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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Circumcision

Dalos György

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To purchase The Circumcision

Title: The Circumcision
Author: Dalos György
Genre: Novel
Written: 1990 (Eng. 2001)
Length: 140 pages
Original in: Hungarian
Availability: The Circumcision - US
The Circumcision - UK
The Circumcision - Canada
La circoncision - France
Die Beschneidung - Deutschland
  • Hungarian title: A körülmetélés
  • Translated by Judith Sollosy
  • First published in German, as Die Beschneidung, in 1990

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Our Assessment:

B : fine if unexceptional story of a Jewish boy in 1950s Hungary

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 27/5/2006 Elena Seymenliyska

  From the Reviews:
  • "György Dalos's novel is lucidly translated from the Hungarian with helpful footnotes on Yiddish words and Jewish customs. Fast, funny and only a little flip, it makes an interesting companion piece to Imre Kertész's Fateless." - Elena Seymenliyska, The Guardian

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The premise and setting of The Circumcision would seem to offer considerable promise. It is the story of Robi Singer, born (like the author) in 1943 and now reaching the age for his bar mitzvah. Given the circumstances, it's no surprise he wasn't circumcised in wartime Hungary, but if he wants to fully join the Jewish community it's now time for him to let himself be mutilated. That alone should make for some nice tension. Add to it the fact that the book is set in Budapest in a time that likely rings a bell for most readers -- late 1955, early 1956 (i.e. just before the Russians stomped into town to suppress the uppity Hungarians) and one expects that author Dalos will cleverly use these two threads to shape his novel.
       It begins well enough: to emphasise when the action takes place Dalos begins the book: "In the year 5716, as the month of Tevet was drawing to a close" (footnotes helpfully reminding the reader that that puts the opening in 1955). It gets the Jewish perspective in right from the start -- and puts the reader on alert for 1956. The big life-decision facing half-orphan Robi Singer, who lives with his mother and grand-mother, is also quickly brought into the mix -- but the question of will he or won't he doesn't dominate the book. Instead, readers are treated to a casual account of the life of a Jewish twelve year old in 1950s Hungary.
       It's a semi coming of age tale of the sort that are a dime a dozen, more appealing than many only because of its setting and some quirky characters. The Jewish community in Budapest under the Communist regime is a small one, but religious observance is apparently widely tolerated. Robi goes to a Jewish school -- part of an orphanage -- but also attends Jews-for-Christ services with his mother every Sunday.
       Smothering mom and grandma (with whom Robi still shares the divan when he sleeps at home) don't make life that easy for Robi. They love the boy, but ... well, for example: "Grandmother thought of Robi's obesity as one of the seven wonders of the world", while he himself isn't quite as enthusiastic about being known as 'Fatso'. Mom's nerves are also shot, making it difficult for her to hold a job, and though she means well she's not very good at very much.
       Robi still can't imagine anything beyond hoping to follow in his dead father's footsteps and becoming an art historian; his whole world is still a child's world, with its limited outlook and understanding. Sex has begun to rear its head --- there's lots of self-abuse at the orphanage, and Robi gets a crush on a girl (though, family bound as he is, it is only his cousin) -- but it's just the usual adolescent stuff. Jewish identity plays a significant role in the book, and the decision (to undergo the procedure or not) also comes down to how much Robi wants to embrace it -- but Dalos ignores the circumcision-issue for much of the book (though it's sort of understandable that it's not something Robi wants to dwell on).
       Dalos does a fine job of describing the twelve year old's life, but doesn't go far beyond that. Robi does not become a man here (not much of one, anyway), and though the first steps to love and independence are taken they don't go very far. Dalos does convey Jewish life in 1950s Hungary quite well, too, -- as well as some of the politics and class issues of the day -- but it's a very small picture he offers, tightly focussed on the one family.
       An entertaining enough small novel that's certainly of some interest -- but one that makes little of something as dramatic as a teenager having to decide whether he should get a knife taken to his genitals (and fully embrace the tradition that goes with it, i.e. become a full-fledged Jew), much less the backdrop of Hungary in 1956.

       Note: There are numerous footnotes explaining mainly the Jewish and yiddish terms used in the book. Some of these are informative and accurate, but some of these are completely wrong. Worst of all is the one on page 96 where Robi's mother tells him of the cattle cars that went to Auschwitz, after which:

there was nothing, just Appelplatz and barracks and gas
       'Appelplatz' is footnoted, and explained as:
The infamous big square in Berlin where the Nazi book burnings took place.
       The context alone makes clear that the word refers to something at Auschwitz, not Berlin. Misspelling the word doesn't help -- it should be 'Appellplatz -- and what it means, of course, is the parade grounds where the roll-call is held. (The "infamous big square in Berlin" is presumably the Opernplatz.)
       The error is a baffling one -- and, unfortunately, not the only one.
       Clearly, the person doing the footnotes of German terms relied on a dictionary, leading to bizarre explanations such as:
She's a wise woman, alle Achtung*, my hat off to her.

* German. 'Attention all'.
       Literally accurate (or at least plausible), it's completely wrong: 'alle Achtung' is an idiomatic expression meaning ... for example, 'my hat off to her'.
       Or, in complaining about some patients at the hospital Aunt Jenny calls them:
Common. Ordinary. Echt* prolis.

* German. 'Common people'.
       Not even a very good guess -- never mind that the footnote appears on the wrong word (presumably the entire expression -- 'Echt prolis' -- should be explained). 'Echt' means real or authentic (or, in this case, 'true blue' would be a nice choice), and 'prolis' refers to proletarians (as is also made clear later in the text). (A very bourgeois attitude to take in a workers' state, by the way .....)

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The Circumcision: Reviews: Other books by Dalos György under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Hungarian author Dalos György was born in 1943. He is currently head of the Institute for Hungarian Culture in Berlin.

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