‘Valeria’s Last Stand’ a hilarious story
“Valeria’s Last Stand,” by Marc Fitten. Bloomsbury. 2009. 22 pp. $24.
By Deirdre Parker Smith
The cover image intrigued me first ó a large pitcher decorated with peppers, turnips, bells and figures.
There’s two rotund men talking, and a young girl chasing a young man.
“Valeria’s Last Stand” brings it all together, with a hilarious modern-day fairy tale. Even the setting is funny, a tiny village named Zivatar in central nowhere, Hungary. It is so tiny and insignificant that the German, Russians and British all rolled right past it in their tanks during World War II.
And not much has changed since then. Although it’s the 21st century, the village seems stuck in a time warp. Few people bother with TV, even fewer have cars. Simple farmers raise sugar beets and their wives ride bikes to the market in the village centrum.
That’s where Valeria reigns ó the loudest, most obnoxious hyper-critical mean old biddy anyone would care to avoid.
She has an opinion of everthing, and everything is lousy ó the vegetables are putrid, the fruits inedible, the men stupid, the women, useless. She marches through life with a finger in the air and a nasty comment for all who cross her path.
Of course Valeria has a reason for being so vile. Her lover killed her grandfather and she sent him to prison.
The grandfathers gush over the woman she used to be:
” ‘She had hips!’ someone shouted.
“‘And a bosom like a fat pigeon!’ shouted another.”
Well, once upon a day at the market, (as a fairy tale woul begin), she spies the town potter eating a banana and picking mushrooms from a bunch. She’s immediately enchanted by the tall, white-haired man. Love at first sight.
And then in comes the wicked witch ó tavern owner Ibolya, who fondly refers to the potter as “my little billy goat.”
Shortly thereafter, the author introduces the wicked chimney sweep, never named, who brings nothing but bad luck to Zivatar.
The characters are timeless and familiar. Valeria is so over the top with her meanness, and then so silly when she’s in love.
When the potter first kisses her, she doesn’t quite know how to respond, except to make the sound she always makes when she’s happy or feeling smug.
“Valeria’s hands remained at her sides; she hadn’t returned the embrace just yet, but she was tugging at her key string. It made a delirious chime.”
Ibolya, too, is a character out of a cautionary tale. She’s a bit, er, vivacious. In other words, she tosses her bosoms about like some girls toss their hair. She’s a leaner and a stretcher, luring her thirsty customers to buy another beer.
She’s the only game in town, too, and the center for all gossip and most of the fights.
The mayor, whom Valeria thinks less of than the flea on her cow’s rump, is all about progress. Yes, sir, he’s bringing in all sorts of foreigners who promise to build all sorts of factories which never quite meet expectations.
Valeria doesn’t think much of capitalism, either. “Why, the Communists were philospher kings when compared with the backslapping capitalists in charge of Hungary’s new and improved free-market system.”
The mayor, also unnamed, has a fine young wife who likes pretty things and nice perfume and eats oranges by the bag full.
Trouble is, the mayor likes pretty things, too ó as in his wife’s ample-bottomed hairdresser.
All the men in the book seem to enjoy a voluptuous woman ó preferably not their wives. What else is there to do in a village in the nowhere middle of Hungary?
The gentle potter has been enjoying Ibolya’s enthusiastic attention, but when he sees Valeria in the market, something, oddly enough, clicks.
His amorous attention begins to melt her granite heart. At the same time, it inflames Ibolya ó turning her into the Hungarian version of a screaming banshee, bent on revenge.
Along with this fine cast of characters are the villagers, a nameless, faceless group who shows up on Valeria’s doorstep while the potter romances her, appears at the most important fights at the tavern, gathers in the market to comment like a chorus from an ancient Greek play.
In rides the deus ex machina, a grouchy chimney sweep on an ancient and apparently cursed bicycle. He makes Valeria look like Little Miss Sunshine. He hates everything and everyone and loathes being considered lucky. He kicks children and dogs, fondles wives whose chimneys he cleans, overcharges husbands and begins a campaign that will change everything in the village.
He finds a more-than-willing accomplice in Ibolya and they hatch a plan to ruin the potter, the mayor, Valeria, and anyone else who gets in their way.
Ibolya sees it as just desserts for the people who’ve snubbed her. But she has underestimated the angry little chimney sweep, who fiercely attacks townspeople and the kindly potter.
But this is a fairy tale, and it needs to have some hint of a happy ending, which it does, if cautionary.
The hateful Valeria is miraculously transformed, the fiery Ibolya doused and the evil sweep swept away.
Fitten has a remarkable imagination and a flare for telling a story. The people of Zivatar are a rowdy, randy bunch, stubborn, silly, ignorant, funny.
He has bawdy fun with this group ó no chick-lit here ó skewering politics, religion, social convention, pretty young things and everything else that’s wrong with the world.
Everyone needs to read a fairy tale now and then.