’t forget, the moment they glimpsed a universal truth. Research the setting: time, age, foods, clothing, social conventions. Take that kernel of truth, and weave it in with your research, and see where that transports you. I’m sure it will transport us, too.
Sophie van Llewyn was born in Romania. She now lives in Germany. Her prose has been published by Ambit, the 2017 & 2018 NFFD Anthologies, New Delta Review, Banshee, New South Journal etc. and has been placed in various competitions – including TSS (you can read her Flash Fiction ‘The Cesarean’ here). Her novella-in-flash, ‘Bottled Goods,’ set against the backdrop of communist Romania was published by Fairlight Books.
Frankie McMillan’s recent work includes My Mother and the Hungarians and other small fictions, ( Canterbury University Press ), longlisted for the 2017 NZ Ockham awards and co editor of Bonsai: best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand, (Canterbury University Press, 2018). Her forthcoming book, The Father of Octopus Wrestling and other stories will be published in August, 2019.