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The Storyteller: Memory, Secrets, Magic and Lies: A Memoir of Hungary

by Anna Porter

Contemporary memoirs – the unforgettable ones – are narrative poker games that break out when a limber imagination takes on family history. Angela’s Ashes and Running in the Family – to name but a slim pair out of a fat deck – trick, trade, bluff, and conceal. They manipulate and shuffle subtext, characterization, and plotline in order to mimic the dark side of nostalgia. They lie, cheat, and then win.

Publishing bigwig Anna Porter’s memoir of growing up in Hungary, The Storyteller, is another slick gambler in the all-night debauch. The book’s title (too many colons, too many quasi-synonyms) suggests familiar devices of the genre, used to retell and recontextualize both a national history and a personal one. However, similarities to the other rounders at the table are few. This is both criticism and compliment.

Porter was born in Hungary during the Second World War, and was 12 during the revolution of 1956. In part, the storyteller of the title is Porter herself, reporting dispassionately the political atrocities suffered by her aristocratic family and friends during times of Communist hardliners. Although her family fled to New Zealand in the 1950s, and Porter was educated there, the first 12 years of her life are, not surprisingly, her obsession. And as she returns to Hungary in the 1990s, searching for her “emotional inheritance,” she seeks details, images, and alternate versions of events to texture her memories of trauma and the games families play.

In contrast to the weight of her material, Porter’s prose lacks the customary prismatic facets of emotion. When we are given a five-year-old’s version of the past through Porter’s restrospective detailing, the result is an often chilly mix of truth and fabrication. Imprisoned with her mother for trying to cross the border into Austria, Porter as little girl feels it this way: “We all slept on the floor on white, straw-filled sacks. You had to pummel the straw when you lay down. Sometimes the stalks stuck into your skin. Everybody ate together at long wooden tables.” By the time Porter is 12, though, and witnessing mutilated and dismembered bodies at her front door, the flatness of the writing swells with context, and the style becomes a commentary on the editorial nature of memory and its retrieval.

The real storyteller, however, is Porter’s grandfather, Vili Rasz, a publisher before the Communist takeover of Hungary. Born in 1889, he had all the qualities a fatherless girl requires: he was a magician, an athlete, a war hero; he was a man with time to walk, talk, comfort, and counsel (education, yes; marriage, absolutely not). Vili’s patriotism and aristocratic past, while the cause of both his later imprisonment and the ongoing harassment of his family, also provide him with the impetus to be the best kind of storyteller. He is fond of fairy tales, mythic and ancient war stories, and women.

Porter’s memoir shuffles the grandfather’s stories of Huns and Magyars and the Carpathian Mountains with her own recollections and experiences of 20th-century Hungary. Then there are Vili’s daughters (at least the ones Porter knows of: Vili was a young swordsman, literally, and a figurative one until he was 84 years old). Through Porter’s aunts and mother, all veterans of many marriages undertaken for many reasons, Vili’s stories of history and family relations are subverted, revised, and shot down. High school history was never so true, or so debatable.

While she knows the memoir game, Porter does not finesse the rules. Her choice is subtlety over trickery, and often this is at the expense of narrative texture and depth. For example, the sexuality of Vili’s daughters, who are seemingly excited by political danger and economic austerity, is expressed vaguely. The occasional images – like the open toes of Aunt Leah’s shoes in the snow – come as radiant, sensual surprises. Along with the need to be educated, Vili counsels young Anna, “‘it’s really vital to remember always that you are Hungarian, not to forget your language.” Porter brings it up, but she does not play with words and idiom as those other cardsharps – Ondaatje and McCourt and Kulyk Keefer – have done. As a result, The Storyteller seems wan at times, perplexing.

The memoir begins with grandfather Vili the publisher and ends with a touching and comic scene with publisher Jack McClelland in a Fort Garry bar. He is helping Porter, through his own adept storytelling, to contact her deadbeat father. Porter is so unwilling to direct our attention to what this scene reveals about her – the drinking with McClelland, the lying to her father, the high-power position in publishing, the whole escapade – that we almost miss her deft framing of the story, the circle of her relationship with Vili it fulfills. Perhaps she’s not playing the game to win.