Interview: Hungarian author Gábor Lanczkor

Humanism in crisis

Print edition : July 07, 2017

Gábor Lanczkor (centre) at the launch of the book "Sound Odyssey" at the Hungarian Information and Cultural Centre in Delhi, with Prof. Rita Malhotra (left), one of the translators, and Dr Zoltán Wilhelm (right), the director of the centre. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Hungarian author Gábor Lanczkor on the cultural and political landscape in his country, on history, and what it means to be a poet and writer today in Hungary.

GABOR LANCZKOR was born in 1981 and belongs to a generation of Hungarians who grew into adulthood during the political changes of 1989-90, availing themselves of the opportunities that the new political system and Hungary’s eventual entry to the European Union offered, such as academic scholarships throughout Europe, the freedom to travel abroad (even if in modest circumstances), a new-found personal freedom, changes in lifestyle and personal relationships, and the ability to voice one’s opinion, though he also remains aware of the insecurities of the system today. The changing cultural and political landscapes of Hungary and Europe have facilitated the birth of outstanding works, such as this year’s Oscar-winning short-form documentary, Sing, the 2016 Oscar-winning foreign-language film, Son of Saul, Ildikó Enyedi’s Berlin Biennale award-winning On Body and Soul, Krasznahorkai’s Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming, and recent works in art and culture that have catapulted Hungary to the centre at the international level.

Poetrywala, a Mumbai publishing house, has published his book Sound Odyssey, translated into English by the Indian poets Rita Malhotra, Ashwani Kumar, and Terry Varma. Rita Malhotra and Ashwani Kumar used the English translations of the Hungarian translator Zoltán Lengyel. Jeremy Faro, an American writer and translator, translated Lanczkor’s Goya’s Deaf House (2008) and edited the collection.

This is Lanczkor’s eleventh book: prior to Sound Odyssey, he had published four volumes of poetry, four novels, two children’s books, and his doctoral thesis on ekphrasis, entitled You Can’t Live There, a quotation from John Ashbery’s poem, on the poetic description of works of art by Rainer Maria Rilke and John Ashbery as well as Hungarian poets Lajos Kassák and György Somlyó.

The first part of Sound Odyssey,“Table”, mainly comprises poems which have not yet been published in Hungary in book form, while the second part, “Goya’s Deaf House”, comesfrom an earlier collectionin 2008. The third part is “Sound Odyssey”, and the fourth , “Coins from Amrita” , is made up of Lanczkor’s poems about Amrita Sher-Gil .

In “Coins from Amrita” , some poems speak in the voice of Amrita Sher-Gil, and some in the voices of family members. As Lanczkor noted in his readings at the Ambedkar University in Delhi, at Delhi University, and at the Hungarian Information and Cultural Centre in New Delhi, he sought to write about his sometimes-overwhelming Indian experiences in the voice of Hungarians or Europeans who lived and worked in India. Lanczkor has visited India eight times, after the first one as a tourist in 2002.

In 2016, he was invited to the Long Night of Literature, organised by the Cultural Institutes of the European Union. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

How do you see Hungary’s position within the European Union?

We are a country of just 10 million people, so we don’t really have any political or economic significance. At the moment, I can’t imagine anything better for Europe than this type of union, but, as it’s a democratic community, in tough situations when quick decisions are desired, some disadvantages can clearly be seen.

You were born a few years before the upheavals of 1989. What did it mean for your family?

I was born in 1981, so I experienced the final days and the fall of the soft dictatorship that was János Kádár’s regime as a child. I grew up in Szombathely, a city near the Austrian frontier and I remember well when the border was opened and we could go trekking deeper into the hills there, since the highest point in Transdanubia is just at the Austrian border. Sir Winston Churchill probably thought he was being very witty when he coined the term iron curtain, but for me, to see rusting rolls of barbed wire along forest paths wasn’t funny at all. It was a pure material truth—history without meaning, as I later interpreted it for myself. I think the reserved, distanced way in which I observe politics is rooted in these early experiences.

Your poem “We Proceeded” reflects a specific political attitude that is characteristic of Hungary and Eastern Europe. A sceptical, distanced relationship is expressed in “We Proceeded”, where the contemporary merges with Odysseus’ journey. Another poem, “The Table”, begins with the lines “I cannot be/A humanist.” Humanism has been part of Hungarian culture since the rule of King Matthias in the 15th century, when the first publisher, András Hess’s printing house, came into being, soon after Gutenberg, along with Renaissance palaces, and the libraries themselves, among them the famous Corvina Library.

In the poem, I connect the concept of humanism to Hungary and Europe’s past. There is no doubt that Europe was built on cruel conquest and exploitation of the rest of the world. In that sense, the whole concept of humanism is in crisis.

In the course of your talk in Sahitya Akademi last year, the issue of history came up. How do Hungarians deal with history? What are the dividing lines in Hungarian society?

Yes, it did come up. I have the sense that history in India means something different from what it does in Europe. If you look at architectural styles as imprints of who has been in power, in India you don’t see significant differences between temples built in the 14th and the 18th century—but compare a Gothic and a rococo building. I have the feeling that Europe, and Hungary as part of Europe, have a rash or hasty relationship with their history. The 20th century in my country was an extremely tragic one: the First World War, the Austro-Hungarian empire falling to pieces and the Hungarian kingdom losing more than 60 per cent of its traditional territory.

In the Second World War, we watched the Germans kill half a million Hungarian Jews; the Hungarian state collaborated with the Nazis. Then came the dictatorship, backed by the Red Army. Far too many historical traumas, too many injuries to those who were opposed to the regime, souls who suffered under these regimes; and others who reaped benefits. The dividing lines in our society now look like the sharp edges of a broken mirror.

Last year, László Nemes Jeles’s film “Son of Saul” won an Oscar; the film takes place in Auschwitz. This year, a documentary film, “Sing”, by Kristóf Deák, won an Oscar. The film “About Body and Soul”, directed by Ildikó Enyedi, won first prize at this year’s Berlin Biennale. What role does the Holocaust and Hungary’s participation in the Second World War (when Hungary was an ally of Nazi Germany) play in the Hungarian consciousness? How do you see authoritarianism and its acceptance in the public atmosphere? This is what “Sing” and “About Body and Soul” are about.

I haven’t seen Sing and About Body and Soul yet, so can’t speak about them. I live in a tiny village with my family, so in the last few years, I haven’t been to the cinema at all. I saw Son of Saul on a rare occasion, and it is a memorable film. It had a cathartic effect on me, and I still clearly remember stepping out of the movie theatre after I saw it in Tapolca. This community near Lake Balaton had a sizeable Jewish population, and 98 per cent of those Jews were killed. Their synagogue was turned into a cultural space. I felt the beautiful landscape there also belonged to the Jews.

Some time ago, I saw another short film by the same director, László Nemes Jeles, titled With a Little Patience, which isalso related to the Shoah [the Holocaust]. I liked it very much because of its fine manner and its minimalism. It’s definitely necessary to talk about the Holocaust, but it’s an extremely hard task to do it in an artistic way. Many who have tried, and keep trying, end up with some form of kitsch. Even Imre Kertész considered himself a “Holocaust clown” after receiving the Nobel Prize for his novel Fatelessness. I really like Kertész and found this statement of his to be a courageous one.

Role of poetry

You and your wife, Krisztina Lanczkor-Kocsis, came to India last year on a project called Poetry and Community: Art and Music in Hungarian Literature. What is the role of art and poetry in your lives?

I don’t have a regular job other than writing and my wife is also on maternity leave at home with our younger daughter, who was born last year. Living as we do in a village which is far away from the capital, we have a very atypical life, I would say. We don’t have a television; we only have the Internet in the house. We get one weekly newspaper; that’s it. It’s not compulsory to go crazy in Hungary, not even these days. That’s the role of poetry and music in our life.

In your lecture at the Sahitya Akademi, you spoke about a new seriousness and a new objectivity as defining features of Hungarian poetry. Who are the important new poets?

Yes, I spoke about the labels we receive from critics, just to elucidate our relationship to the previous generation of poets. My favourite young poets are Roland Orcsik, who came to India in October for the Long Night of Literature, Márió Nemes Z., Dénes Krusovszky, Marcell Szabó and Mátyás Sirokai.

The world knows the names and perhaps the work of Hungarian writers, for example, Kertész, Péter Nádas, Péter Esterházy and László Krasznahorkai. Besides them, who are the other important new writers?

János Térey writes great narrative poetry, poems in verse, like Vikram Seth. And I like Árpád Kun’s latest novel a lot. Unfortunately, none of them have been translated into English yet.

Like Péter Esterházy (1950-2016), you speak about being a Catholic, and saints such as Philip St Neri and the Catholic Church figure in your work in an unorthodox way. In an interview you gave, you spoke about yourself as an anarchist Catholic, and in your last novel, “River Goddess”, the priest, Gellei, discovers that he is homosexual and has sex with a hermaphrodite.

From a certain point of view, I worked in quite a naive way as a young poet—one can still be a great poet without reflecting on one’s own status during the writing process. It was after publishing three volumes of poetry that I started to write my first novel, and I suddenly realised that I’d need to recall my religious experiences as fiction.

Of course, this was strongly connected to the subject of the novel, insofar as it tells of a miracle performed by a 17th century Italian saint, San Filippo di Neri. Born Catholic, the only possible way for me to reach the spiritual core of my existence was through my own religious experiences. Though, I must admit, I haven’t practised religion for quite some time. To answer the second half of your question, artists such as the Baroque painter Caravaggio and the 20th century writer-poet-filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, who approached their subject matter from the Christian tradition in a subversive yet faithful way, are very important to me.

Which aspects of Pasolini’s work do you like specifically? Is it his visual imagery, the art embedded in religion?

It’s not embedded. In an ideal case, this relationship should be much more complex, and dynamic in every sense. What do I like the most about Pasolini? The poetry volume The Religion of My Time, his novel Amado Mio, and his films The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Medea, and Oedipus Rex.

Are Hungarians religious on the whole? What was the role of the church after the political upheaval? What do you feel about a possible radical role for the church, a role arising out of liberation theology for instance?

In Hungary, I see no possibility of anything like that happening. The Hungarian Catholic Church is a deeply conservative and retrograde institution. And the majority of those attending Sunday mass I wouldn’t even call religious. For many of them, it’s just an inherited habit or a way to exercise their political opinions.

Indian connection

You have been to India seven times. What brings you back here?

It’s hard to tell. It’s hard to define a relationship based on love.

Apart from an undefinable love, your poetry shows your deep involvement with Hungary’s connection to India. You explored the art of Amrita Sher-Gil in your cycle of poems “Coins from Amrita” and your play, “Malaria”, deals with the life of Alexander Csoma de Kőrös . Did you get to know their work while you were in India? What attracts you to India: the landscape, the plants, the buildings and art, the people? Or is it just Hungary’s connection to the place?

In my writing based on my Indian experiences, my goal was to avoid being “postcard-like”. It’s a trap for Europeans to regard India simply as an “exotic” country, where nature is beautiful and contradictions are so sharp that you can see the poor living their lives on the pavement beneath skyscrapers. I wanted to capture a very different quality of the place. And for that I required mediators: Amrita Sher-Gil, Ervin Baktay, Alexander Csoma de Kőrös, whom I knew back home and with whom I became much closer after my travels in the subcontinent. They were at home not only in India and Hungary, but they managed to build a corridor between the two, which still exists as a space in its own right.

What is the literary establishment like in Hungary? Is it easy for a new poet to publish his or her work? Are there large publishing houses? Are books selling well there?

In Hungary, there are two societies which help young writers and poets. They organise readings for those just starting out, and more importantly, they publish the books of the youngest generation of poets. These volumes are not meant to be bestsellers, but to encourage authors to find their voices. After publishing a successful volume—which is what I would call one that is well-reviewed by critics—the next step is the more difficult one: finding a large publishing house. Cultural life in Hungary is still financed by the state through state institutions, but this support is ever-decreasing, and those publishers who are able to promote and distribute their books widely rely on the market and that means the authors must often make some compromises in order to gain popularity. But I see that our approach functions better than the one in India, where poets depend entirely on private individuals and their networks.

What is the relationship between politics and literature in Hungary now? Is there any direct influence or subordination?

Not where I’m coming from, but in the world of theatre, especially in the countryside, yes. In this sense, the situation has become worse in the past five years.

What is the contact between Hungarian literature and literature in other languages like? Are foreign literatures well known in Hungary?

Until the political transformation of 1989, poetry in translation was a busy and well-paid industry in Hungary, but since the end of the 1980s, that has changed entirely. Following the global trend, most Western poetry collections sell in very small numbers in today’s Hungary, which means many important contemporary poets are not being translated into Hungarian. When it comes to foreign fiction, though, the situation is far better. I might add that in this age of e-books, the youngest generation of Hungarian writers has begun to read in English.

You came to India with your wife and your young daughters. What do art and music mean for children? What is their role in education in Hungary? How important were art and music in the 1980s, when you and your wife, Kriszti, were children?

In those years, we lived within an artificially maintained and isolated world. In every primary school, Hungarian children were taught music according to the Kodály Method; my wife and I now sing the folksongs we learned at that age to our daughters now. It was an odd arrangement, but, in that era, in the 1980s, high culture endorsed by the Hungarian establishment reached the general public. We were the last generation of children who grew up under communism. I see in my cousin, who is 10 years younger than I am, that, among those born after me, culture means something quite different, something that is by nature free, since an artist’s decisions are free, whether they want them to be or not.

How is your village, Balatonhenye, different from other villages? What are Hungarian villages like? Are traditional occupations still alive? What are the property relations like in Hungarian villages?

Our village is set in a picturesque valley near Lake Balaton. Many of the old country estates there were turned into summer residences for relatively wealthy families from Budapest. In winter, we are just a few more than a hundred people. As for traditional occupations, wine cultivation is still very much alive in the region, and a few of the locals raise animals, mainly chickens and pigs. Our region is supposed to be one of the wealthier ones, but the natives of Balatonhenye live much below the Central European [living] standard. It would take too long to explain how and why this happened, but I’ll say that, for the past 25 years, the Hungarian countryside has been in agony. My paternal grandparents are from a village just north of Balatonhenye, but there, there’s no lakeshore and no summer residents coming from the capital. That village is now nearly 90 per cent inhabited by the elderly, as my father’s generation left it behind for good. I remember 30 years ago there was at least one cow in most courtyards, and now? There’s not a single one in the entire village.

Are you considered a sort of stranger in Balatonhenye?

Not really, maybe just a bit, but only as a poet, and not as a person. As a child, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, so I can speak the local dialect and know how to communicate with the people of the Henye area. Whenever the county newspaper publishes something about me, I can feel that the villagers are proud of that.

The name of your band is Médeia Fiai, the Sons of Medeia. An experimental play about the death of Tibor Hajas (1946-80), the avant-garde artist, is structured like a classical Greek play. How do you relate to the classical era? And what is the project of Theatre of Landscape Wounds?

For me, all of these things hang together: my poetry, my prose, the band, my private music project, which is called Anarchitecture, and the Theatre of Landscape Wounds, which is an intentionally long-term series based on the interplay between poetry, theatre, performance, and photography. It’s a project with Szabolcs Varga, who is a photographer. For the European avant-garde, and the later neo-avant-garde, classical Greek culture remained and remains an important source of inspiration. I believe that Hungarian literature did not tolerate avant-garde poets and phenomena much; for example, Lajos Kassák (1887-1967), who was a talented artist in addition to being an important poet and novelist. The élite founders of the journal West (Nyugat) chose to ignore him, as did the Hungarian literary movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Artistic experimentation by Miklós Erdély (1928-68), Tibor Hajas and their circle was suppressed by the establishment. For Sophocles, and for Tibor Hajas as well, it was just reality that all of these things just mentioned worked together, though one need not bundle them up and call them by a single name, for example avant-garde; just live with them.

Margit Köves teaches Hungarian language and literature at Delhi University. Her research work deals with cultural exchanges between India and Hungary.

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