In conversation with Benedek Totth
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived for my meeting with Benedek Totth. It’s difficult to guess an author’s personality from their work, and doubly so when the work is like Totth’s. The Hungarian author’s 2014 debut, “Dead Heat,” was recently translated into English by Ildikó Noémi Nagy. The novel is a portrait of a group of Hungarian teenagers whose lives are centered on competitive swimming and otherwise pass in dissolute episodes of substance abuse, meaningless sex and general recklessness. Very little of the novel is actually violent, but it is saturated with verbal violence that molds everything — love, friendship, competition — into an antagonistic, self-annihilating shape. The novel succeeds in that its internal tension never calcifies into numbness or cynicism — it never gets tiresome, but remains white-hot to the end.
The story follows an unnamed narrator who is marginally less cruel than his friends Ducky and Buoy, but still tougher than his friend Zoli-boy. This group is frequently accompanied by two slightly-indistinguishable sisters, Viki and Niki who have frequent and passionless sex with the boys. The novel’s form is more or less episodic, proceeding with a loose, dreamy causality. The opening scene, in which this group speeds down a highway during a thunderstorm with no clear end goal, is emblematic — scenes of great intensity follow each other with no clear meaning or motive. The novel’s effect is cumulative rather than linear, and part of the story’s absorbing quality is how lurchingly unpredictable it is.
I was surprised at how quiet and amiable Totth was when I met him. He expressed his excitement at the book’s English publication and the quality of Nagy’s translation. This is something Totth has some experience with — he has translated American authors like Cormac McCarthy, Bret Easton Ellis and Hunter S. Thomson into Hungarian. He mentioned that “Dead Heat” owes a debt to the English and American authors he studied in university, and that every book he has translated has had an indelible impact on his writing. Referring to “American Psycho,” he mentions that “In Hungarian literature there was no such writing, nothing like that.” Some of the more extended dreamlike sequences in “Dead Heat” recall the airlessness of Ellis’s novels. Like “American Psycho,” the thread of “Dead Heat” begins in a kind of realistic mode and is then subtly and gradually bent into the surreal.
Given Totth’s influences, it’s notable that the translation of the novel from Hungarian into English was also its transformation into a new idiom. One of the more surprising details of the language is all the late-2010s American slang that these Central European teenagers throw around — “squad” and “hella” and “fam” and the like. It occasionally comes across as contrived, but that this is not how teenagers in 2019 (or even 2015) speak is almost the point. Totth mentioned to me that the original Hungarian text was written in a “constructed language,” comprised of slang he heard on the street, read in other published writing and invented himself. He emphasized that “from a sociological or linguistic standpoint, it’s not correct. No one speaks like this.” Nagy did something similar in the translation — updating the language, but essentially constructing a language that serves the novel more than it lays claim to a true representation of teenagers.
By Totth’s account, Nagy succeeded in reproducing this constructed language. The terse prose is the novel’s source of anxious energy, and the aspect that took the most effort. Totth recounted that he wrote and rewrote the tightly-wound opening scene looking for “the flow of the language.” It’s a style that does not tend toward lush detail or allow for very much interiority — it suggests and propels, sending his characters further into the depths of unsteady danger.