Valeria Patko has been disgusted with everyone in her small Hungarian village for decades. She loathes the vendors at the local market and wouldn’t feed their produce to her pigs. She hates the “slutty proprietress” of the village tavern and all who frequent it. The mayor, in her opinion, is “nothing more than a cleverly trained chimpanzee.” And the way her “country had sidled up to the West like a cheap moll”—shameful!
The younger generation appalls her, as does social democracy and the free-market system. Did she need commercials interfering with her favorite soap opera? No. Did her local market need pineapples and bananas no one had ever seen before? No. And by the way, she despises people who whistle.
Never married, 68-year-old Valeria grows her own perfect vegetables, keeps a cow and raises pigs on what’s left of her family’s farm (the Communists took the rest). She hasn’t socialized with her neighbors (except when deriding their fruits and vegetables) since an unfortunate incident years ago after she was scorned by a neighborhood boy. Outcast ever since, she has no friends other than her livestock.
And then, one day at the market, she glances up and into the face of the town potter—who happens to be eating one of those damned bananas. Be still, my heart: why has she never noticed him before?
Unfortunately this handsome widower is already taken—by the aforementioned slutty proprietress, the buxom Ibolya. Undaunted, Valeria bicycles over to the potter’s house to get better acquainted, and asks him to make her a pitcher. Her head spins, her face flushes, she’s smitten: “She felt her heartbeat quickening. He was watching her. She avoided his gaze by watching his big hands massage the clay into form. She absentmindedly touched her throat. ‘Bah,’ she said aloud, shaking her head.”
But from that moment on, she and Ibolya are locked in a fevered battle for the potter’s affections.
Think the Canterbury Tales crossed with Jeanne Harris’s magical Chocolat, and you’ll get some idea of the goings on in Valeria’s Last Stand (Bloomsbury, $24.00, 272 pp), the dazzling debut novel by Atlanta author Marc Fitten.
Fitten, who spent several years in Hungary during its post-Communist years, used his experiences there to create this beguiling portrait of a remote, untouched village where all traces of the security that its age 50-or-over inhabitants had grown used to under Communism have vanished. Looking over their shoulders at the “golden years” when housing, food, healthcare and the future were once secure, the natives aren’t sure whether their little hamlet is going backward or forward.
Fitten’s modern-day fable works on two levels. First, it’s an earthy peek into the life of a superstitious community that’s avoided almost all contact with the post-1950s world, and the hilarious mishaps that occur when its members suddenly encounter Cupid in their midst. At the same time, Fitten deftly weaves ideas about art, politics and history into the mix, showing what happens when years of socialist government give way to democracy, and how a community reels as the old and the new collide. Not to mention offering a little taste of what Hungary once was, before its arts and culture was battered into the ground. Budapest, anybody?
Along with a raunchy, endearing cast of characters, the book includes a boisterous Greek chorus of villagers who comment on the action and fill out the gaps in the town’s history. Whether watching Valeria speedily defrost—“She’s been whistling old folk songs,” the neighbors cry, “love songs!”—or urging the mayor to confess after he’s caught cheating on his wife with her hairdresser, the village peanut gallery knows all and tells all. They are never as charming as when they’re eavesdropping, peeping through keyholes, gossiping—or reminiscing, as when the old men recall excitedly that Valeria was not always the bitter, crusty crone she is now. Far from it:
“She was a lovely girl. She had rosy cheeks. She was healthy and long limbed…I should have asked her to marry me. She would have been livelier in the sack than your grandmother, that’s for sure! She would have been livelier than all our wives!’ The other old men nodded. They smiled wickedly and licked their lips. ‘She had hips!’ someone shouted. ‘And a bosom like a fat pigeon!” shouted another.
It’s not just Valeria, though, who reawakens as “the cabinet in her heart sprung open.” The modern world, flooding in with its “Chinese boom boxes, Polish electronics, German cassettes … and counterfeit sneakers,” launches the entire town on a wild march into the future—everybody clinging together for safety, erupting into occasional hysteria, eager for progress and only too glad to participate in a little anxiety-cleansing mob violence. What emerges is the soul of one small place you’ll never want to leave.