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Set in the immigrant community of Winnipeg’s North End, Under the Ribs of Death follows the progress of young Sandor Hunyadi as he struggles to cast off his Hungarian background and become a “real Canadian.” Embittered by poverty and social humiliation, Sandor rejects his father’s impractical idealism and devotes himself single-mindedly to becoming a successful businessman. Equipped with a new name and a hardened heart, he is close to realizing his ambition when fortune’s wheel takes an unexpected – and possibly redemptive – turn.
Combining social realism and moral parable, Under the Ribs of Death is John Marlyn’s ironic portrayal of the immigrant experience in the years leading up to the Great Depression. As a commentary on the problems of cultural assimilation, this novel is as relevant today as it was when first published in 1957.
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John Marlyn was born in Nagy Becskerek, Hungary, in 1912. When he was six months old, his family moved to Winnipeg’s North End, the setting of his fiction.
Unable to find employment during the thirties, Marlyn went to England, where he worked as a script reader for a film studio. He returned to Canada just before the outbreak of the Second World War and has worked since that time as a writer for various government offices in Ottawa. From 1963 until 1967 he also taught creative writing at Carleton University.
Under the Ribs of Death, Marlyn’s first novel and a powerful portrait of immigrant life in its aspirations, its tragedies, and its search for values, won the Beta Sigma Phi First Novel Award.
John Marlyn resides in the Canary Islands.
The street was quiet now. His footsteps beat a lonely tattoo on the wooden sidewalk. The wind behind him ruffled his hair. Above him the lights went on, and over the face of Henry Avenue, half-hidden the moment before by soft, fraudulent shadows, there sprang into view an endless grey expanse of mouldering ruin. From the other side of the freight sheds came the rumble of the engines as they started on their nightly round of shunting box-cars to and fro.
Through the mingled odours of the neighbourhood, the pervading smell of coal gas and wood rot, there reached him suddenly the aroma of frying meat. He breathed it in hungrily and quickened his steps until he remembered that tonight there would be bologny for supper, with potato salad—yesterday’s potatoes in vinegar and water with onions.
His shadow moved before him, rippling buoyantly over the uneven boards of the sidewalk. He watched it grow and a deep longing came over him. He saw himself the way he would be when he was a man, sitting in the lobby of the Hotel, bright button shoes on his feet, his hat and cane on a table nearby—rich and well fed and at ease there in one of the great leather chairs, smoking an after-dinner cigar.
Some day he would grow up and leave all this, he thought, leave it behind him forever and never look back, never remember again this dirty, foreign neighbourhood and the English gang who chased him home from school every day. He would forget how it felt to wear rummage-sale clothes and be hungry all the time, and nobody would laugh at him again, not even the English, because by then he would have changed his name and would be working in an office the way the English did, and nobody would be able to tell that he had ever been a foreigner.
Sandor crossed the street. He climbed to the bench in front of the house and peered into the front room. His father sat there in his working-clothes with his back to the lightbulb, reading; a sad grey figure with bent back and softly moving lips, his face aglow with the reflected light from the open book.
A faint scowl came over the boy’s face. “Yah, books,” he muttered, and dropped quietly from the bench and walked around to the side of the house, cursing as he stumbled over the rubbish that littered the back lane.
Now everything depended upon his mother. She had but to raise her voice and his father would give him a beating. He was late, his clothes were torn. He had not done his chores, and worst of all, he had been fighting again.
He crept to the open window of the kitchen and looked in. His mother was in the centre of the kitchen with the baby in her lap, humming while she swayed to and fro. It was the first time he remembered seeing her in repose. Her face was free of anxiety, her dark, luminous eyes sad in their depths. He wondered why both his parents always seemed so sad. When he looked at her again it seemed to him that he was looking at a stranger. He had not known that she was beautiful nor had he noticed that she looked so tired.
He tip-toed to the woodshed and had already begun to chop some kindling when he noticed a pile of it stacked beside the door.
“Christ-aw-mighty,” he groaned. “Pa’s done it awready.”
He banged the door shut and walked into the kitchen, rejecting the solicitude that came into his mother’s eyes.
“You been fighting,” she said in a low voice . . . but not low enough.
There was a sudden stir in the front room. His heart sank within him as his father appeared.
The place where his lip was swollen began to throb now that he felt his father’s eyes upon it. He lowered his head.
“Come with me.”
As they walked into the front room his father reached for a length of cord from behind the door. “Only one thing I beat you for,” he said. “Fighting. You’re nearly twelve years old already—old enough to understand. Why do you fight? Does it prove something?”
He waited for an answer and then suddenly shouted, “Can you reason?”
His voice rang out. “Reason!”
He raised his arm.
Sandor closed his eyes as the cord came down across his shoulders. The pain was bearable. It was the world filled with hate and injustice and himself impotent in his humiliation that threatened his resolution not to cry. The cord came down again. He gritted his teeth.
He knew that he had only to cry out and the beating would stop. But it was a matter of pride with him not to do so. Instead he kicked and lashed out until, finally breaking loose, he ran into the kitchen and sat down on the window- sill.
Beating me for nothing, he thought, and bitterly wiped away his tears. He hasn’t even got the right to beat me. He’s not even my father. . . . His real father was an English lord. One day he would return and then this Joseph Hunyadi had better watch himself.
Out of the yielding stuff of memory he spun a familiar, consoling fantasy. There came back to him an image of a tall, distinguished man high above him on the deck of the ship that had brought him and his mother to Canada. Every day this man had appeared with an orange for him and a smile for his mother. He remembered the colour on his mother’s cheeks and her embarrassment . . . and the mysterious death of an older brother who must also have been the son of that English lord. This Joseph Hunyadi had found out about it and killed him.
Sandor shivered, whether with fear or delight or with both he scarcely knew. There were times when Joseph Hunyadi looked at him strangely. Did he suspect? If he did . . .
He looked up and waved his mother away as she approached him with a face-cloth.
“Why do you fight?” she asked.
“I like to fight,” he shouted.
She glanced into the next room. “Your father should hear you. Are you hurt?”
“No.” He pulled away from her as she turned his head to the light.
“So here, take the towel and wipe your face,” she said. “Now where’s the messer to cut the bread?”
Sandor cupped his chin in his hand and gazed out into the back yard. Behind him his mother bustled about the kitchen. The baby began to cry. Upstairs two of the boarders were arguing. He stuck his head out of the window to listen. But they were talking Hungarian.
He wished that supper were over so that he could join the gang inside the red fence.
“Sandor.” His mother pointed to the stove. “I want you should take this soup upstairs to Mr. Laszlo.”
For the first time he became aware of the rich odour that filled the kitchen. Beef soup. He caught a fleeting vision of a brimming plateful of it with fine glistening bubbles of fat floating on the surface, with home-made noodles and the steaming fragrance of the vegetables—and meat, real meat that one could sink one’s teeth into. It was more than he could bear.
“I won’t take it,” he shouted. “We eat bologny and Mr. Laszlo eats our soup. And he’s not even paying.”
“You’re not ashamed?” his mother asked. She sighed. “Poor man. To be sick and so far from home.”
“Yeah and we’re not poor,” he jeered. “No, we’re millionaires. We like eatin’ bologny every night for supper. Lookit my clothes. The English kids laugh at me in school. For over a year I been wantin’ to get a bed insteada sleepin’ on those chairs. An’ lookit our house—not even a bedroom, no oilcloth on the floors and not even a icebox or a . . .”
His mother looked at him and nodded in the direction of the front room. He grew silent. It was not her fault. If she had her way the boarders upstairs would have left long ago, or at least started paying for their keep. But she was only a woman. In the end she always gave in to his father.
“Mr. Schwalbe has taken the kartofel salad for the others upstairs awready,” she said. “Now go take the soup.”
“Poor man,” he snorted as he mounted the stairway. What did he have to complain about lying in his bed up there day after day and being waited on hand and foot? If anyone was to be pitied it was the family that was supporting him; and those three friends of his—eating and sleeping up there week after week, not paying a cent, and no one in the house daring to say a word because of his father who thought more of other people than he did of his own family.
His feet dragged. He would have hated them even if they were paying for their board and room. Mr. Schwalbe, who was paying, was even worse than the rest. They were all foreigners, every one of them, and as though that were not bad enough they were actually proud of their foreign, outlandish ways. Not one of them had yet made a serious effort to learn English.
He opened the door. They even smelled foreign, he thought, as he surveyed the grey sodden underwear and shirts and the coarse yellow socks hanging on the clothesline that had been suspended between the rafters.
His gaze shifted. He watched them silently, his eyes filled with hate. They were sitting in a semicircle on wickerwork trunks around Mr. Laszlo’s cot, in a dim smoke-shrouded tableau, silently intent upon a photograph behind the candle above Mr. Laszlo’s head. The expression on their faces annoyed him. It was as though they were glad and peaceful within themselves and unhappy only outside.
Probably wishing they were still in the old country, he thought, where the sun was always supposed to be brighter, where everyone laughed and sang all day, and where even a crust of bread tasted better. Well, why didn’t they go back there, then? He placed the tray on the table and as he did so he noticed that they had covered the tablecloth with a newspaper.
“Yah, when it’s too late,” he muttered. Two days ago they had spilled coffee all over it. He noticed that the newspaper was a foreign one and stared at it resentfully. It was German. All he could read was the date—May 17, 1913. It reminded him, for the fourth or fifth time that day, that tomorrow was Saturday. And two days later it would be Monday, he thought. That’s the kind of a world it was.
As he walked back he looked into the private cubicle of Mr. Schwalbe who was sitting there writing a letter. His red moonface glistened with sweat, his paunch rose and fell. The last time he had come waddling downstairs to pay for his room and board, he had unerringly and for the second month in a row chosen the only hour of the day when Frau Hunyadi was out of the house and Herr Hunyadi was alone in the front room. What happened then was almost beyond belief. Sitting at the kitchen table doing his homework, Sandor had overheard every word that had passed between them.
His father could truthfully say that he had not refused the money, but he had inquired with such solicitude and at such length into the state of Mr. Schwalbe’s finances that the boarder, after a whining recital of his outstanding debts, had simply pocketed his money and gone upstairs whistling. That Sandor on the following evening had had to stand and humiliate himself in front of Mr. Letzman, the grocer, for a few cents’ worth of ground meat—that, evidently, meant nothing to his father.
How could he be like that, Sandor wondered.
Some of the things he had done were almost unbelievable, like the time he had gone into partnership with Schwalbe and a friend of his who claimed to be a jeweller. What happened then was still not clear, but Schwalbe and this other man had taken his father to court and when the lawyers were through, Schwalbe had the shop, the money, and what was more important, his father’s watch-repairing tools. Without these he had been unable to return to his own trade and had had to take a job as a janitor.
And then one fine day who should return but Mr. Schwalbe to weep on the Hunyadi doorstep and beat his breast with a long tale of woe? He had remained there until the master of the house not only forgave him, but fed him too, for the next six months.
Sandor shook his head in sorrow and bewilderment. Then his lips tightened. They had seen him.
“Here’s Mr. Laszlo’s supper,” he said in German. “And don’t forget it’s only for Mr. Laszlo—so don’t the rest of you go and gobble it up.”
He ran down the stairs and into the kitchen. His parents were waiting. He sat down and began to eat, not raising his head until he became aware toward the end of the meal that they were talking about him. He could tell by the way they avoided his eyes.
They were speaking Hungarian, of which he remembered scarcely enough to ask for a crust of bread. When they had arrived in Winnipeg it was to find that for every Hungarian there were twenty Austrians or Germans, so that over the years the Hungarian language was heard less and less at home and German, the second language in their mothercountry, more and more. English began to alternate with German when Sandor was present; and it was only on rare occasions now, or when they had something to keep from him, that they spoke Hungarian.
As he sipped his coffee, he smiled to himself at the ease with which he had nevertheless assessed the subject and the overtones of their conversation. He was scarcely surprised when his mother turned to him and inquired whether he would like to go out with his father. “He is going to call on Mr. Nagy,” she said, “and then he is going back to work. He thinks maybe you would like to help him.”
Sandor lowered his head. It was not help his father wanted. This was just his way of trying to make amends for the beating.
But Mr. Nagy was the only Hungarian he knew who was an office man. To see him was one of the great and rare pleasures of Sandor’s life. And the things he might hear in the building where his father worked—in the barber shop, in the billiard room, and the steam bath—intriguing, forbidden things, the mere prospect of which sent a shiver of delight through him. It was an unusual concession on his father’s part to suggest that he might enter there. It was also very clever of him. The temptation was strong, but he struggled against it.
“I’ve still got my homework to do,” he said.
It was an irreproachable reason for not going. Anything to do with learning was sacred in his father’s eyes. That his father was probably reflecting at this very moment upon the fact that Sandor never did his homework on Friday night merely added piquancy to the situation.
That’ll learn him how I feel when I get a licking for nothing, he thought. He raised his head. His elation collapsed at the weary look of resignation on his father’s face.
“I can do my homework later,” he said. “I got the whole week-end.” His father had already risen. Sandor jumped to his feet. “Honest to God, Pa, I can do it later.”
“So hurry awready,” his mother exclaimed. “What are you waiting for? Go and get your father his cap.”
She sighed as she wiped his face on her apron.
Sandor ran to the front room, found the cap and handed it to his father who was waiting for him at the do...
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