Johanna Adorján’s grandparents took their own lives in October 1991. In this reserved and moving book Adorján pieces together the last day of their lives, interspersing this narrative with details of her grandparents’ pasts, pieces of her own story, and musings on various related subjects – from suicide to Jewishness.
Vera and Istvan were Hungarian Jews, survivors of the Holocaust, who fled to Denmark as refugees in the 1960s during the Soviet occupation. Istvan was also a surgeon in the Korean war, and Vera – Adorján’s glamorous grandmother – lived in constant fear of being left alone. When they took their own lives, Istvan was seriously ill, and Vera had decided to come with him.
Adorján gently probes her grandparents’ complex history – full of events they were reluctant to discuss or dwell on in life. She slowly learns of the depth of Vera’s insecurities. And she places fragments of historical events within a stretched-out narrative of their last day. The imagined day, with all its tiny details, is the most affecting element of the book: from Vera’s roses, to Istvan cutting open the capsules, and most moving – their saying goodbye to their dog.
Adorján’s personal musings do not always work and sometimes feel like an interruption of the grandparents’ narrative, but they are there to explain why she is the one telling their story. Some that do work include musings on suicide, and on being Hungarian and Jewish. She talks about the Hungarian song ‘Gloomy Sunday’ which caused over a hundred suicides in Europe in 1933. She wonders how someone can survive a concentration camp like Mauthausen and then still take their own life.
She goes to Mauthausen with her father, and she talks about the very few times the Holocaust was mentioned in her grandparents’ presence. Like all accounts of the Holocaust, the descriptions of what went on at Mauthausen (and the march to Gunskirchen) are shocking, horrifying and deeply saddening. It is almost unimaginable that one could survive such a place, let alone carry the weight of those emotional scars into old age.
But her grandfather was a warm and humorous man, and a lover of music. Adorján, through the course of writing the book and looking through her grandfather’s papers, does feel she missed out somewhat on being introduced to Judaism by him. She goes to Israel, in the book, and feels that something within her has slotted into place.
Adorján leaves her own story somewhat open at the end of the book, and I did crave some of her own conclusions. But then, the subjects she is dealing with are too large, for the most part, to have definitive conclusions. Adorján doesn’t try to give us any answers or, thankfully, be falsely uplifting.
The writing itself is clear and plain, as translated from the German. At times I wondered if we were missing some of the complexity of the book and wished I could read it in the original language, but a translater as experienced as Anthea Bell is surely faithful to the original. It comes across, in the end, of being restrained, contained and yet open-ended. One mode of ‘conclusion’ has been explored but all the other possibilities seem to be hanging over Adorján and the narrative. She never judges her grandparents, and is mostly affectionate toward them, though at times seems exasperated by them.
But that last day – the Christmas cake, the wrapping of presents, the music, the cigarettes, the tea and toast – every little detail. It’s so rich and it’s rich too because of what’s coming and because of the history behind it, which you’re learning throughout. The book is worth reading for the way that day is rendered. It’s whole lives in one day, in one place, repeating, living between the pages of a book – and it is so poignant.