Picking my way along the street in central Pest where Pál Závada lives I could barely hear myself think for the noise of diggers, pneumatic drills and the cheery banter of the workmen, who had been charged with the task of improving the road by temporarily transforming it into an obstacle course for hapless pedestrians. Hardly a haven of tranquillity! How would it be possible to gather thoughts about literature, how, indeed, would it be possible to conjure up the kind of rural calm characteristic of the main scene of the action in the novel Jadviga's Pillow (Jadviga párnája), which has gone into its umpteenth reprint and been translated into another medium on the cinema screen by the director Krisztina Deák above all this racket?
My fears were allayed when I entered the stairwell leading up to his spacious flat. Even this level of noise barely penetrated. Závada greeted me with a warm smile, immediately asking if I would like some coffee. I was only too happy to accept his kind offer, scanning the bookshelves, which lined the living room walls (pride of place given to his desk and computer by the window). Every important work of Hungarian literature was represented there, along with works of literary criticism and sociological study. This modest man was quite obviously highly cultured as well as fiercely intelligent.
More than a love triangle
Jadviga's Pillow follows the life of a Slovak minority family, the Osztatnís, from the turn of the century to the 1950s in the form of a diary with entries by the two main protagonists, Ondris and his wife, Jadviga, as well as comments inserted by their son. The first of the major characters to appear is the figure of the father, who built up the material prosperity of his family and encouraged an interest in culture. He and his son, Ondris, travel widely abroad, they speak several languages and are eager readers.
On one of these journeys, Ondris meets Jadviga, who was brought up by his father, and falls in love with her. Once married, Jadviga proves reluctant to consummate the union, and it gradually emerges that she is the lover of one of Ondris's friends in a relationship that began prior to her first meeting with her future husband. Jadviga's ruthless pursuit of her own pleasure drives Ondris to drink and an early death. Of Ondris's two sons, one is killed during the Second World War, whilst the other lives a solitary life under the Communist dictatorship. Both his emotional and intellectual development is stunted to say the least.
There is far more to the novel than the surface plot of a fairly standard love triangle would suggest. What is special about it is to be found in the underlying themes, such as identity and the break-up of the Dual Monarchy and the style in which it is written. To my mind, Závada is a new Mikszáth or Móricz, fusing realism with passages of lyrical beauty and skilfully blending classical forms with post-modern reflectiveness. Full of authentic detail about village life, customs and the peculiar mixture of Hungarian and Slovak spoken in such a community, it is both a linguistic delight and a breath of fresh air on a scene where cleverness often substitutes for substance.
Sipping my strong brew of caffeine, I asked a series of questions intended to provoke. Although I succeeded in doing so, I always felt completely at ease with Závada, who conveyed warmth and sincerity as he set out his views on Hungarian literature and life.
CER: Your book deals with a number of universal themes, such as love, betrayal and deceit within relationships as well as self-destructiveness, yet it has not received the attention it deserves in the West, dubbed as "too Hungarian" in its preoccupations. Would you say this is a valid point to make? Has the novel been translated into other languages?
Pál Závada (PZ): An audience in Western Europe... On the one hand, the book has not yet reached a Western European audience, because the German translation is in the process of being completed. The Vulkan publishing house has promised that the German version will be ready by spring. I hope that once the German version has appeared perhaps other Western European publishing houses will sit up and take notice and it might even be possible for the English translation to be completed if publishers show sufficient interest.
Judit Szőlőssi has already begun to translate the book. Interest has also been shown by Italian translators. Thus far, the book has appeared in Slovak translation published by Kalligramm in Bratislava. It was finished last year and the translation is excellent. As to the extent to which the theme dealt with could be of interest to readers in Western Europe: I reckon that it is just like any other literary creation from Western or Eastern Europe or even from any other exotic literary landscape.
I believe that if I am able to understand an African novel, an Indian or a South American one, then surely I am entitled to believe that an interested reader—provided he is able to lay hands on a decent translation of the book—will be able to understand it regardless of the subject matter, the setting, the background of historical events, and I have every confidence that he will maybe even be capable of enjoying it as well. Of course, the book probes into eternal issues, as literature has done for several thousand years, and it revolves around the themes, issues and problems of life, which you mention in your question to a great extent.
As far as the form, theme and plot development are concerned, though what I am about to say pertains primarily to linguistic style, use of language in other words, everyone endeavours to create something unique, something peculiarly their own, something different from all that has gone before, they try to discover their own tools of expression, their own literary language.
My experience thus far has been that the Hungarian reading public appreciates these efforts, or understands them, or is able to follow them, or that they correspond to some kind of expectation on the part of readers. Naturally these elements of the reception given to a book cannot be translated in identical form if one were to imagine the novel's fate in another linguistic environment, on the one hand for the obvious reason that we are not talking about the same book, since a work translated into a foreign language is still another work, and on the other hand because understanding and giving a reception to contemporary literature takes place within a social context. It has a common language in which what is deemed worthy of emphasis will obviously vary and one cannot obviously rely on the book being given the same kind of reception.
At times like this, it is usually said that the experience ends up as a disappointment. There are also examples of the opposite being the case, however, with Sándor Márai's The Candles Burn Down to the Stumps, which has proven far more popular amongst Italian readers and now amongst German readers than it is at home.
CER: To my mind, Jadviga's Pillow represents a breath of fresh air on a staid literary scene where the likes of Péter Esterházy and, to a lesser extent, Péter Nádas parade their knowledge in public to the delight of literary snobs. Your book clearly occupies a place in "literature," whilst appealing to a wider audience.
How do you think you achieved this? Was the audience crossover a conscious aim on your part? Do you think that the divide so often posited between the commercial and the worthwhile, between art and pulp fiction has any true foundation in reality? The novel is written in a more traditional narrative style than is usual within literature these days, proving that the term "traditional" does not necessarily have to be pejorative. Do you think this will spark off a more general return to classical style?
PZ: Dear Mr Kosztolányi, I am delighted that we now have an opportunity to enter into a debate because I completely disagree with you on the subject of staid, fashionable writers like Esterházy and perhaps a little like Nádas as well, who parade their knowledge to the delight of literary snobs.
It is possible to refute these claims immediately by pointing out that both of these authors are extremely popular, in other words, they do not merely embody the pinnacle of contemporary Hungarian literary achievement from the point of view of sales figures as well; and the argument concerning high sales figures does not just apply to their major books of the recent past, such as The Book of Memories in the case of Nádas or An Introduction to Literature in the case of Esterházy, but is also true of Esterházy's new novel, Harmonia Caelestis, which has, in the course of a few weeks, sold almost as many copies as my novel has in three years.
What you allege is simply not true, and if one takes into account other factors, including the factors of importance to the reader and which have a role to play in the creation of a literary work and in rendering it enjoyable, then one will realise that there is far more to these two authors than the vastly important pioneering role that they played. Here their concern was with the poetic instruments available themselves, which in the 1960s meant employing an extremely stale and vapid set of narrative forms. They demolished these forms, but did far more than just creating something afresh.
Instead, they developed these tools, and with them at their fingertips went on to use them not just in order to fulfil the function assigned to modern literature, but to fulfil its eternal function as well, to create works, which dealt with general human issues, to tell specific stories in such a way that these tales would represent a literary experience, an experience for the reader, that the tales would induce a catharsis for the reader, to make the opportunity for this catharsis occur.
Now if someone merely wishes to sparkle and to shine for the sake of showing off, then I would not feel any kind of catharsis, yet I too am a reader and these two authors have provoked many a catharsis in me with many of their writings. From this it also becomes apparent that I have never felt that I in some manner wanted to place myself in opposition to this kind of literary ideal, the type of ideal which belongs to Esterházy or Nádas— thank goodness the two are far from identical, their respective styles are quite strikingly different.
You may also conclude from this that I never drew any distinctions when I read these two authors and reacted to their works, that would have prompted me to say that I should not write the way they do because that would be tantamount to putting a wall of between myself and the reader and that I therefore deliberately strive both towards availing myself of certain instruments, which might render my novel more popularistic and might make it easier to meet with a warm reception and towards rejecting, eliminating, or refusing to countenance the use of instruments, which I might otherwise be only too happy to use because they would be very useful in reflecting my personal literary tastes or appeal to me in some other way, that I might consciously refrain from using them because they might encumber the reception given to my writings and, for example, reduce the size of the print run.
Such considerations never entered my mind. Quite the opposite in my case: if I wish to put it in a striking, yet personal way, then I confess that I did not even think about the readers at all. I was not willing to imagine any kind of reader whatsoever, someone sitting there, and to think about whether he would like it or not like it as the case may be, whether he would enjoy it or not, whether he would understand it or not, about whether he would get annoyed, what he would reckon to be a superfluous, empty exercise in playing about, nor did I occupy myself with the question of how he would devour the story he so greedily craved.
The story as a human appetite is something which soap operas, TV and films satisfy these days. Of course, this appetite exists within us as humans. Such an appetite exists within a wide circle of readers and viewers, who are hungry for stories, but it is better for the unreflective, "what happened to X at Y's"-type story to remain the preserve of the TV genre.
Literature after all deals with something else, and if literature, that is the more demanding forms of literature, is able to satisfy the appetite for stories then it does so provided it satisfies higher considerations as well, provided it has aspirations—whether they are hopes linked to literary language or any sort of political purpose—of being able to create something more than simply telling the story in an animated way.
I wrote for myself
Listening to your questions, there really is a gulf separating bestseller, commercial fiction and valuable literature, art and pulp fiction, but I did not aspire to bridge the gap between them and attempt to employ methods which might also prove useful commercially, no matter how I approach the concept, and to build a bridgehead not just on the valuable literature side of the divide... well, I don't know... I am not even aware of the type of commercial literature or pulp fiction I could have learnt any lessons from at all.
I did not, let me reiterate, sit down with a preconceived plan to the effect that I would use both more traditional tools and return to a more graphic narrative style, as you put it. That was not the reason why I wrote the book the way I did.
The real reason was that I tried to achieve a return to every instrument, form and stylistic element, such as, for example, the type of post-modern point of view whereby a person cites another, makes references, reaches back into the past and creates traditions for himself, and which include the type of instruments employed primarily—at least from my point of view—by the classical exponents of Hungarian literature, from the end of the 19th century or even earlier, or the early writers of memoirs, 19th century novelists from the turn of the century, such as Krúdy, Mikszáth, Móricz, Kosztolányi and others alongside those instruments used in the works of my contemporaries as well, which I am more than happy to regard as part of the traditional pantheon for these purposes, and which all represent traditions that to my mind are an integral part of the way in which we write and read.
At such times, one does not think of the putative reader, but of oneself, of the kind of novel one enjoys reading or would like to see, at least this is how I was, I wrote for myself. I wrote as long as it pleased me to do so. And naturally I discovered instruments in my own work, in the course of carrying out my own work to be more accurate, which others amongst my colleagues might use more rarely in a given case, or might use less frequently, but in my opinion, my contemporaries also have recourse to these techniques more often that your question suggests.
From love story to national consciousness
CER: One of the themes of the novel is the break-up of the Monarchy and the emergence of a distinct Slovak national consciousness. The main protagonist, Ondris, does not take this too seriously, as he is equally at home in both languages and cultures. Pursuing identity for political reasons leads to rifts, splits and antagonism within the community. Are parallels with today's situation intended? Is the politicisation of identity one of the main problems within the Central European experience? Do you believe that there is hope of overcoming identity-based tensions? Do you believe that EU membership is a step in the right direction, as it abolishes frontiers and the territorial mentality? What constitutes "Hungarianness"?
PZ: Lurking in the background behind the family chronicle and the love story, there really is a historical novel, which actually takes place at the time of the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the national minorities, including the Slovaks, sought a separate identity. This novel is set in the part of Hungary inhabited by the Slovaks. The Slovaks also tried to tread paths towards nurturing and developing their national consciousness.
These endeavours originated partly in the awareness of enlightened Slovak intellectuals, guided by ideological and political concerns and, although social tensions and dissatisfactions, perhaps even national frustrations, also existed, they were, as far as I can make out, weaker than the political aspirations attached to the ideal of the political nation state, the crystallisation of a Slovak national identity and to a Slovak state, all of which made a slight contribution towards these national minority-inhabited provinces beginning to be "fired up" from above both during and after the First World War. The ensuing political changes put an end to them.
Now at such times when some sort of national awareness or national identity is being sought, as was evidently the case then, there is a certain amount of crossover with today's situation, in that the parties involved were at a loss as to the form the national awareness was to assume and as to whether tending to culture was to be the order of the day, or whether tending to the language, preventing the language from wasting away was to be the primary focus, or whether it was to be schooling, promoting the development of a social stratum of intellectuals or what kind of area should be concentrated on.
Of course, they immediately reach a stage where this demonstrates or implies a narrowing of the horizons in terms of social and political thought processes, given that the aim would be that of regional autonomy, in other words regional secession and subsequent territorial accession to some sort of Slovak state, which is completely absurd and slightly comical in this instance, where these regions and provinces inhabited by national minorities are geographically far removed from the Slovak lands to the North, since we are talking about Southern Hungary, and all the more so since the new state had not yet been formed in the Slovak province.
We are also aware that Czechoslovakia came into being during the First World War—and it once again represents a twist of fate that the Slovaks were lumped together with the Czechs—that the Slovak national awareness had to cope with a new frustration, in so far as they shared a common state with the Czechs. In a certain sense, the Slovak national consciousness evidently experienced this as being assigned a subordinate role in relation to the Czech national consciousness.
These are all frustrations that give rise to the kind of problems, begging the question as to whether everything that happened in connection with this whole set of issues throughout the 20th century was not just a narrow-minded psychosis, that the entire question was completely misunderstood and wrongly grasped, or that the solutions sought to it and unfortunately also put into practice in the course of the 20th century were catastrophic. That instead of somehow being resolved, the opposite would be achieved.
Instead of nations and national minorities cohabiting peacefully and not bothering about frontiers, instead of cultural diversity and the fruitful influence on each other's languages and cultures being recognised and everything else, which could have a positive impact on the economy and human cohabitation being encouraged, the reality involved sealing communities off, frontiers, arms and antagonisms and ultimately annihilating each other.
This is true not only of the First and Second World Wars, but unfortunately even of the 1990s as well. What is one supposed to think? If someone wants to introduce thoughts of this kind into a work of literature after all, then naturally he will envisage incorporating its less extreme forms so that it is at least tragicomic.
So I strike as ironic a tone as possible when, in the imaginary village of my novel, these slightly ridiculous, conspiratorial-style movements and meetings of the Slovak national minority elite take place as they attempt to seek an identity and in the way these are described. I did this all the more enthusiastically and all the more bravely because I was writing about the national minority, which I originate from, as someone of Slovak extraction, though I am completely Hungarianised and a fully assimilated Hungarian writer.
I really do think, however, that there are parallels and that in our world stories unfold involving similar, though unfortunately far more brutal instruments, so it would be extremely useful for a few lessons to be learned. This is why I deliberately introduced them into my story and this is why I deliberately wrote of these ambitions in satirical fashion, employing the utmost sarcasm in depicting them in my novel.
Of course other questions, such as whether it is possible to transcend the tensions and conflicts caused by identity. Naturally I am not a soothsayer, but I am an optimist, I do cherish hopes. I do not have the faintest idea how and when this serious matter can be resolved, this whole question of nationalism, which has divided entire peoples and cultures, when the 20th century has failed to do so, not to mention this part of the world.
People lost a great deal of hope in the prospect of a solution in the 1990s, so I haven't the foggiest, but I do know what I would like to see. Now I am not going to talk about all the implications EU membership as such has for Hungary.
If we confine ourselves to culture and try to determine whether it will help or hinder us, then I would certainly maintain that I am confident it will help us for the simple reason that a national culture is at its most national, for the sake of argument, that Hungarian culture is at its most Hungarian, when it is at its most European. The more it makes itself known in Europe. The more it can make itself accepted by Europe, and in order to achieve this it must make itself known in Europe.
This by no means implies that if it wishes to make itself known in Europe then it must whittle down its own national peculiarities, that it has to put itself through some kind of process of universalisation. It does not have to remove all traces of colour from its culture, or make it more homogenous to avoid being conspicuous or perhaps to render it easier to accept, or smooth its acceptance in the West. I believe that we should not do this.
From literature to politics...
What we must do is to learn the languages used to transmit this culture, transmit in the metaphorical sense, and to ensure that the values of Hungarian culture should be made available to the West with as few obstacles, in as great quantities and of as high a quality as possible, at least to the same extent as we in Hungary consume the products of the bulk of Western cultures via everything from literature, the fine arts and theatre right through to film.
Which is, of course, easier for us since the behaviour patterns of being receptive, paying attention to, the common stylistic language, the openness to the West have been taking shape over several hundred years here. It is not as if I am trying to boast about this, but the framework does exist and this is certainly true of the Hungarian intellectual elite. I am very confident about this, I cannot mention a single grave danger, which would threaten Hungarian culture if we were to open up the frontiers in every conceivable way and were to become equal members.
I do not perceive Hungarian culture in the same way as certain products of Hungarian agriculture, which are doubtlessly subject to a very serious threat given that the common market puts better quality, cheaper and healthier goods than Hungarian agriculture can produce on offer. Even though that is the case, we still have to open up. Even when I think of agriculture, I believe we must open up, but culture is quite different in nature.
What is Hungarianness? If I were to repeat all that I have said up to now, that would be my idea of Hungarianness. Maybe I could add a statement to the effect that in my opinion, the most Hungarian individual is the one, who pays greatest attention to the non-Hungarian as well. I do not think by any manner of means that Hungarianness implies any kind of special sense of being a chosen people. I do not think that, of itself, Hungarianness is more valuable in any respect than, say, Bulgarianness.
CER: In your opinion, should a work of fiction have a didactic purpose, informing as it entertains? Does a work of art need any purpose beyond itself? Are politics and fiction incompatible these days? Has the transition to democracy deprived literature of one of its important functions (criticising oppressive regimes through biting satire) in Central Europe?
PZ: Are literature and politics incompatible these days? They are compatible "in the extreme." Literature can encompass any kind of subject matter, including the political, and if I could cite but one example and recommend a single book to everyone, then I would choose a novel hot off the press: Lajos Parti Nagy wrote it and the title is "My Hero's Square" [this is a pun on Heroes' Square in Pest]. This is an excellent example of what I mean.
A work of art need not necessarily offer anything other than itself. Let it just offer itself. I am aware that the question is driving at the same as the previous one. About instructing the readers on an idea I believe to be pertinent and entertaining them at the same time. Well, it is possible if you think you want to teach something as well, in other words this is the didactic function you refer to, well, in that case go ahead and teach, why not? It is not prohibited either.
Of course, you have to proceed with caution here because, just sticking with literature for the moment, literature possesses a poetically arranged text—this is even more true of poetry than of prose—it has a special language, which has to be written and read in this poetic context, and from this it follows that this special language is naturally not identical to everyday language. The sentence, the question, the teaching cannot be read in that form, in the same way as it cannot be understood in the way we are accustomed to understanding as part of the ordinary vernacular, since it represents something wrenched out of a literary context.
From all of the preceding it becomes apparent that it is extremely dangerous and that the utmost care has to be taken over the form and manner in which such lessons included for didactic purposes are to be concealed within a text. It is comparable to a school master, because the literary text will throw these lessons out of the window, it will shake them off provided it is not impervious to them anyway, so that they disappear like water off a duck's back, and, by the same analogy, lessons are not thrown out of the window by non-literary texts.
I do not believe that it is possible to include lessons directly in a text, the days of that kind of literature are definitely done. Its fate has been sealed: although it is obvious that the best examples of that genre of expressing teachings with a high didactic content did actually attain a very high level in terms of aesthetics. Nowadays I do not believe there is even the remotest possibility for setting out that kind of lesson, because providing people with some sort of lesson or mobilising them is a matter for other genres, for example politics in the best sense of the word, and not for literature.
At the same time, I would be the last person to prohibit anything, or preclude this from the literary sphere, and that is why I started out by replying that it is possible for a literary text to broach political issues, in fact it is not just possible for a literary text to do so, but a literary text can also make political issues its central focus, such as we see in Parti Nagy's novel. Anything can be the subject of a literary creation. A person is, of course, homo politicus as well as an author, and every now and then wishes, hopes and moods may come to the surface, which prompt the author to broach the political issues that occupy his mind as well.
Having said that, you must read the novel in question. There is no didactic element to it at all. Had Parti Nagy wanted to express his—putting it bluntly—anti-fascist message along the lines we have envisaged here, then he would not have produced a work of literature; and yet the single most important aspect in this novel is that it is literature, a novel, and the fact that he has a lot to teach in the course of the novel, that he expresses a political view, adopts a political stance is secondary to the literary aspect. He couldn't have gone about writing it in any other way, because it would no longer be a literary masterpiece if he had done.
So politics and literature are not incompatible, but on the other hand I would not impose any type of form on literature, whether that of a didactic function, that of fulfilling a task of instructing or informing. All of these concepts, didaxis, enlightenment, Aufklärung-ism all have pejorative overtones, as does the concept of entertainment and the concepts contained within the question itself.
Entertainment is in exactly the same boat as teaching, because if you put pen to paper with the express purpose of providing entertainment—I could accept the idea if we are talking about a writer of cabarets, since it really is his job to write the kind of jokes that people will be guffawing at the following week. Otherwise I do not think the issue arises—it ought to be forbidden for a writer to plan out how he is going to entertain his readers. I believe that if he writes the kind of work he wants to then he will succeed in achieving his plans, and his book will be read with great pleasure.
Now, if a reader reads a book with great pleasure then you can safely say that he is enjoying it. I am sure that enjoyment involves some form of entertainment, because humour is naturally also very important. Put it this way: a bit of humour cannot do any harm, and though it is not compulsory either, the book by Parti Nagy just so happens to be bitingly humorous. Two things in it make you crease up: firstly there are the frenetic gales of laughter and secondly the benumbing and monstrous—in the political sense—character of the book.
Of course, there is plenty of room for humour and if there is humour then we have a good laugh, and if we have a good laugh then we are enjoying ourselves, but the entertainment this involves is always conditional on something else and in the case of literature if something is beautifully written it may also, in some cases, entertain. But I would nevertheless hope that this is a higher form of entertainment than laughter at cabaret jokes.
In my opinion, literature should not be allowed to be as vulnerable to political changes as, say, journalism aimed at drawing up an inventory of the facts, as reportage or as the genre of sociology, which really did lose out in terms of political piquancy with the changeover to democracy. Whilst the "soft dictatorship" lasted of course, both the readers and the writers of these genres felt quite a bit of salacious excitement at trying to lay bare its various machinations in a highly sophisticated manner.
They were even skilfully able to expose them publicly right under the nose of the ageing, ever weakening lion, sometimes with a slight nudge and a wink to those in power, sometimes playing them off against each other - here I am disregarding the tiny handful of individuals, who had not the slightest regard for power and operated autonomously in the "samizdat" of the alternative, underground sphere of publicity [from the Russian: unauthorised, opposition publication].
Seen from the point of view of this type of journalism and expose-style reporting, there can be no doubt that the turn of events came as a cold shower in this genre and along the lines sketched out above: all the manifold sins and crimes of Communism are not as interesting or exciting any longer.
In everything I have been trying to recount up to now, I have been advancing the argument that literature is a whole different ball game: it is not tied dependent on politics. Let me give you an example: many of his analysts kept tabs on Péter Esterházy as a product of the Kádárist system, and it is true that the system gave birth to a language and an intelligentsia, which shared a common consciousness to an extent, and in a certain sense we used this language in our dealings with one another.
It was very ironic, very subtle and did a lot by inference. Its aim was partly to enable us to poke fun at these power relations, partly to help us sidestep them and partly the irony and the humour was intended to allow us not only to transcend and trample underfoot certain rigid structures, but also to gain the upper hand by using this language. Doing so made you feel as if you could soar above these concerns whilst howling with laughter at the petty determinations of power.
These analysts claimed that this daring language of Esterházy's would become unusable after the collapse of Communism, because there would be nothing left for it to formulate itself in opposition to, and that this type of linguistically-centred literature would lose its playfulness, that there was no sleeping lion for it to call "kitty-kitty," and that if there was no reason to fear that the lion might sometimes strike out with its paw, then the whole raison d'etre for it was lost. That the kind of literature he embodied had the carpet pulled out from under its feet with the end of Kádárism. That this loss would lead to a loss of confidence and to certain of its forms losing substance.
In my experience, however, having read Harmonia Caelestis twice and having embarked on my third reading of that novel of his, this author is laughing shrilly at the doubts expressed. To my mind, this is proof that the sceptics are wrong, that the opposite is the case. When certain tools used by writers, literary tools, certain ways of looking at the world and, above all, talent, monumental forms and the aims of literature, which deserve to be accorded greatness, and which meet with success, emerge triumphant, it becomes apparent that they are far too universal and far too valid to be dependent on any single theme.
The Kádár system itself was a theme. Presenting the "soft dictatorship" in, let's say, the Termelési Regény [literally "production novel," a genre invented by the Communists, in which authors wrote about production and working methods to the glorification of labour. Esterházy wrote a novel entitled Termelési Regény, which was a caustic and subversive parody of these dreadful books] is one theme and, returning for a moment to what we were discussing earlier, that anything can become the theme of a work of literature, we can contend that the preceding decades can be made into a theme as much as anything else.
So there is no reason whatsoever for the Kádár system to be eliminated from the potential focus of interest of literature in the future, though at the same time, it is not as if it is at all compulsory either; in fact, I believe that it is feasible to relate to these years and decades without compulsion of any kind and without prejudices, in the same way as it is feasible to deal with any other tangled or historically tricky issue and era. If an author shows an interest in whatever shape or form for the history of his society, of certain of its political movements—well of course he does not have to show such an interest... but the fact that amongst Hungarian writers a large number are interested in this as well.
When analysing some of their stories, they are neither able to nor do they wish to disregard when and how and under what circumstances the stories were played out in or are being played out in or could be conceivable in. In terms of setting, and in the prose itself the stories contained in a fictional novel are not at the mercy of this changeover to democracy. On the one hand, literature represents an exercise in self-reassurance and our literature expresses the self-respect of our own Hungarian contemporary writers, whilst on the other, I think the opposite is true as well, that it also means that we cannot in any way blame the age in which we live for our failures, and we cannot start saying that things are more difficult now...
It is more difficult to write, because even our dear little dictatorship has gone the way of all flesh, it used to provide us with such exquisite entertainment and in goading it, we experienced a lascivious pleasure, which suffused our work, our writings and the pleasure of our readers as well. Now this is all lost and this is why our task is more difficult. Well, this is no excuse, it cannot grant absolution and, quite apart from that I would label it as a half-baked and self-deceptive explanation.
CER: The third main character in the novel is the son, who concludes the narrative. He is a far more straightforward, even more primitive, individual than his parents. Is this merely a matter of coincidence, or does it hint at something deeper, such as the stupefying effects of 40 years of Communist rule?
PZ: Of course the primitiveness of the third son is no coincidence, of course it may be taken as an allusion to the destructive influence of the Communist dictatorship, but that would be a rather gross oversimplification, since the 40-year period of Communist rule also gave people the opportunity to get smart, and for this reason I would be rather fed up if the two were to be linked together so directly, in other words, that it is only possible to go soft in the head under a dictatorship.
Now to give you a more serious reply to your question, of course it has a symbolic dimension. This question may also be linked not just to the son, as the representative of the last generation, but also to his grandfather's generation, as the grandfather's generation moved in European circles, a peasant farmer-bourgeois elite open to Europe with international connections. He was the kind of person, who could move fairly freely throughout Europe, could travel and who was involved in doing business.
Let me say in parentheses that before the First World War, this whole set up was fuelled by the situation in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, whereby it was possible to do very profitable business outside the Empire in more developed regions, such as in Germany for example, by making use of the masses of cheap labour in the Monarchy. The middlemen and others responsible for getting people on the road, who organised the mass emigrations to America were also able to line their pockets.
The father of the book's hero emerged from a social stratum like this. He was certainly ambitious, open and he espoused middle-class values in spite of the fact that he had risen to the bourgeoisie and the bourgeois way of life from the ranks of peasant farmers. His son had far narrower horizons by comparison, let's not get into dissecting the cause of this, whether the love-mania that consumed him, the crises the country found itself in or his own nature predestined him to that way—the author is rarely competent when it comes to explaining and analysing these questions—but it is beyond doubt that, compared with the wider awareness of the world around them of the previous generation, we are confronted here with narrower horizons, narrower practice and approach to the business of farming, which subsequently falls apart relatively quickly.
This generation is, however, at least intellectually and emotionally fairly agile. This should not be taken at face value, as I pointed out earlier on, since we are dealing with the fictitious setting of a fictitious novel. Although it could be analysed from a sociological point of view, that would be an exercise in futility since it nevertheless remains a poetic work and a game.
It is also beyond doubt that a conscious decision lies in the choice of a solitary figure, who is primitive, narrow-minded, who functions in an impaired way even linguistically, who has no real relations of any substance when compared to his ancestors to represent the last stage of his family. It was no accident that a generation such as the one to which Ondris Osztatní belonged, which flailed around in such a nuanced, such a refined and, in a certain sense, decadent value system, world of ideas and feelings, all doomed to pass into oblivion, should be represented by him.
He does not, as a matter of fact, have a life of his own. Instead, his private life consists of reading about the private lives of his parents. Although he is not mentally retarded in any strict clinical sense, he functions with the restricted consciousness of the solitary half-wit. I would not contend, however, that it would have been impossible for this novel to have another representative of the third generation instead of a half-wit stupefied by the dictatorship: it is a matter of the author making a choice.
It would have been equally possible to have told the story just as validly if the third generation had been represented by an individual able to see through something triumphantly, or at the very least to rise above certain problems or questions that had not been addressed thus far because such individuals also existed. In other words, there was no compulsion to select this type of figure.
CER: The book has a very authentic flavour to it, transporting us both in time and in space to a distinctly rural setting, and stimulating feelings of nostalgia, yet you live and write in Pest, a setting, which could hardly be further removed from that of the novel.
Were you able to draw on your own experience in order to paint such a convincing picture? How did you go about researching for the novel? How much of an autobiographical element is there in the book? Why did you choose the period concerned? Was it in order to be able to confront themes such as the loss of Empire with the benefit of today's historical distance?
PZ: Answering this question is fairly easy! I was born in a village in Békés County, Tótkomlós, which bears a striking resemblance to the village I have appear—unnamed—in the novel.
I projected the story into the past of this village, a past with which I am obviously not familiar because I was not alive during the First World War or at the turn of the century, but the fact that I know the locality of today, the locality of my childhood and that I know the people, with whom I chatted a great deal and that, like any self-respecting local patriot, I got to know the local history, the source material and every piece of available written information gave me the impudence to take on the task of attempting to work my way back, to reconstruct a provincial world, which precedes that of my own by 80 or 100 years or so.
Naturally, in order to achieve this I had a number of sources at my disposal. I really did do research, I really did collect and read, partly employing the methods of a historian, partly using sociological methods, or sociographical methods, since I carried out interviews, collected private diaries, writings and photographs.
In the days when I was still a sociograph by profession—I spent the 1980s writing sociographical studies, one of which was about the village, Kulákprés [literally "kulak press," the type of press used for crushing grapes and extracting wine and, metaphorically, since the kulaks were despised by the regime as enemies of the people, is redolent of the attempt to oppress them and deprive them of their "undeserved" prosperity], dealing primarily, as the title suggests, with the way the peasant farmers were subjected to political heat, though it does look at other issues as well—I concentrated partly on sketching out social history between the two World Wars and partly on the history of my own family from a certain vantage point. As could be gathered and traced back from the documents and letters.
Thirdly, it is a local history, a village history; fourthly it is the history of a section of the Hungarian agricultural world although it does, to an extent, paint a generalised picture. Compiling information for all this work helped me a great deal in laying the groundwork for my later novel, a great deal was already at my disposal from the outset, including all those sources, which enabled me to depict this rural setting, this village and, in a wider sense, this region, which provides the backdrop to the story, including its towns, villages, fields and everything else, the local history and the personages that moved around in it.
Of course, what we have here includes a large number of references to various kinds of running an agricultural household, of livestock keeping and all sorts of activities and work carried out by the people here. On such occasions, one attempts to transform these matters into one's political instrument once they form part of a literary text, but its original purpose was not to serve the interests of providing ethnographical insights, although it could be understood as an effort at so doing.
At any rate, I was greatly helped in the business of sketching out this world by the information I had compiled and it was also helpful in making the story tangible, to allow readers to enter into it fully and to provide a vivid world of the past suitable for subsequently placing a completely fictitious, imaginary story in.
Because the family story at the forefront of the novel is completely fictional in every respect, although there are of course a number of threads linking it to real events in local history, such as the search for a way forward amongst the Slovak intellectuals, with the main protagonist's involvement in it linking it up to the main plot as well, but, as I say, it remains an imaginary family story, modern though it is in a certain sense. It is the kind of story that could take place at any time, even today. It could also be looked upon as a life story, which—if we want to examine the book from that angle—unfolds in the shape of the love drama.
From paper to screen
CER: What were the specific challenges of collaborating on a screenplay based on the novel? How do the two art forms differ? Did you attend the shooting of the film? Did you give any tips to the actors as to how they should reflect the characters? Did you go to see the film in the cinema? What did you feel as you watched the story unfold on the screen? Are you satisfied with the final results?
PZ: When I was writing the film script, my real challenge was in figuring out how to write a film script in the first place, because I had never written one before and I would never have undertaken to do so alone. When the director, Krisztina Deák, convinced me that if I were to give my consent she could try to make a film out of this novel, or out of the experience induced by reading this novel, that she could try to write a film, imagine a film and subsequently proceed to shooting it, I was curious about the kind of film she wanted and I gave my permission.
I wanted to know what she was thinking, what she envisaged and plagued her with questions until she was in a position to tell me roughly what the contents of the film were to be, until she was able to detail the scenes and I was able to understand what kind of a film it was that she imagined. Then I accepted her vision as director and endeavoured to do justice to her ideas. I did not, therefore, write for myself. I would neither be able to nor would I wish to write a film script on the basis of this novel for myself, or rather I would never be able to decide, which of the many possible scripts I should plump for and actually set down in writing.
A director's decision was required; a director had to decide what kind of film should be shot. From this it follows that there is no direct crossover between the two branches of artistic production, that the one is not a reflection of the other, that adaptation as such is strictly speaking impossible, that if we are dealing with another branch of art or another genre the most we can hope to achieve is to make use of the experience provoked in the recipient, whether that be a reader or a cinema goer, as a source of inspiration for the other work, which may be imagined differently, and may be formulated in different language and with different tools.
This is the case in relation to our film as well. Which does not mean that I do not think the film has anything to do with me, because it does, but it only has anything to do with me to the extent that I was able to contribute something to the creation of an entirely new work. I joined in with the project in a similar way to the others, who contributed with their work in their professional capacity as cameramen, production designers and costume designers, not to mention the actors; because everyone made a contribution, doing their bit for the final product.
I took part in the shooting of the film. I wasn't present at the shooting of every scene, at the beginning I was fairly timid because I was afraid of getting in the way, because as the saying goes "the only good author is a dead author." Questions kept on cropping up, though: I was called upon to attend and I had to give tips every now and then. Not to the actors first and foremost since I would never have had the audacity to go as far as to, say, interfere in the direction of the actors, but I did have conversations with the actors.
If they had any questions at all we would chat, during which I would always try to explore fully to what extent the text I had written was appropriate, whether it was fully in keeping with the characters they portrayed. If they had any wishes at all, I was the first to respond and change the text and there were actors, who were quite insistent that I should be there, such as Mari Csomós, for example, who played the mother, or Dzsokorosics, an actor of Serb extraction, but who has played in Hungarian films on many occasions—though he had never yet done so in his own voice, he had always been dubbed before—now he was playing the part of an old peasant farm hand of Slovak origin, who spoke Hungarian badly.
Dzsokorosics was extremely impressive when he used his own voice to speak in his own very broken Hungarian and I had to persuade him, for example, to speak Hungarian in this film, as well as to speak Slovak, to mix up the two languages and to speak this mishmash brokenly in such a way that he speaks Hungarian badly and doesn't really speak Slovak, but he succeeded in learning how to do this. This was an example of the type of occasion on which we talked. I would record on tape for him how I reckoned he ought to be speaking, something like that.
Of course I watched the film, not just in the cinema, but whilst it was in the making as well, throughout the various stages of its preparation, and no major surprises awaited me when I saw it on the big screen, since I had also taken part in the process of making it. If I wanted to strike a cynical note I could say that the reason I took part in the process of making it was so that I would not be confronted with what I would see all of a sudden and so that I would not accidentally fall out of my chair. I might do so because I was pleasantly surprised, not just because I was unpleasantly surprised!
I like the film, it is close to my heart and, given that I am so closely involved in it, I cannot judge objectively what it is worth, but I do like it though and I can say that certain of its scenes have a very pronounced effect on me every single time I see it, which is why I think it is perhaps not a film without value or one that is not capable of having an effect.
CER: Has the phenomenal success of the book changed your life in any way?
PZ: Thankfully, the book's success has not changed my life in any way. I would actually be frightened if its success had in any way altered my daily routine on the one hand and my ideas concerning my life on the other. I would not like that and I would consider it dangerous. However, it has influenced my life to the extent that I receive more invitations to attend author-reader gatherings than was the case in the past. I am only too happy to attend them.
During Book Week [a festival that takes place annually in Hungary] for example, I had a very busy programme. I have also travelled extensively throughout the country, visiting libraries, community centres and going to signing sessions in bookshops. I am very happy about them, even if they are occasionally a little tiring. There are no other significant changes in my life caused by the book's success.
Of course, I do not think that there should be such changes or that they ought to be allowed, because things like this are transitory, it is not very healthy for a person to believe that it will always be this way from now on and that what one receives as a gift now and then, in this case such a gift would be the flattering attention of the readers, should become an entitlement in the future. Yes I do have plans, one keeps on writing constantly of course, and constantly hopes that what one scrawls or types into one's computer might at some stage in the future find its place in a book.
At the present juncture, I am busy producing texts. I hope these texts will become part of a novel in the future, but I know I am a long way off getting that far yet and that a lot can happen between now and then, one never knows, which line of his text he will see in a book in a few year's time and which lines—the majority of the lines written—will have been discarded from it by then.
Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 4 September 2000
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