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Vivien Kovaks grows up as the only child of refugee Hungarian Jews who came to England before WW2. "My parents had brought me up as a mouse," she remarks as an adult. They themselves had decided to live like mice, too, as invisible as possible. No friends, no outings, the outside world comes to them via TV. Her father "suffered from an anxiety: that any small disturbance in his circumstances would bring everything down - the flat, the wife, the job, the new daughter, London itself, then England, and he would slide down the map of the world, back to Hungary." Vivien doesn't have many questions, and the ones she has aren't answered. "No one ever had a quiet life by asking questions, and a life that isn't peaceful is no life at all", is what she hears from her father.
This stagnant world is shattered when one day, Vivien is ten years old, a flamboyant man in flashy clothes appears with a slutty black girl on his arm claiming to be Uncle Sándor, her father's brother. Her father gets a hysterical fit, screams in a foreign language and slams the door on him. He refuses to ever mention the man again. The only information Vivien is able to extract is that he's a bad man, a pimp and exploiter of tenants.
Nearly fifteen years later, she's become a widow on her honeymoon and doesn't know what to do with her life and her degree in English lit, she sets out to find her uncle and get to the bottom of the story. He's just been released after 14 years in prison, for the press he is evil incarnated. They meet indeed and she becomes his amanuensis transcribing what he speaks on tape. He wants to have the story of his life published as a book, to tell the world what things were really like.
The novel is written with a frame story, the fifty-year-old Vivien looks back on her childhood with her parents and on her encounter with Uncle Sándor, what he tells her is the body of the novel. Sándor is the born businessman, he sniffs out opportunities to make money wherever he is, even as a slave labourer during the war. His other most important character trait is his total amorality, he has no conscience and thus can suffer no qualms. He lives according to his own code. When he is in the real estate business in Budapest and gets to know sexually unsatisfied married women and men keen on a sexual encounter, he brings flats, women and men together. Everybody is happy, aren't they? He doesn't see himself as a pimp, more as a do-gooder. And what are his deeds compared to the ones committed by the people who sent his family 'up the chimneys'?
The same applies when he lets rooms to the first black immigrants from the Caribbean who've come to London to work but learn that English landlords don't welcome them. Yes, the living conditions in Sándor's houses are squalid and the rents high but he would have been happy to live like this during the war. He's even content with himself that he sends black thugs to collect the rent, so if they treat their country people badly, is it his fault?
A critic sees the interaction of Vivien and Sándor as the best part of the novel, but interaction is not the correct term in my opinion. There is no balance between the two characters. Sándor is so heavy, if we imagine them on a see-saw, then he's got his feet on the ground all the time and Vivien is so light that she stays high up in the air without the slightest chance of ever touching the ground.
He gives her a history by talking about his family and his life in Hungary, for the first time she feels that she belongs. What does she give him? Only that she insists with her questions and makes him look into himself more deeply than he intended. But she does it for herself, to get as much information out of him as possible. He challenges her notions of morality but does she change because of him? I doubt it, for me she remains the mouse of her childhood, albeit a more spirited one. We have a problem here, a bad character is just more interesting than a good one, what can one do? The author has given Uncle Sándor such a colourful, impressive biography covering several decades that 25-year-old Vivien can only come over as pale and insignificant.
The story is set in the late 1970s with its rise of the National Front, the situation, the impact of the bald thugs in heavy boots with swastikas on their jackets, their hold-ups of non-Arian looking passers-by in the streets, the reaction or non-reaction of the people - all this is well described.
I also like the fluent style and the beautiful language, the descriptions, not overly flowery, but to the point and evocative. The novel is not humorous by intent but I found myself grinning at the grotesque death of Vivien's first husband, couldn't the author get rid of him in a different way? What Vivien learns about her parent's reason to leave Hungary is also rather funny. Her sexual encounters with one of Uncle Sándor's tenants made me grin, too, a reaction not intended by the author, I'm sure.
Strangely, nothing much is made of the topic of clothes. After reading the title one has to have the idea that clothes are used in this novel as a metaphor for whatever the author wants to get over to the reader, but that is not the case. All in all, the novel strikes me as a bit sketchy, not yet fully matured. Why aren't we told a bit more about Vivian's second marriage and 'her two fat, English daughters'? The author has elaborated on the main topic, i.e., Uncle Sándor's story, so much that the novel tilts, which isn't a good thing.
I read a great review of The Clothes on The Backs by Linda Grant on the Granta website, so I thought I'd give it a read.
The story centres around Vivien, the daughter of Hungarian refugees, living in London during the 70s. Her parents are very glad to be in the UK, but seal themselves off from their past and their surroundings. The wonderful and eccentric people that live in the apartment block provide Vivien's childhood with much needed colour, but I felt it was a bit convenient that so many unique people lived so close by.
One day Vivien's uncle turns up with the exotic trappings of extreme wealth. Her father won't discuss his brother, and in Vivien's imagination he presents an alluring conundrum. The body of the book explores her Uncle Sandor's story as a Hungarian refugee, his torture and abuse, and his subsequent life as a slum landlord in London. A few defining tragedies in Vivien's life make this reunion possible, and it was these I most objected to, as they felt very contrived. I don't want to spoil the plot by exposing them here.
Vivien as a character is interesting; she feels lost, insecure and is unsure of where she belongs. Perhaps for these reasons her character isn't really as engaging as it could be, and I found it hard to empathise. Her uncle is a colorful character, and his life both tragic and victorious, but again I found it hard to connect. Ultimately Vivien finds resolution through new love, and her own daughters. The story is actually narrated by the older Vivien, and we get tantalising glimpses of her life, but nothing concrete. Perhaps the book could have benefitted from a further exploration of her second husband.
Overall this is a pleasant read, but somehow it left me wanting slightly.