In “History and Utopia,” the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran speculated about whether it’s “easier to confect a utopia than an apocalypse.” Utopia and its discontents, so central to Eastern European writers, are central to Gyorgy Dragoman’s darkly beautiful novel. A scathing portrait of life in a totalitarian society, “The White King” is both brutal and disarmingly tender. Dragoman’s answer to Cioran’s question is plain: Utopia creates its own hell.
Set in a nameless Communist country based on Romania, where Dragoman was raised, “The White King” is narrated by Djata, an 11-year-old boy whose father has been sent to a labor camp for a crime — signing “an open letter of protest” against the government — that brings ruin to his family. Djata’s mother loses her teaching job, and Djata, now “unreliable from a political point of view,” is expelled from Communist youth organizations, effectively ending his education. The boy’s grandfather, an influential party leader, is shamed into resigning his post.
No one knows if Djata’s father will ever return. This uncertainty forces Djata’s mother to take extreme measures to find out what’s happening to her husband, while her struggle to provide for the family leaves her little time for her son. Djata’s grandparents don’t offer much solace; they ignore the boy and despise his mother, convinced that she encouraged her husband’s dissident views. Djata must fend for himself, like a cold war Huck Finn tramping through concrete apartment blocks and facing down bullies.
The official party stance is that “the country’s future is its youth” and “there’s no way the party would expose this treasure to danger,” but Djata’s experience proves otherwise. After an “accident in an atomic power plant in the Great Soviet Union” reminiscent of Chernobyl, the boy is given iodine pills and forced to play soccer outdoors, taking care “to avoid contact with the ball because the ball picks up radioactivity from the grass.”
Dragoman, who now lives in Budapest, writes in Hungarian, and his prose is scintillating and acrobatic, featuring serpentine sentences that bend with each turn of Djata’s mind. Disregarding standard punctuation, the novel’s language acquires a kind of trudging exuberance — part exhaustion, part frenzy — that amply conveys the boy’s mood. Dragoman, who is 34, recounts the Eastern European experience from a fresh point of view. In his late teens when the Berlin Wall fell, he left childhood behind and became a free adult at the same time.
t one point, Djata’s grandfather takes him to a hill overlooking the city and instructs him to study the landscape as if seeing it “for the very first time or else the last time.” He suggests, Djata reports, that the boy “try looking at the whole thing, all of it as one, as if I was looking at a painting or a pretty girl, to try and see everything at the same time, it wasn’t easy doing so, he said, but if I could do it, then afterward I’d see the world differently.” Reading “The White King” has much the same effect.