Thursday, April 7, 2011

Together Again: Johanna Adorján’s An Exclusive Love

Johanna Adorján launches An Exclusive Love 
On the evening of October 13th, 1991, dressed in their best night clothes, Vera and István, crawled into bed for the last time. Holding on to each other’s hand they waited for the end to come. A note lies on their bedside table: “We have lived together, we are dying together. We loved you very much. Mami.” Lived they had. Married nearly fifty years, the Jewish Hungarian couple survived the Holocaust and fled their motherland during the 1956 uprising in Budapest. Making a new home for themselves in Denmark, they continued raising their family and living life to the fullest until the end.

So begins Johanna Adorján’s account of her grandparents’ lives and death in An Exclusive Love: A Memoir, translated by Athena Bell (Knopf Canada, 2011). The author was 20-years-old when her grandparents took their lives in their Copenhagen home. Her 82-year-old grandfather, a former orthopaedic surgeon, was slowly losing a battle with heart disease. His wife, a still vibrant 71-year-old, refused to carry on without him. Sixteen years after their death, Adorján began her quest to reveal how and why this fateful decision was carried out.

An Exclusive Love pragmatically, but tenderly, recounts the lives and deaths of these unassailable lovers. Adorján compiles a beautiful collection of testimonies from friends and family members, the author’s memories, and her own fabrication of that final day. “What does one do on the morning that they know is their last? I imagine that they tidy up, get things done.” The author lets us in on the life journey of two people who were somehow both immensely passionate lovers of Wagner’s operas and chain-smoked Prince of Denmark cigarettes. Yet they were also extremely practical, thrifty, orderly, and responsible until the very end.

While the primary focus is to unveil the truth behind their death, the author also strives to gain a deeper understanding of her own identity. Consequently, she allows some bitterness and selfishness to seep in. Adorján admits disappointment after reading her grandfather’s unfinished memoirs: “He deprived me of an essential part of my sense of self, bequeathed me a gap in my identity that seems like a mystery. I lack a piece of myself.” She provokes questions surrounding what our previous generations may owe us by means of history, identity and belonging . Conversely, it also raises the question of what we may owe the generations past, by means of respect of privacy for lives lived.

This depth of question, as well as her focus on her grandparents’ unique decision is what sets her work aside from a more self-indulgent genre. The writer touches on a bittersweet subject of one generation’s complex and mysteries relationship with their aging links to the past. In addition to this she also raises philosophical questions on life, death and love.

The blatant suicide theme is guaranteed to strike a nerve. The controversial topic can be seen as either a sinful act of cowardice or a courageous personal decision. Even the author, while she obviously has made peace with the decision, is sometimes appalled that a man who survived a Nazi concentration camp is taking practical advice on how to die from Derek Humphries’ Final Exit. While István may gain more empathy for his final decision – his quality of life and the pain from his illness make a solid argument for euthanasia – Vera’s decision is open for criticism.

author Johanna Adorján 
Vera’s insecurities and fear of being alone are revisited on several occasions. While interviewing her grandmother’s closest friends, the author discovered that Vera had made previous claims that she would not be able to go on without “Pista,” first when she feared he would not return from the concentration camp and again when he was doing medical service in the Korean War. Adorján learns how lonely and frightened her grandmother was, how she believed that only her husband loved her. Vera was not the refined fearless woman she remembered.

Like the author, coming of age in a predominately “me” generation, the thought that someone could not go it alone is unfathomable. Living for someone else, one can seem almost pathetic and incomplete, unlike the strong independent people we should be. While I was reading, my thoughts strayed to the last time I saw my grandmother shortly after my grandfather passed away. Holding her two-month-old great granddaughter in her arms, it was clear that nothing was bringing her peace: “I just don’t want to be here Laura. I miss Grandpa,” she told me. A few weeks later, they were together again. There is a certain stark reality here: one that Vera realized before it happened to her. She knew what the days would be like without her best friend and she chose not to suffer through them.

Johanna Adorján's memoir is not only a beautiful work of art and a respectful tribute to a great love but it's also a stimulating contribution to a generation that has much to learn from the valuable connections only a phone call away. While her last phone call was never answered, her journey leaves Adorján with a peaceful discovery: “And suddenly I also understand my grandmother’s love, which was so exclusive, so needy, so great and ultimately conditional (…) Suddenly I can also imagine why she didn’t want to live without him, why she died with him.” Finally closure, for the author and for the two people who lived an extraordinary life full of an extraordinary love, to the very end. An Exclusive Love makes you realize that we should all be so lucky.

Laura Warner is a librarian, researcher and aspiring writer living in Toronto. She is currently based in the Canadian Broadcasting Centre’s Music Library.

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