Immigration usually involves a change of language and an adjustment to a largely foreign culture. The writers mentioned in this post, however, did not have to change a language, and had to undergo only a relatively mild culture shock when they immigrated to Hungary. Our immigrant writers are ethnic Hungarians who moved to Hungary from neighboring countries, mostly from Romania, but also from the former Yugoslavia.
Ever since Transylvania was annexed to Romania after World War I, the status of Transylvanian Hungarian writers has been special in Hungarian literature, with many Hungarians within post-Trianon borders looking at Transylvanians as guardians of ‘true Hungarianness.’ Up to 1989―the end of the Ceauşescu era― the expectation towards them was often comparable to that of Westerners vis-à-vis Eastern European writers: that their works should reflect their traumatic historical experience―in the case of Transylvanian writers, the trauma of being threatened in their ethnic identity in a hostile majority culture.
This situation slightly changed for those Transylvanian writers who left Romania and immigrated to Hungary―some in their forties as mature writers, harassed by the authorities in the Ceauşescu era, others as teenagers or young adults who arrived in the large wave of immigration around 1990. But although many of them are seamlessly integrated into the Hungarian canon, their Transylvanian origin has continued to play an important part in their identity, which manifests in their chosen topics as well as in their sensibility. As Andrea Tompa said in an interview: “I envy those writers of Transylvanian origin who managed to quit writing about Transylvania. Right now, however, I am not interested in anything else, though this may change in the future. As a writer, I am lucky to have the attitude of a native and a stranger at the same time: I am both an insider and an onlooker. In Transylvania, I am regarded as someone from Hungary, which creates a certain tension. My students at the university [in Cluj/Kolozsvár] are not sure how to relate to a lecturer who is originally from Transylvania but now lives in Hungary and returns to teach them: is she Transylvanian or someone from Hungary? In Hungary, I am still regarded as Transylvanian, but it has also happened… that I was called a Romanian by a reader who wrote me: ‘nobody forces you to live in our country.’ I think I would be much better understood, here as well as there, if I had a less complicated identity.” The incident that prompted Tompa’s reader to call her a Romanian was Tompa’s declaration that she would give the sum of her Márai Prize to a charitable purpose, as an act of protest against the cultural and social policy of the government. Tompa was awarded the Márai Prize, a major state award, in 2015 for Top to Tail, the story of two Transylvanian medical doctors. Starting a few years before World War I, the novel describes how the trauma of Trianon affected Transylvanian society, and shows the complexities of life in post-Trianon Kolozsvár/Cluj.
A transfigured Carpathian landscape dominates the works of Ádám Bodor, a major author whose Sinistra Zone was recently published in English. Bodor’s short stories and novels report about an elusive and overwhelming world, and often take place in border regions or the peripheries―as Bodor said in an interview, the great questions of human existence are easier to contemplate in such circumstances.
Bodor was imprisoned for two years as a 16-year-old boy for distributing leaflets calling for the overthrow of the regime. He talked about his prison years in a long interview (published in book form as The Smell of Prison) with another Transylvanian from Cluj living in Budapest, poet Zsófia Balla, who had also been under constant surveillance by the Securitate before she emigrated to Hungary. Balla’s well-crafted, richly metaphoric poetry is laden with images of loss, absence, and the sense of constantly hovering between two worlds.
As opposed to Balla, whose public appearances are few and far between, another major Transylvanian poet, Géza Szőcs, served as Secretary of State for Culture under Viktor Orbán from 2010 and 2012, and has remained an advisor to the prime minister in matters of cultural strategy. An excellent poet with a radical experimental vein and a prominent dissident who was tortured by the Securitate in Ceauşescu’s Romania, Szőcs is highly controversial as a political figure.
Two writers who left Romania in their teens before the regime change have achieved international acclaim. Attila Bartis’s Tranquility is a claustrophobic and powerful novel about an aging actress who torments her son, with the backdrop of a dictatorial regime falling apart.
György Dragomán’s widely hailed The White King, a parable of dictatorship narrated by a young boy, has been translated into almost thirty languages. In an essay entitled “From A to B” (see here in Hungarian) Dragomán gives a gripping and lucid account of the internal process of separating from the homeland and becoming an emigrant. He records the process of alienation: as he walks in the streets cataloging every detail, trying to learn his hometown by heart, his gaze gradually turns cold, precise, and cruel. For Dragomán, this process coincides with becoming a writer: the reality surrounding him in his old world is transformed into sharp, intensive images that he can get rid of only by writing them down.
Dragomán is married to poet Anna T. Szabó, who also came to Hungary from Cluj as a teenager. Some of Szabó’s poems have been published in English in an anthology edited by George Szirtes, with an excerpt from one featuring in the London underground.
Ceauşescu’s Romania was far poorer and much more oppressive than Hungary in the Kádár era. Tito’s Yugoslavia, however, was a colorful, lively and free country when compared to other countries in the Eastern bloc. The situation of the Hungarian minority within Yugoslavia was special as well―in their case, the peripheral status meant an increased freedom rather than provincialism.
There was a legendary journal published in Vojvodina from the mid-60s up to 1992, which had a seminal influence not only among Hungarian intellectuals in Serbia but within Hungary as well. A journal with a wide intellectual horizon, original vision and openness to experimentation, New Symposion reflected the unique spirit of ethnic Hungarians in Yugoslavia. When the Balkan Wars swept the journal away, its former editors founded Ex Symposion in Veszprém, Hungary. Some of the writers involved in New Symposion moved to Hungary, including Nándor Gion, a major novelist; János Sziveri, a poet of great visionary force who died at the painfully young age of 36; Attila Balázs; Ottó Fenyvesi; and Péter Bozsik. Others, like László Végel or Ottó Tolnai, are permanently on the road between the two countries.
A few weeks ago, Hungary was guest of honor at the Göteborg Book Fair. It was far from an untroubled event for Hungarian writers as they were continually taken to task for the Hungarian government’s treatment of migrants. Among the Hungarian programs, there was a performance by Katalin Ladik, a poet and performer who was involved with New Symposion from the beginnings―one of those who are continually on the road: she divides her time between Novi Sad, Budapest and the Croatian island of Hvar. Ladik stretched a wire fence between two microphone stands, and placed a sign on it saying ’Transit Zoon’―an expression carrying overtones of both ’zone’ and ’zoo.’ Then she kept metamorphosing into various animals and back into a human being, with an enlarged version of a Yugoslav passport on her chest and on her back. A meditation on the liminal existence of migrants, Ladik’s performance seems like an apt way to enhance our sensitivity to all those for whom home is a concept that cannot be taken for granted.