My Mother and the Hungarians, and other small fictions by Frankie McMillan (Canterbury University Press, 2016), 114 pp., $25
To step into the space created by Frankie McMillan’s stories in her new collection is to move back and forth in time and to and fro between worlds. She uses the short fiction form to create relationships in a glimpse: a woman and her boarders, a girl and her sister, even several moments up close and personal in 1956 Hungary – set apart by a sampling of grey pages in the middle of the collection: an interruption impossible to ignore. In each story the reader learns a little more of the truth of the narrator (which shifts between mother, daughter and even some of the Hungarians themselves), and by the time we arrive at the end, we realise how tentative the truth can be. Indeed, the grey middle section, taking the reader to the heart of the 1956 revolution, includes the story that, for me, lies at the centre of the collection. ‘Hand Me Down’ opens with these lines:
My father once told me Stalin was made of melted down other people: army officers, writers and generals and my mother said he had to be made out of something and besides he’d never be melted down for his bronze because they built him with something special inside so that whatever happened he’d always be in Heroes’ Square.
Here we are shown the impermanence of things, even with something believed to be as solid as a bronze statue. But the story also represents the perception of Stalin: ‘is he a good man or a bad man?’ as asked by the naïve narrator, sitting on the brink of knowing and not-knowing, longing to be someone else.
Indeed, a strength of this collection is the fine line the author traverses between fact and fiction. The ideas behind these small fictions are firmly grounded in reality and the weight of history: the reality of a girl’s experience of her own limited world; the reality of an immigrant’s experience of a new world. In these pages, the line between real and imagined is always blurred – and that space is where the best storytelling takes place. Language is used to show how reality changes unexpectedly – ‘Mussolini’ feels like the sea rolling in the mouth; ‘taxi’ is a happy word; a greeting may be ‘hullo’ or ‘help’ – and the stories are situated deliberately on the page with a great deal of space: room to breathe between each. One has the feeling there is more to the collection than the individual stories: that the space and language mean as much as the stories themselves. One key characteristic of flash fiction is what is not said: the spaces mean as much as the words themselves. And in this way, the collection as a whole really works: an artful presentation of both story and space, of fiction and truth.
Another theme prevalent in the stories – also related to the idea of space – is the inevitability of change. Time marches inexorably onward, and though we may not know what it holds, it’s the change that matters most. Not necessarily the where we came from, or the where we are going, but the moment of change itself – that breath (space) between happenings. This, too, is attentively captured through language. One can’t miss the present progressive tense in ‘My Mother is Becoming a Hungarian’, for example. And in the story ‘No Sooner’, the reader glimpses that point when everything is shifting – but even the mother in the story cannot tell how. There is a moment of looking at herself as a New Zealand woman, then a moment of looking at the collective: ‘New Zealand women …’ And then that moment is abandoned as the minutiae of reality take precedence: ‘… it’s tricky, untying her scarf with one hand, folding her stained washing over and over with the other’. The details here take the reader fully into this woman’s life, this moment, and we are left with the in-between. A scarf half undone, a stained piece of clothing. Nothing resolved, nothing decided – but everything changed.
This is a theme explored in ‘Don’t Move, Apartamento’ as well – a carefully crafted story in which the sturdy structure of a building shifts its own reality. In other words: nothing is as permanent as we may think. Buildings may fly apart; the moon may even cross the road. Even a map may not help you to find where you are: ‘She was someone who could at one moment be herself and in the next moment someone not herself.’ The ‘not herself’ captures the essence of this moment fully: it’s not yet something else, not something that can even be described, but quite clearly something not.
But the collection does not begin with the not. No, the collection begins with the lively depiction of a house full of immigrant boarders in New Zealand, cared for by the narrator’s mother. The opening story grounds us there, urging us to settle in with the washing and the stories round the fire. It is not surprising that this story won the 2015 National Flash Fiction Day competition: it tells of a whole world with an economy of language that reveals there is much more at the edges (those spaces). We see the washing on the line, the girl riding on the handlebars of a boarder’s bike, the mother’s desires. We glimpse the fear that indicates the world left behind, and the hope that indicates a new life in a new land. But mostly, we see that this is an in-between world, a way station for the boarders, but also (metaphorically) for the mother, and the girl. In the subsequent stories, we see changes that come to them all, and we realise the early truths we’ve glimpsed are always – like history itself – in flux.
The mother takes up gardening in the end, turning a ‘blind eye’ to the happenings around her (in this case, a nude sunbathing Dutchman); has she had enough of history, or has her own part been played out? The reader can’t quite tell but there is further mystery lurking in the way the mother nurtures her sunflowers, the way they hang ‘heavy with happiness’. That marvellous image leaves the reader herself in the precarious place of not-knowing: we’ve lived inside the walls of the mother’s house, we’ve peeked into the Hungarians’ room at night; we’ve marched to Budapest and witnessed the pulling down of the great bronze Stalin, we’ve seen the world’s inevitable change from the worm’s view under the ground – but we are left in limbo. The sunflower grows mighty, reaching skyward, optimistic. Yet the happiness is enshrouded by a natural heaviness, like the very lives lived in this collection.
Notable, too, is how the boarders are viewed individually and collectively – a common theme for historians of totalitarian regimes. We meet Stefan, Louis, Imre, Sandor, Jozsef. We hear individual stories. We hear of characters endearingly enquired after, with the terms ‘your’ and ‘our’. ‘What are your Hungarians up to?’, and ‘the kids at school ask if our Hungarians are hungry …’
The implied connection with ‘our’ is clear: these Hungarians have a special place in the lives of the girl narrator and her mother. In this way they are both group and individual, a collective gathering under one roof yet a set of individuals. We see them as a group looking for work, imagining home. We see them sleeping and dreaming. We see how their old lives fill their dreams (quince trees dropping fruit and Stefan yelling, ‘They’re coming!’). We see them through their own voices, too, as some of the stories are told from the voices of the Hungarians; we learn of their darkness (in ‘Night Talk’ and ‘First the Russians, then the Jews’) and their necessary optimism, learning the new language, learning to casually insist that they are ‘right as rain’.
And we learn, in ‘The Geography of a Name’, how they come to be called, simply, ‘The Hungarians’ – men who rely on complicated names that remind them of their own individual stories but who navigate best through the new world as a collective whole, adjusting as they must:
So it happened like this. In our new country, we became one name, ‘the Hungarians’. It filled up the mouths of the New Zealanders and it was like a tuning fork, we could gauge people’s response to the name – whether their faces showed curiosity and warmth or clouded with fear and when their fearful questions came, ‘What are you, Hungarians, are you Communists, are you Jew, what do you call yourselves?’ Some of us put up our fists and others pretended not to understand or copied the Kiwi way and we laughed, we praised the weather, the sport, the churches, the mutton and we held our Magyar tongues.
Yet inside – always – they are individuals living a private history:
But in our dreams we sometimes heard our mothers calling us. Our names! Across oceans, continents, borders, the sound insistent as a wing beat, and we woke in the dark, crying, ‘I am here! I am here!’
The question of their individuality is posed directly in the story ‘The One who is Saved’, in which the girl narrator asks her mother who is her favourite Hungarian, and then cleverly shifts back to the collective by the time we arrive at the close, ending with a radio show asking, What should she do, New Zealand? – a summation that is both specific and general, individual and collective. This story, like the whole, presses hard against historical issues, using fictitious individuals to tell a story – and leaving the reader with greater questions about morality and ethics. Mother and daughter and boarders transcend the confines of their small New Zealand home and we are suddenly confronted not with a child’s imaginings (Who is your favourite?) but with a much more urgent and transcendent question about humanity’s ability to reach out and save others: What should she do, New Zealand?
And what of the girl herself? Mother may be at the centre of the household, but at the centre of the telling of these stories is the girl. She observes, rides on bicycle handlebars, whispers to sister, peeps through keyholes, considers. And in the end she is left examining the limbo, the in-between, the not-knowing in a more measured way. In ‘The World has Become Bigger than My Head Could Ever Hold’ we see the themes of past/present/future and the expanse of space and time that this collection represents through the young narrator’s eyes. The story opens with: ‘Sometimes I wonder about the world before I was born and how it worked without me, how my mother and father could walk down Columbo Street, laughing and not even knowing about me, or worrying where I was …’
The middle part of the story reveals how safe she feels with the Hungarians, how they’ve come to occupy a certain place in her life, but the ending comes full circle to uncertainty again, how, upon peeping through the keyhole she sees Jozsef and her mother dancing, she starts to ‘worry about beginnings and endings all over again’. This uncertainty – the not-knowing – is a central theme explored not only through the obvious experiences of the immigrant Hungarians, but also through the girl’s perceptions. It’s a theme that emerges in the early stories, explored in philosophical terms (in the stories ‘There is a Sense in which We Are All Each Other’s Consequences’, ‘The Woman Who Wanted to be a Homing Pigeon’ and ‘Asking’, to name a few) but also carefully traced through the girl’s eyes as she wanders and wonders about where, exactly, her life is taking her. She’s the girl who looks closely at the details, puzzling about how they stack up. She ‘stops to examine a tiny flowering shrub … she stands lost in wonder at the purple-shaped flower, her head bent low’. And here we have a hint at foreshadowing, too, as the mother reflects in the story ‘The Boarders’: ‘… and I think that one will always save herself’.
Indeed, that examination is what, in the end, may save the girl – and us all. From ‘You Are Here’, which appears as the second story, to ‘All it Takes is a Small Mistake, Like Going Too Far from the House in Winter’, to the last story, ‘But if in Surrender or about to Take Off’, one can view this collection as an examination of that vast space between happenings, the space where we try hardest to locate exactly where we are. The sense of geography, of navigation, of forward motion all play their part. In the end, like the girl narrator, we can best occupy the one place we are, between past and future. We can, as she does, examine one small thing – ‘a close-up view of footpaths, of fissures, of feet, one foot following the other, not knowing where but having to believe the not-knowing might just be the only flight of reason’ – intensely, and with purpose.
MICHELLE ELVY is a writer, editor and manuscript assessor. She edits at Flash Frontier: An adventure in short fiction and Blue Five Notebook, and is the founder of National Flash Fiction Day. She is assistant editor, international, of the Best Small Fictions series; other recent projects include Flash Fiction International (W.W. Norton) and Voyaging with Kids (L. & L. Pardey). http://michelleelvy.com/