Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Endre Farkas' Never, Again

Never, Again (2016, Signature Editions) is the story of Tomas "Tomi" Wolfstein, an eight-year-old who, with his Jewish, Holocaust-surviving parents, escapes Hungary during the chaos of the Russian invasion of 1956.

I assumed from the start it was an autobiographical novel and, in an afterword, Farkas does say that he draws from his own experiences, but that it should be read as a novel. But Farkas was eight in 1956, and emigrated at that time to Canada with his Holocaust-surviving parents.

Farkas is a poet and playwright based in Montreal, but I believe this is his first novel.

Most of the chapters are told from young Tomi's viewpoint in 1956. He first appears in what seems a pretty idyllic childhood in a small town in Hungary: he wants to be a soccer star and actually seems pretty good; Hungary had won the gold at the 1952 Olympics so it's popular. He's a good student. His relationship with his parents is lovely and charmingly presented; his cousin is his best friend; his aunt and uncle also look out for him. Only gradually do we learn how protected, how limited Tomi's view is.

There are flashbacks to when that aunt and uncle tried to leave Hungary (in 1948) and were arrested and convicted as enemies of the state. Then there are more flashbacks to the actual events of the Holocaust his parents suffered and survived.

Farkas writes extraordinarily well about childhood and Tomi's limited viewpoint is sweet but also allows us to be shocked by what happens. It's great for building suspense: the actual days of the escape across the border to Austria do thrill, even though we know or at least suspect what's going to happen.

The flashbacks I found less successful. The look at 1948, when his aunt and uncle tried to leave and failed was interesting enough and probably necessary. I'm afraid I found the actual episodes in the concentration camps to be unnecessary and second-hand. I wish I felt that the literature of witness was enough to prevent it happening again, but I don't: those who least need to be reminded are the likeliest to consume the book, and, as a society, we're informed about one horrible example and fail to see it when it occurs the second time, just a bit differently.

The interesting historical thing in the book to me was the fear of resurgent anti-Semitism in Hungary in 1956; the parents in the volume are anti-Communist to the extent they can be, but they also don't trust the Hungarians not to resort to right-wing anti-Semitism, especially in the chaos of what might be revolutionary times. In the village where they live, the family is targeted because they are Jewish. We think of Imre Nagy as heroic, and he did die for his resistance to Russian tyranny. But were all the elements of his coalition equally admirable? An interesting question.

Well, Farkas does change the rallying cry of "Never again" to his title Never, Again.

Anyway, quite a strong novel, even if I found the 1956 parts better than the others.

Good for a couple of challenges for me: it completes my Canadian Literature challenge at thirteen, though I'm sure I'll read a few more before next Canada Day. And it actually also completes my European Reading Challenge at five books by covering Hungary, though I'm quite sure I will go way over the top again this year...


  1. It's nice when a book counts for two different reading challenges/projects. Very few books in my log would count towards a Hungarian perspective, I'm sorry to say, but I do have the New Canadian Classic, Under the Ribs of Death, on my list for this spring!

    1. I suppose the Hungary/Canada duality shouldn't have surprised me as much as it did; the Bloor/Brunswick area still has some Hungarian businesses, though not as many as it used to.

      Under The Ribs of Death is new to me. It looks like it might be interesting. I'll keep an eye out for your review!