Evelyn Marsh: A pokol tornáca

I have visibly slowed down. It feels sometimes as I am only noticeably lazy, but actually it is more about giving the time myself to enjoy the reading itself. Due to the high number of challenges I have picked up the custom to read as fast as possible and it have became sort of a chore. As it has been always a dearly enjoyable hobby of mine I have cut back on challenges and leaned back. I am trying to not read books simultaneously, which also has been a side effect of wanting to complete many challenges at a time, I just rather try to kill two birds with on stone and select books that would fit more criteria here and there if possible. This might reduce the number of posts as well, but I hope it will bring more quality into my writing and more joy too.

For today I have planned to finish my three months journey aiming to explore Algeria through reading. The three main criteria to select the books are always the following for every country I read about: one book written by a native of the respective country, one book with a story set in that country for at least half of the book and one book about a cultural aspect, which might be a history book, a cookbook, a collection of folk tales, whatever I can find and is particularly special to that country. So far I have read from Yasmina Khadra as a native of Algeria and a comic book centered on discovering the family roots of someone descending from pied-noir and the history behind it. The third book I have just finished reading recently and it has been a crime fiction set fully in Algeria.

Erika Mocsári, the Hungarian writer behind the pen name Evelyn Marsh, was born in 1933 and died on the 6th of October in 2012. Her pen name was inspired by a character of the Twin Peaks series. She studied economics and worked as a journalist. She was also one of the founders of HVG, Hungary’s leading economic and political weekly newspaper since its founding in 1979, both in terms of circulation and readership. She never stopped writing, not even after retiring as a journalist. She is widely known as a writer of many crime fictions, most of them set in Africa, as she was living for years in Ethiopia with her husband, a professor of toxicology.

The A pokol tornáca, published in 1991 is available only in Hungarian. As the title refers to a very specific term I am used to from my theology studies, I would translate it exactly as it is – Limbo, which refers to a condition of not being admitted into Heaven due to dying in the original sin, but for the same reason also not being assigned to the Hell of the Damned. It is an in-between.

The story itself is mostly set in Ghardaïa, the capital of Ghardaïa province located in northern-central Algeria, in the Sahara, and along the left side of the Wadi Mzab. The M’zab valley is part of the UNESCO World Heritage since 1982 as a cultural property. As the novel it also shares, its name origins in the name of the female saint, Daïa, who lived in a cave called ghār in the local language, and it means the cave of Daïa. It was founded by the Mozabites, an Ibadi sect of the Muslims. This is also the city and part of a pentapolis, where Theresa Segal arrives from France to work as a physician in the Hospital Mustafa and the adventure begins. Turned up to maximum value.

I have enjoyed the cultural insights very much. There have been details about how healing works in this very conservative community, how important customs and traditions can be, and it also has shared how human nature can go above and beyond to still meet the needs and desires. Unfortunately there have been so many happenings going on, that it has been quite hard to follow sometimes the story of the many characters and keep in mind what has happened with whom. There are a few plots intertwining too. There is the physician trying to experiment based on some formulas collected by another colleague hacking into other hospitals’ and research centers’ archives. There is a storyline involving maffia, one of the husband mooching off the wife and willing to go the extra mile to get rid of her, one of the physician, who due to a life changing trauma is drinking excessively in a country where alcohol is frowned upon, but no one blinks an eye, there is a racing driver as the Paris-Dakar Rally is just on, and so on. Many many stories are colliding in the hospital and all in all in the city. My only problem it was, that they were so many, that in less than 400 pages there was no actual space and time to get to know them properly. Like the poor wife of Ahmed, the influential businessman, who shows up as someone in danger due to a complicated case of pneumonia and never leaves the hospital alive. She was there for about half a page in total, so I had the feeling that this story has been pretty much crowded and somewhat overwhelming due to the numerous details, even though it did not lack logic behind them.

My biggest issue has been though the not so natural Hungarian sentences and verbiages here and there. It might be the fact that no one has proofread the book or even the proofreader did not spot the strange wordings either. I have checked for at least half a dozen times if this is not just a translation with a not so high quality or what has happened. Also the excessive usage of foreign language terms was a bit exhausting, but that part I understood mostly because of the medical background, even though there were cases where it felt too much for the fifth time on the same page.

All in all I appreciated the fact that the medical part of the book seemed to be based on a very extensive research, as well as the scene, as I never felt as it could have been set in any other country without no issue. This was imagined in Algeria and it would need many changes and alterations to be shifted into another surrounding.

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