Balázs, Zágoni: The Book of Barni. Translated from the Hungarian by Jozefina Komporaly. Cluj (Romania): Koinónia, 2018.
By Jozefina Komporaly
The Book of Barni was first published by Koinónia in 2005 as Barni könyve, bringing together a collection of short stories by practicing father Balázs Zágoni, and written at the request of his real-life son, also called Barni. The book presents a universe viewed through the eyes of four-year-old Barni, reflecting on his day-to-day experiences. For Barni, the world inhabited by grown-ups is simultaneously magical and hard to understand, yet at times it is extraordinarily simple – which is why he takes a number of bold initiatives, such as offering to deal with the family’s finances or going shopping on his own. He has to realize fairly soon, though, that his strategies may not work; after all cash machines do not just dish out notes for everybody, one has to actually have some money in the bank in order for that to happen!
The stories included in the volume shed light on Barni’s life in which aspects familiar to each and every child (such as bedtime routines, going to nursery, learning to ride a bike) are situated side by side to extraordinary adventures (helping dad to pour concrete, taking design decisions, relying on foreign language skills when shopping, etc.). Zooming in on the universe of a preschool-aged child, the book paints a candid portrait of Barni as a boy genuinely aiming to understand what happens in the grown-up world, and at the same time invites adult readers to engage with how children perceive them. In this sense, the book is a reliable guide for adults to the world of children, insofar as it shows the latter’s genuine dilemmas and concerns, and demonstrates the viability of treating young children as equal partners rather than attempting to educate by heavy-handedness or excessive pampering. The Book of Barni shows that children value few things more than being given recognition and being trusted with specific tasks, and that they crave explanations for potentially ambiguous situations, so they do not think that people laugh at them when they are, in fact, laughing with them. Barni is so keen to get involved with whatever his parents happen to be doing that he copies their every move, not realizing at times that he might have done something inappropriate in the process.
Having watched his dad do some DIY, for instance, Barni spares no effort in trying to fill the fine cracks in their living room wall:
– ‘Barni, what on earth have you done? You smeared mud all over the wall!’
– ‘This isn’t mud, Dad, it’s concrete.’
– ‘Well, this is mud, I’m telling you, there’s mud everywhere! You’ll see when it dries that it’s mud.’
– ‘Not mud but concrete. You’ll see when it dries that it’s concrete!’ Barni said, curving his mouth down. ‘Dad, you never play with me, and now I can see that you’ll never work with me either’, he added and burst out with a bitter cry.
Barni’s patience and empathy is seemingly boundless, so he doesn’t give up until he manages to persuade his parents to repaint an old bus, happily naming it Barnibus, and he keeps repeating the rules of the various games until his dad finally gets them and is able to play with him. Ultimately, The Book of Barni shows the success of parent-child negotiations, in which both parties are adjusting to one another at all times. So when on a Saturday morning Barni gets up really early, he wastes no time in waking his parents up using the very same routine they themselves have practiced on him all week long:
– ‘Mum, Dad, wakey-wakey! It’s playtime today!’
– ‘Barni, please let us sleep a little’, Mum whined.
– ‘Barni, be quiet’, Dad mumbled.
– ‘Crikey!’ Barni proclaimed and pulled the duvet off Mum and Dad. ‘Who watches TV late at night, should also be up for play in the morning!’ he said.
– ‘A little later’, Mum whispered.
But Barni had learned his lesson:
‘Mum, we have to get up early because we have loads to do: play with the building blocks and the wooden train set, play in the sand, ride the bike, play ball, and also go on a tram ride and travel up and down the escalators. There’s no time to waste!’