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When an unlikely love affair blossoms, the inhabitants of Zivatar, a small village in rural Hungary finally have something to talk about. One day at the market, frumpy, waspish Valeria, teased by the local kids and shunned by the adults, falls for the village potter and before long everyone knows about the passionate night the two have spent together. But the potter is not unattached and when Ibolya, the village bar owner hears what "her man" has been up to she is furious.
If the villagers weren't excited enough by the mature love triangle, the arrival in Zivatar of a travelling chimney sweep has the women swooning and the men suspicious. Ibolya, desperate to have the potter back under her thumb, hopes she can use the chimney sweep in her scheme but Valeria is determined not to let the potter go.
"Valeria's Last Stand" is a bawdy, colourful story with more than a hint of Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales". Zivatar (a fictional village I should stress) is an isolated little place - the events of 1956 hardly registered in Zivatar - largely forgotten about until the new mayor tries to inject some new ideas. He hopes to attract foreign investment but before that can happen Zivatar needs to be connected to the rest of Hungary and the mayor's first project is the construction of a railway station for the town.
The characters are wonderfully painted, taking on pantomime or fairy tale appearances; while some have names, many are referred to only by their job. The awful Ibolya, dressing unsuitably for her advancing years and flirting with her lecherous customers, and the fraying at the seams, drab and bad-tempered Valeria could almost be Cinderella's ugly sisters, vying for the same prize. The chimney sweep adds an element or surreality, a Papa Lazarou in my mind, and I must admit I found the character quite unnerving. In Hungary, if we are to believe what's said in the story, chimney sweeps are considered lucky but I couldn't help but shiver a little as I read how the village women clamoured to have him come to their houses, persuading their husbands to part with the money to meet the sweeps extortionate fees.
Among the bawdy, slapstick humour of the geriatric love triangle - later a love square - it's easy to forget that Fitton - how hard it is to believe this is his debut novel! - is making some important points about the fall of communism and the ensuing switch to a capitalist society, something not welcomed by everyone in Zivatar. Valeria is a prime example of someone who doesn't welcome the change.
From the appearance of exotic fruits in the village market
""Valeria wasn't interested in foreign fruits and vegetables, mostly because she could not grow them, but also because of their blatant sensuality. Tropical fruits were swollen with flesh and juice. They were sticky. They were uninhibited. The first time she held a banana, Valeria was offended."
to the increasing popularity of whistling -
"Valeria never whistled. Nor did she approve of people who did. In sixty eight years, what Valeria had learned to be a truth about character was that people who whistled were crass. Whistlers were untrustworthy and irresponsible. They were shiftless. They were common. Butchers whistled. Peasants also...She was certain the queen of England did not whistle. The Hungarian president did not whistle either. She followed a line back through Soviet history: Trotsky may have whistled; Lenin, certainly not; Stalin only whistled in madness"
Valeria is never happier than when casting a critical eye over the community. Bitter and lonely since a disappointment as a young woman, Valeria has never allowed herself to be happy until she falls for the potter: just as the village makes the move towards modernity, so Valeria realises she cannot continue to be left behind. The analogies are simple but clever and touching without being overly whimsical.
While I loved "Valeria's Last Stand" I did feel that Fitton over-complicated the plot in parts and, in particular, the section around the arrival of the sweep is much longer than it needs to be. I also found that the love - well rather more lust than love if truth be told - overshadowed the communism-to-capitalism thread which was just as entertaining.
"Valeria's Last Stand" is warm, funny and ever so slightly outrageous; a bound "Last of the Summer Wine" in Hungary.