György Dragomán never names the country in which his second novel, The White King, takes place. This absence allows the narrative to swell with a lushly imaginative rhythm that, when juxtaposed with the absurd rigidity of the totalitarian state, creates a dynamic, raw and unique picture of the country.
Romania might conjure up preconceived notions, but the world in which 11-year-old Djata, The White King’s protagonist lives, is all his own. When we experience it through his eyes, we have a similarly fresh experience. Like Djata, all we know is that the government has taken his father to an internment camp and offered no information about when he will return. Like Djata, we wait anxiously while real life goes on.
Political and geographical ambiguities are what allow the novel to hover between bildungsroman and historic documentation. The novel swirls between polarities and it is the dichotomous tension that brings joy, freedom and adventure to the story. Dragomán’s prose is exuberant and sputters with youthful truthfulness; the cruelties of fascism are subtly woven into a naturally progressing narrative of childhood.
Seeing the world exclusively through Djata’s eyes, the reader is caught up in his innocence, which thrives in a place where hope is implicitly futile. We share in his childish sense of suspense in a world where the government has already decided everything, and we root for the success of his personal dreams in a world where individuals cannot exist. Like other young protagonists, Djata is indeed finding himself through conflict, but his opponents are not parents, teachers or friends but rather the confines of the fascist state.
In most coming-of-age stories, the protagonist is faced with the task of understanding what makes him an individual, how he will operate in relation to the rest of society and what sort of adult he wants to become. In a communist society, if these choices and freedoms exist, they are not discussed. They are not lauded or analyzed; they are not relevant to the community at large. Djata is a boy prone to mischief by anyone’s standards, but when his trouble-making tendencies run up against the calculating and unyielding Party wishes, we get a book that is part black comedy and part celebration of growing up.
When Djata and his friend sneak away from a school assembly to watch pornography, they find the film among reels that have been banned by the communist party. If they are caught, they’ve done far worse than rebel at school. And Dragomán proves that things are the same for boys everywhere: they love the sight of nipples, they can’t help breaking the rules and they are desperately afraid of getting caught.
Some situations are less familiar. Djata is pulled aside by a coach and told to score badly in a shooting contest because the government has deemed that the other school should win. Djata is more irritated than incensed and more personally offended than ideologically appalled. Dragomán’s gift is relaying scenarios of unfathomable injustice with dexterous ease and simplicity.
However, at times, the narrator’s self-awareness seems unrealistically refined for an eleven-year-old. We hear the hint of an older, objective consciousness seeping out of the young boy’s self-reflection. When he and his friends stage a war with some boys from another street, he is all business when he asks for his mother’s permission to go out and play, but immediately finds himself secretly wishing that she will say no.
Djata says he is prepared to be the man of the house, but jumps at any chance he gets to act like a child. He is distraught when his mother shares his birthday cake with a hungry child-peddler that knocks on their door. Like any child, Djata’s individual desires reign supreme in his conscious, and in such scenes, the narration seems more authentic.
We see this charming self-absorption again when the local grocery store gets a shipment of an exotic fruit: bananas, and a riot ensues. Djata, like everyone else, is eager to see what he can steal during the chaos. We’ve been inundated with critiques of fascism’s political and social repression, but we might have forgotten that totalitarian governments offers an extremely limiting lifestyle. There’s a reason some say that Coca-Cola and Levis won the Cold War. Djata’s story reminds us that all governments, even those that aim to stamp out identities, rely on the participation of individuals.
At a time when political participation for many has declined into apathy or passive dissatisfaction, The White King is not just a beautiful novel but also an important political reflection. Djata’s independence and perceptiveness may inspire some readers to discover their own.