- Valeria’s Last Stand: A Novel
- Bloomsbury USA, 272 pp.
The Only Constant
Valeria is a force to be reckoned with. A fastidious housekeeper and gardener, she will settle for nothing less than perfection from either herself or her acquaintances. At one time she was a beauty, but a romance gone wrong and a life spent alone have made her distrustful of others. She is now known, not for her desirability, but for her sharp tongue. As a result, Valeria has earned a reputation in her small Hungarian village for being a terrifying individual, mean and ruthless, and she seems to revel in her fearsomeness. Until, that is, she falls for the potter.
It begins simply enough, as all great loves do. Valeria is doing a routine inspection of the produce at the local market; like a one-woman Zagat’s, she can make or break a seller’s day because, while others may dislike her blunt authority, they do listen to her. As she is about to pass judgment on a cucumber, she notices the potter, eating a banana:
He was holding it in a strong hand with long tapering fingers. With his other hand, he was snapping the heads off of mushrooms and handing them to the vendor, who dropped them into a brown paper sack and weighed them. Valeria nearly gasped when she saw how gallantly he carried himself… “Darling,” she said too loudly.
Cucumbers. Bananas. Turnips and peppers and beets. The prose is full of earthy delights, and produce is often connected to sex, as in this passage, where the potter examines a recent creation, two vases in the shape of turnips:
The vase was easy to hold. It felt snug in the hand. It was smooth. It was slick. It even captured the potter’s warmth and radiated it back to him. When he picked up the second turnip and held both of them in front of him, carried both of them, he felt as if he were holding a pair of misshapen breasts. Strangely, they reminded him of Valeria’s breasts.
Like the misshapen vases, the relationships in this novel—between Valeria and the potter, between the potter and Ibolya, the tavern owner, between the mayor and his wife’s hairdresser, between the potter’s apprentice and Zsofi, Ibolya’s employee—are imperfect. Yet, despite the mix-ups and jealousies, the novel is filled with a sense of delight. Credit must go to the author, Marc Fitten, for capturing a romantic love this fulfilling.
But to read this book as if it were only a romance is to miss the point. Russell Banks, author of, among others, The Sweet Hereafter and Cloudsplitter, once said that a good story must have three legs, or three narrative strands, to stand on. Fitten puts this advice to good use by weaving Valeria’s late-in-life love together with the potter’s artistic awakening and the town’s emergence into a communist-free twenty-first century.
As a craftsman, the potter is respected, but his work is only craft until Valeria comes into his life. He says of his muse, “She is a woman who inspires,” and he finds that, like their rocky relationship, creation is “hard, discouraging work.” But he also discovers its merits:
He was godlike, though, and that was no blasphemy…In a single moment the potter understood that he had reached a level in his craft where all the fear, anxiety, and depression in his life could be sublimated into art…The potter recognized that there was nothing better for a man to do—to reflect his godlike image—than create something lasting.
Anyone who has created something can relate to this feeling: though we bemoan the hours and hours of obsessive work, we revel in the act of making and love our imperfect creation. The potter becomes steadily more absorbed in his work, and even, in a reversal of the Pygmalion myth, creates a larger-than-life statue of his beloved. The bronze woman is to serve as a symbol of the capitalist future of the little town, thus weaving in the third, and perhaps most fascinating, narrative thread.
In fact, while Valeria holds the starring role, the town is a contender for best supporting character. Through his descriptions of the quaint buildings and surrounding farms, his energetic, folklore-like prose style, and his aesthetic choice to give proper names to only a few, Fitten is able to give the impression that the town has been pulled right out of a fairy tale. This is purely for contrast’s sake. Along with chimney sweeps and beet farmers, there are Japanese investors, construction crews, and hairdressers. The town, like its citizens, has been under the spell of a communist regime, forced to stagnate in an oppressive political shadow. Only now is it emerging, blinking and rubbing its eyes, to join the rest of the industrialized world. After seeing the statue of Valeria staring steadfastly into the future, the mayor remarks on this awakening by saying, “This is a new day, potter. It’s a new day and a new era, and just like you, I’m changing my part of the world. This is the West now, or it will be very soon. Hop on board or get out of the way, because we’re not slowing down. Never again. That’s my motto.” And it doesn’t slow down, despite the fact that certain people become casualties of progress.
Two of those are the chimney sweep and Ibolya, the tavern owner. Their identities are wrapped up, for better or for worse, in their jobs, which are steadily becoming obsolete. Their struggles are comparable to the farmers and factory workers replaced by machines, or old technologies taken over by new. What happens to each at the end of the book can be read allegorically: you can be crushed by the relentless path of progress, or you can yield.
Or, in the case of Valeria and her potter, you can adapt. In the end, the story of Valeria and her Hungarian town is about the sheer difficulty of change. Relics of the past are broken, beat up, thrown across rooms, and completely destroyed, all in the pursuit of the new and the next. Thankfully, Fitten leaves the future of his creations ambiguous, and keeps his political views (mostly) out of it. For it’s not what the transition or transformation yields that is important, but that it occurs at all. A wiser Valeria reflects at the end that “Things were different already. And what was odd about the difference was that one couldn’t tell if it was better or worse. One couldn’t tell much of anything except that the world had changed and they would have to change with it.” Change is not a good or bad thing. It is a necessity—a constant, according to Heraclitus—and to his philosophical descendant, Valeria.