The narrator of the interconnected stories that make up this unusual novel is an 11-year-old boy called Djata, growing up in a brutal fashion in a Hungarian-populated region of Transylvania during the last years of Communism. Bureaucracy reigns unchallenged, with those in positions of power – however modest – exerting control over their supposed inferiors.
The nastiest dictators are the schoolteachers who mete out grotesque punishments to offending pupils, with a cavalier disregard for the confused feelings of adolescence. The bullied boys, Djata included, become bullies by way of response. Djata and his friends – Feri, Janika, Big Prodá*, Máriusz – are diminutive bureaucrats, ideal conscripts for the secret police or the one-party system.
Djata is different in one important respect. He has been deprived of his father in a manner familiar to thousands of boys and girls who had the misfortune to be born in countries that came under Soviet domination as a result of the treaty signed by Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin in Yalta. Djata's father received a visit from "colleagues" who took him away before the narrative begins.
His son learns that he is working on the construction of a canal on the Danube. The absent parent remains absent, presumed alive. The "colleagues" pay Djata's mother a surprise visit, and threaten to rip up the apartment. The husband they arrested, she learns, is an informer, a traitor. Their search ends, and they leave with the promise they will return.
A surprising character appears to brighten the gloom. Nicknamed Pickaxe, he lives in a hut he has built on the other side of a ditch that might be the moat of a medieval fortress. He invites Djata to join him. Djata is frightened and his suspicion that Pickaxe is eccentric is confirmed when he enters the hut.
Pickaxe, who has contracted smallpox while working on the Danube Canal, is surrounded by hundreds of birds he has trapped and caged. He tells Djata that songbirds are vicious, territorial creatures and that the lovely music they make is a freak of nature. They are issuing warning signals. He gets the birds to put on a show for the bewildered Djata, and the method he employs to make them sing in something like unison is as ingenious as it is cruel.
There is hardly a sympathetic character in The White King. Djata's childhood world is one in which tenderness is only fleetingly displayed: his father enters the story in the most affecting scene and then is removed. Paul Olchváry's translation of this chilling novel reads smoothly, apart from the occasional jarring Americanism. This is a most impressive debut.
Paul Bailey's latest novel is 'Uncle Rudolf' (Fourth Estate)
Doubleday £14.99 (318pp) £13.49 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
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