These are episodes, told in the first person, in the life of Djata, an eleven/twelve year old boy living in communist Romania under Ceausescu. It begins with his much-loved father being deported for forced labour on the Danube Canal. Djata believes his father's parting words that he would soon be back and that in the interval he must be the man in the family for his mother, which he touchingly tries to be.
Some of the episodes show up the violence that permeates this society: a sadistic football coach; terrifying teachers; the desperate need to win in socialist competitions and the corruption that goes along with it; a gang of contractors forcing children to work for them and playing a cruel practical joke on Djata; brutal older and stronger boys throwing their weight around; savage gang warfare; fierce struggles in a food-queue.
In between are episodes of Djata and his friends getting up to the sort of things children will get up to: trying to evade punishment for childish misdeeds; Djata falls in love with a class mate; he and a friend get into a secret projecting room where banned films (pornographic in this instance) can be seen.
Three episodes - one of them involving the white king of the title - have a surrealistic and quite spooky quality about them: in these our narrator has an imagination that is, I think, more that of an adult than that of a child.
On the whole the book makes painful reading: for much of the time the small boy, plucky though he often is, lives in fear of anticipated or inflicted violence. And the longing for his father's return is there from the beginning to the graphic end.
The country in which all this takes place is not actually named; but it was the Romanians who sent people for forced labour to the Danube Canal. The names in the story, however, are mostly Hungarian, so it is probably set in Transylvania, where the author grew up before moving to Hungary in 1988. The period will be between the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 and the fall of Ceausescu in 1989. The excellent translation from Hungarian is into American English. The story is told with great effect in a headlong, breathless way, with commas taking the place of full stops and many paragraphs pages long. The book has won many Hungarian literary prizes, and it well deserves them.