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The Swimmer Reviewed by Jacob Hammer

The Swimmer by Zsuzsa Banks (translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo)

Reviewed by Jacob Hammer

I picked up this book not entirely knowing what to expect. I was straightening the used

books in the store I work at when I saw the title of the book. I decided to take a look. The dust

jacket can only tell you so much though. I took a chance anyway. Bánks did not disappoint. What

I found was a remarkably well constructed narrative of a childhood in disorder and of the

connections that can be formed in the midst of that change.

The book takes place in Hungary in the 1950s. Within the first pages we learn that Kata,

Isti, and their father Kálmán have been abandoned by their mother, Katalin. This leads the

remaining family through a series of relatives’ and friends’ houses, staying sometimes for only a

couple months, and sometimes for years. Kata and Isti grow up this way. Eventually they stop

asking about their mother or hoping that she will come back. Kálmán is distant. Sometimes he

spends hours at a time unreachable staring at the ceiling or a picture of their mother. Kata calls

this “diving.” Since the novel is written from Kata’s childhood perspective, Kálmán's reasons for

moving them from place to place seem even more confusing, but displacement is a confusing

thing no matter the age. In each place that Kata, Isti, and Kálmán live in, they form bonds with

those they are with only to have those bonds stretched or broken when they leave again. This

lends the book as a whole a sense of slow moving tragedy heightened by the helplessness of the

narrator to control surrounding circumstances.

As we begin to connect a chronological narrative from the loosely chronological one that

Banks provides through the narrator, we notice that Isti develops odd behaviors as time goes by.

At first, it would be easy enough to say that these behaviors were just a child pretending or

something equally harmless. As time passes, he seems more and more convinced of the auditory

hallucinations and more stubborn in his behavior generally. He becomes convinced that he can

hear people’s hair screaming as it is being cut and other things impossible to hear. He also spends

hours in a daze similar to Kálmán's “diving.” All of this makes Kata anxious.

For a long time they live at a lake and it is here that they learn to swim. This is one of the

times that Kálmán gives them the most attention, to teach them to swim as he does. Isti becomes

obsessed with swimming and gets in the water as often as possible. This is, overall, one of the

happiest times for the family. They grow close with the people they are living with and the lake

gives them comfort. Eventually, they have to leave. Isti is extremely upset by this move and Kata

provides this insight into the family dynamic and especially to Kálmán:

I had the feeling that Isti and I were just two add-ons, stuck to him, to his life, that he

could never get rid of. We were part of him; in some vague way that’s how it was, and he

put up with us the way he put up with everything, no matter what it was—with

indifference…He broke off relationships so easily, leaving no trail for anybody to follow,

wiping out any trace of us…(pg 223).

Isti worsens somewhat after that move. Eventually they are staying near a river during winter. He

is told to stay away from the thinning ice, but does not listen. He falls through but gets back out.

Neighbors bring him back home and they are able to get him warm again, but he comes down

with a fever and eventually dies. This tragedy brings together many of the people that they had

stayed with in the last few years and leads to Kálmán and Kata returning to the lake soon

afterward and staying.

While this narrative is carrying onward, we also learn the reason why Kata and Isti’s

mother flees in the first place. She was running to the West and we learn that she is doing fairly

well there. Her letters and presents are often lost in the mail or intercepted by the government

which led to her total absence in the life of the family she left behind. By the time Kata and Isti

learn this, they have already given up seeing her again for the most part. We also learn of Kálmán

and Katalin’s love story meeting and early marriage before happiness left them. These jumps into

the distant past and separated present add to the tragic feeling of the novel as a whole. They also

allow us to gain some understanding of the seemingly unavoidable and unalterable circumstances

that pull Kata and Isti around so cruelly.

This was an engrossing book. Often it seemed stark in circumstances, but this was

balanced out by careful attention to the smallest gestures, kindnesses, and details of human

interactions that illustrate an incredible understanding of the understated actions that make up

human lives. The book’s slightly disjointed timeline and narrative, as well as its structuring

around frequent breaks– which could indicate a short jump in time or a launch into an extended

flashback or even a far jump forward in time– all lend themselves to an almost simultaneous

experience of the whole novel. It feels like your own memory because of this. This is a book that

I would whole-heartedly recommend.

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