I visited Budapest last April, and I came back with several works of Hungarian fiction in my luggage. The first author I tried from my pile was the great Tibor Déry, who lived and died in the nation’s capital.
You would be absolutely right to classify his book Niki: The Story of a Dog as both a fable and a satire. The qualities at the core of each of those genres are easily discernable to the reader as being at the core of this novel too. And even though I agree with this assessment, I can’t help but flinch upon hearing it. Not because the assessment is incorrect- but because to label the novel as both a fable and a satire seems to negate its identity as a “proper novel”. A fable has connotations of fairy tales, folklore, or grandmotherish bedtime stories based on instilling moral virtues. A satire seems to imply an agenda of sorts- more often than not political in nature- whose importance overshadows that of the novel’s other qualities. And by other qualities I mean the sensuous literary aesthetics that are characteristic of novels. A novel, as a genre, is very much its own beast. And all I’m trying to say is that Niki’s “sensuous literary aesthetics” are not insignificant. This isn’t just a satirical fable wearing the skin of a novel; it is a proper novel in its own right. But why is that worth pointing out? Because I think that if the cashier in Írók Boltja had referred to Niki as a fable or a satire, I would have had second thoughts about buying it. They’re labels that- one way or the other- color the reader’s preconceptions of the book. I may have doubted the depth of the novel’s character development or the pleasure to be had in its plot. But upon reading it I am pleased to say that the book is indeed very readable and enjoyable. It’s emotive. It’s full of wit and charm and heartache. It is a fable. It is a satire. But it’s also, in a very straightforward way, simply the story of a dog.
And this, in my opinion, is the book’s greatest strength. There is true genius in creating a work of art that can be experienced on different levels. Niki is equally effective as both a political satire and a story. In short, the book is about an unwanted pup that falls into the hands of Mr and Mrs Ancsa, an old couple still mourning the loss of their son in WW2. The setting is Budapest, Hungary, in the years after the war. At first things look promising; Mr Ancsa accepts a new job in the capital and is enthusiastic at the idea of playing his part in creating a better society. He’s a firm believer in Communism and a longtime member of the party. But after he is detained by the Communist Party for seemingly no reason, the initial hope that came with Hungary’s Soviet liberation fast becomes a nightmare. The gradual erosion of the family’s optimistic idealism is reflective of the wider population as the Soviet stranglehold tightens. The process is slow and quiet, and as the country’s would-be saviors are revealed to be nothing more than new Nazis, lofty utopian concepts are extinguished. The novel does an excellent job of illustrating how the hollowness of these utopian ideals results in a kind of societal degradation. Budapest becomes a toxic environment. Neighbors are suspicious and cold. I love how the novel focuses on the minutiae of everyday life. It explores the subtler effects of Soviet oppression, examining not the imprisoned or the persecuted, but those left behind. As the public grows more and more desperate, alienated, and paranoid, their worst qualities emerge. People are isolated and miserable. And through all of this- with her husband missing and her community abandoning her- Mrs Ancsa finds strength in her canine companion.
At its heart the novel is about the story of Niki and how she and the old woman depend on each other. It really is quite moving in some passages. I felt extremely invested in this old woman and her dog. I got emotional reading it- even volatile. The book keeps insisting that it is purely the story of a dog and nothing more. Obviously this isn’t true, and it’s amusing how the book never goes too in-depth into its political commentary. Every time it touches on politics, the narration yanks things back to focus on the dog. This is intentional; the novel is layered, but as I said above, it is genuinely the story of a dog. The behavior of the dog is captured in exquisite, very intricate scientific detail. There were so many times during my reading of the novel that Niki reminded me of the little collie that I dog-sit when I’m living in Houston, TX. I’ve written a couple blog posts about my roommate’s Border Collie mix Adelaide, and the fictional fox terrier Niki bears a striking resemblance to her. Everything about Déry’s descriptions of the pup rings true to me. The novel presents so many fascinating ways of looking at a dog’s behavior. Every scene brought back memories of my time with Adelaide. What struck me most were the beautiful passages that recount Niki’s tendency to jump up at people in joyous greeting. That’s exactly like my Adelaide. It felt like Déry was describing my roommate’s dog. I treasured those poetic extracts that so perfectly tied the dog’s spirit to her springy back-legs. Here’s my favorite quote: “It was as if her muscular, quivering little body were constantly being launched and relaunched in the air on the springs of gaiety. She would bound like a ball on to any object she coveted, her muscles regulated like the parts of some finely adjusted mechanism and her heart full of a tigerish boldness.”
In conclusion, Tibor Déry’s Niki: The Story of a Dog was a fantastic introduction into the rich world of Hungarian Literature. I am so glad I picked it up while I was in Budapest, and I will definitely continue my foray into this nation’s great body of books. I thoroughly recommend this book to all my friends and subscribers. If you prefer thrillers, then perhaps this isn’t for you. It’s not a fast-paced book. But if you have an interest in dogs or European history, then this is most assuredly the novel for you. And it will satisfy you no matter which angle you are coming from; it’s philosophically incisive, but not without good-humored, big-hearted warmth.