Saturday, May 10, 2014

Poeta Doctus-Natus

Poeta Doctus and Poeta Natus. The terminology makes a distinction between poets with natural talent and those who learned poetry. The Hungarian contemporary poet Dániel Varró is by some miracle a mixture of the two- bearing all the positive features of the two categories. His poems or narrative poems are fun to read and I am personally fascinated how flawless his poetry is. Unfortunately, not many of his poems are translated to English yet, but this might be because it is still fresh and most great works of literature need a little dust on the cover before translators put their hands on them. Preferably it will be Varró himself to translate this already published works into English.

The cover of Beyond the Smudgy Mountain
illustruted by Zsuzsa Varró, the poet's sister
His most well-known published book is Túl a Maszat-hegyen (Beyond the Smudgy Mountain), a narrative poem which exlpores the adventures of a young fellow, Muhi Andris. The kindergartener finds himself a parallel world where he meets various magical, under average, extraordinary and often idiosyncratic characters. The narrative is written in the familiar Onegin stanza with Dante's tercines in one section and hexameters in another. (These evoking the Purgatory and epics' battle scenes). Reading the poetic novel is enjoyable at any age, regardless of the level of literary education.

A trait of Dani Varró's work is that it can be evaluated on several levels. First, there are the children who like the book and several poems for their childish language and imagery. The characters often stand close to children's heart, which can bring poetry close to them. There is also the language, the use of words that appeal to readers' ears at any age. An older reader with greater comprehension of words multiple meanings or allusions can find a different kind of humor in Varró's poetry while someone who understands most literary references can read his works as an inventory of literature.

One of the embedded poems from the book, Szösz néne (Old Missus Fluff) is translated to English. Coincidentally, this is one of my favorites. David Robert Evans, the translator, did a wonderful job and gave back the meaning of the poem along with all the gags in it and remained faithful to the original style. I would like you to take it as a "sneak peek" to the whole book, which will hopefully be translated as well.

Until then, there is one more poem that is worth reading, and thanks to Stephen Humpreys' translation, it's also available in English. The poem is called Borbála, which is a female last name. This poem is a paraphrase of Dezső Kosztolányi's Ilona (another name), for which I could not find an English translation.Borbála discusses the beauty of the name itself and a person beyond it, who he finds attractive. I have to admit that I was surprised by how great the translation is. I didn't think that it was possible to echo the sound pattern, the meaning and the rhythm of the poem at the same time. However, the translator succeeded and repeated everything essential to the greatness of the poem, including the strict three syllable lines.

A recent photo of Dani Varró
As a disclaimer, I would like to add that I like Dani Varró's work too much to leave it out from this series, even if it means writing about a hopefully soon-to-be-written translation. As being one of the best contemporary poets in Hungary and a translator,I think chances are high that there will be a translation of his work as well.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Poetry's Birthday

The young poet
Some know, some don't, but the Day of Hungarian Poetry is on April 12 each year. This is also the birthday of the famous poet, Attila József (really, he is well-known). His prominence in early 20th century Hungarian literature is unquestionable, and it derives from his political, proletarian poetry and his mental illness, which characterized his work and later led to his suicide.

Attila József lived in Budapest most of his life. His father abandoned his family and soon his mother gave him and his sister to foster parents. The troubled childhood had taken its toll: the poet had to deal with severe mental and emotional issues. He later ended up receiving treatment for his schizophrenia and borderline depression, but the efforts did not seem to have helped: he jumped on the tracks and was killed by a train at Lake Balaton. His death is claimed to be a planned suicide, but still, some argue that it was just a terrible accident that ended the life of one of the most talented Hungarian poets.

The infamous poem By the Danube (A Dunánál) describes the poet's relationship with the city but even more importantly it draws a parallel between the river of Budapest and time. The message of the poem in my interpretation is phrased in the following lines:

I am he who has gazed a hundred thousand years 

On that which he now sees for the first time. 
One moment, and fulfilled all time appears
In a hundred thousand forbears’ eyes and mine.

By the Danube is such a prominent poem of Attila József that his often visited memorial statue is placed on the bottom step that from the wharf descends.

A drawing of the proletarian poet
Like many of his predecessors, Attila József too expressed his thoughts about his own poetry and the status of poetry in his age. He dedicated his Ars Poetica to Andor Németh, fellow writer and columnist at the literary magazine Szép Szó. He wrote the poem in the final year of his life. Ars Poetica also criticizes the typical poet of the early 20th century, who often creates poetry drunk. Another point in the poem is that he is not willing to give up on his political views and he will keep expressing those in his poetry. Note the reference to his condition by saying time oozes down.

One is his earlier poems, Mother (Mama) is often recited, as it is short and the rhymes make it easy to remember. Also, the emotional filling makes it comprehensible. Attila József had relatively little time with his mother, so he includes some early childhood memories in the poem. It is easy to see that the poem is written from the point of view of a child, longing for his mother, and the poet's nearly 30-year-old self. I personally like how the mother is described as a hero, climbing up to the attic.

Now that I mentioned an often recited poem I cannot leave out the other one: With a Pure Heart (Tiszta szívvel). It is one of the poems that you cannot talk a lot about as it is all there in the lines. The imagery of the poisonous grass growing on the grave is really vivid and I can't skip pointing out to the paradox in it. I chose Kabdebo's translation over another one by the same translator. Here, you can see the difference between the poetic and the word for word translation, my choice being the poetic one. The significance of this poem is that Attila József was expelled from college for its revolutionary message. This is also important as you will see the reference to it in the next poem. 

The poet's memorial in Balatonszárszó, the place of his death
In 1937 the poet gave himself -and us- an exceptional birthday present: he wrote a poem, For My Birthday (Születésnapomra) as a gift. The poem's message is that despite he was kicked out of college for his poem, he will teach the people of his country-even better. Apart from this, For My Birthday is characterized by those little witty synchronized words at the ends of each stanza. Zsuzsanna Ozsváth, the translator of this poem did an excellent job, the English version reflects (although not completely, but that is impossible) the puns and rhymes in the original. This poem is also a source of several paraphrases or remixes, to use the modern terminology of the music industry.

April 11 is the Day of Hungarian Poetry since 1964 as a tribute to the poet and as such, last Friday was dedicated to him and all the other Hungarian poets in the form of special exhibitions, recitings, forums and memorial events throughout the country.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Revolutionist

Yesterday was the day when you can see Hungarians wearing their cockades. March 15 is the national holiday when we remember the revolution of 1848. Apart from being an important event in the country’s history, the revolution is strongly connected to poetry.

The manuscript of the National Song
What happened on that day is an important but long story, so I will only talk about the most essential part: Alexander Petőfi (Petőfi Sándor) met with other young revolutionists in a cafe and according to the legend, later marched to the National Museum where he read his infamous poem to the crowd. Some say that he read it at Vörösmarty Square. The National Song (Nemzeti Dal) later became a symbol of the revolution along with the Twelve Points. Both were printed out and disseminated in the city that day. There is another translation to this poem, but I think the former is closer to the atmosphere of the Hungarian version and the rhymes sound smoother.

Petőfi did not only write the poem to please the crowd: he believed that the poets’ role was to lead the people. If you think about, it is really not that rare the literary figures actively participated in politics or vice versa. Before the revolution, Petőfi wrote a poem called The Poets of the Nineteenth Century(A XIX. század költői) in which he expressed his opinion about the poetry of his age. I was surprised to see how accurate the translation by Edwin Morgan is, both in meaning and rhyme. It is so good that I decided to overlook the run-on lines.

A portrait of the poet
While many of Petőfi’s poems discuss political and patriotic questions, his love poetry and his poems about the homeland make up other large sections of his works. My long-time favorite is The Tisza (A Tisza), which is a beautiful description of the second biggest Hungarian river. Especially if one visits the river of the Great Plain for the first time, he can fully understand everything written in the poem.

Among several other love poems, What Shall I Call You (Minek nevezzelek) became a famous piece about the poet’s love towards his wife, Júlia Szendrey. As Petőfi said in The Poets of the Nineteenth Century, a poet should do much more than groan and weep or yell with joy in his poems. I think all his poems are great and worth reading, but indeed, he might be one of the many poets without his role in the revolution.

Petőfi's statue in Budapest
Although Petőfi liked the homeland, the Great Plain and love, he was most passionate about defending the country and leading the people.  As a part of his revolutionary poetry, he wrote his infamous poem, One thought (Egy gondolat bánt engemet). In this one, he does not call anyone to action, but he tells how much he wants to fight for the nation and die on the battlefield if necessary instead of growing old at home. Eventually, his wish came true: although his body has never been found, he disappeared at the Battle of Segesvár in 1849. Some sources claim that he died in the fight, while others say that he was taken to Siberia. Whatever the truth is, he surely did not die in his bed.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Turkish Yoke Is Not a Joke

The Turkish invasion of Hungary is a sensitive, but important part of the country’s history. There are a few things that we might want to thank the Turks for, like the baths, but Hungarians mostly talk about the 150 years of the Turkish yoke as a miserable period.  The subjugation of the empire started in 1541 and lasted until 1699. This era inspirited several works of art, The Eclipse of the Crescent Moon being the most well-known.

Géza Gárdonyi’s novel describes the siege of Eger at 1552. My personal experience with the novel, similarly to many of my peers, started when I had to read the book back in elementary school as one of the longest compulsory readings. I was quite young at the time, but I know for sure that after the slightly sluggish beginning I really enjoyed the book. It might have several reasons and it’s still hard for me to pinpoint one.

First, there is a love story in it, which makes the siege even more exciting. For some reason, when the lovers are in danger everything seems to be more adventurous. If you don’t like love combined with adventure, the battle scenes might still make you keep reading and you can also learn a lot about the period’s martial technology. Still not interested? Take a look at the descriptions of the two armies, the two societies and their cultures (including religion).

Although the book is quite long, (still not an Anna Karenina) it walks you through a major battle of the Turkish invasion that had a surprising end. Surprising, based on the size and the equipment of the opponent armies. Needless to say, the Hungarians were in minority but they managed to defeat the Turks and protect the fortress. The plot of the novel is based on the true story of the battle, starring real-life heroes such as István Dobó and is a more or less faithful retelling of the army's success. 

I can't decide which version of the titles I like more. The Hungarian, which is Stars of Eger, refers to all the heroes who defended the fortress. The English, however, reflects the Turkish symbol (at least that's what it reminds me of), so it is quite accurate too. Share your thoughts on this question (or anything else) in a comment!

Available on Amazon.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

What Does the Fox Say?

If you ask any Hungarian born before the millennium to list their top 10 favorite childhood movies, Vuk (The Little Fox or The Fox Cub) will be one of the answers, so the importance of the book in our culture is unquestionable. Several generations have grown up watching the adventures of the fox cub on VHS, later on DVD. Although it is originally a novel, the story got famous through the 1981 animated movie, so this post is not based on the written version. You might have heard the title in another context: the 2008 animation A Fox's Tale ranked as one of the worst movies on IMDB with its 2,4 points. I have no idea what it is like to watch the new version without having seen the original, but I still vote against it.

István Fekete, the author of Vuk is famous for his novels about Hungarian rural life, especially that of untouched nature. Most of his books include stories of animals: one about a stork, one about an owl, one about an otter, another one about a fox. As many other children's book, Vuk has a lot to say to grown ups too. To me, its main message is that the "civilized" man has no right to rob the nature of its treasures, but his ignorant actions harm the flora and fauna eternally.

If you really want to find and even more universal message, it might be that if we keep doing what we are doing, there will be nothing to ruin. Similarly to WALL-E, Vuk can be used in an environmental protection campaign.

The story is sad, touching but has a happy ending, the characters are simple and lovable, the gags do make you laugh and you can have a glance at Hungarian rural life in the sixties, all wrapped up in a retro animation. Ideal for a family movie night.

Fun Fact:
The infamous theme song of Vuk featured a then little girl, Kati Wolf, who decades later participated in the Hungarian X-Factor, and made it to the Eurovision Song Contest in 2011.

Here is a YouTube video in Hungarian with English subtitles and the 1981 animation in English, 7 parts, also YouTube.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Husband of a Wife

I've often heard that behind every great man there is a great woman. One week ago a 102-year-old lady died in the 13th district of Budapest, the capital of Hungary. Except for her venerable age, this might only be one of the many insignificant things that happened that day and it would not make it to the news, but there’s something extraordinary about her: Fanni Gyarmati, or as many knew her, Fifi, was the wife of a great Hungarian poet, Miklós Radnóti. Her death provoked the attention of the media. Some pages and papers discuss the event as the life and death of a woman but there are many others that regard her primarily as a wife.

Radnóti and Fifi together
Indeed, she was a brilliant man’s wife, who inspired him and was the theme of some of his poems. He wrote his most well-known epistle, Letter to My Wife in a concentration camp, Lager Heidenau. This tells a lot about Radnóti: his love and longing for his wife, his sufferings as a Jew in the Holocaust, and his vocation he never abandoned, not even at the hardest times.

There’s another poem to include, one that I cannot skip. How Others See (Nem tudhatom) is a poem about Hungary that doesn’t only describe the landscape of the country, but it talks about the homeland and what it means to the narrator. The question Radnóti discusses what I often wonder: how do other people see the place where I live? What do the cities I visit mean to the locals? Too bad it's impossible to find out...

I wish I could ignore the existence of this very painful poem, called Deathmarch (Erőltetett menet). I’m saying this because I think it’s a great poem, but it is too depressing to think about, and looking up the background history makes me feel helpless. In 1944 Radnóti was relocated to Lager Brünn (Brno). The prisoners of the camp were forced to reach their destination on foot. This experience is preserved in the elegy, which is among the most significant poems. If you look at the Hungarian version, you can see that the poem has a typographical twist: it is composed of lines with spaces in the middle. This probably refers to the sufferings of the march and the narrator’s fretful condition.

Radnóti and Fifi in the winter, still young
I don’t want anyone to be left in such misery, so the last poem I’ll mention here is more of a delight, also my personal favorite. Enchantment (Bájoló), a poem that is really charming. The translation is almost word for word, it reflects the images of the original quite well. It might be the fact that I’m not a native speaker of English that the words in the Hungarian version affect me more, I feel different while reciting that one. (Of course, it has emotional reasons as well.) Anyway, feel free to share your own experience in a comment!

I made a promise that I won’t include anything that is not understandable for readers without any Hungarian knowledge. Without going into a speech about the moral background of breaking promises and how wrong it is, I’ll simply break it and share this:

A Hungarian band, lead by Balázs Szabó, made a music version of the poem. To me it’s the best lullaby. Try to replace the Hungarian lyrics with the English translation of the poem and enjoy the music. If you prefer that, take it as a Hungarian language lesson.

As a late confession, I have to admit that I wasn't planning to deal with poetry yet, but it seems like Life is the one who creates my posts, not me.

Here you can find the collection of the original and translated poems.

To read the poems online, visit the page of Penniless Press.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Fortune-teller of Humanity

One of the treasures of Hungarian literature is The Tragedy of Man by Imre Madách. My experience with the play is a story that is worth telling, and it is also a little warning against audiobooks. The Tragedy of Man is a compulsory reading in high school and as such, I was forced to read it. I did start reading it but with hardly any enthusiasm, as I was not a great fan of plays, or anything similar to those at that time. To ease my suffering, I decided to download the audiobook. I had a great time playing Fireboy and Watergirl online and I walked to school to write the test with way too much confidence. I failed once and then again. After that I listened to it again focusing on every word of the speaker and guess what, I could recite some of the lines later! The moral of the story is that you should avoid multitasking while listening to audiobooks.

Oddly, the experience of failure brought the play really close to me, and I realized that it has much to teach us even today. By us I mean the humanity, all the people of all the generations of human existence. It might sound extreme, but this is what the play is -vaguely- about: the man and his tendency to fail, make wrong decisions and regret. And to do it all over again and again. Sounds familiar, right?
An illustration of the play by Mihály Zichy

The plot of the dramatic poem, which I don't want to introduce here, starts with the creation of the world and of Adam and Eve. Although Adam is the protagonist of the play, I consider Lucifer, the antagonist as the main character. Without him there would be no story, nothing to write about. If it would not be clear yet, The Tragedy of Man is a biblical story, but 11 of its 15 scenes take place in different times and places and most importantly, different political systems. Lucifer is the one who leads Adam through the centuries to show him what life will be like. Adam feels often devastated and hopless as he sees how life turned out but it all adds to (one of) the main message(s) of the play: It is a characteristic of the human race to wish for something and then be unsatisfied and wish for something else. (This just reminded me of a song, surprisingly called Something Else by Good Charlotte)

This is something that I learned at the age of 16 by myself. Of course, I was told that it is important, but it was me who figured out why it is so and I was surprised to see how current all of it is. I think we can even say that Madách was a genius, fortune-teller of humanity. Read it, and let yourselves be enlightened!

Available on Amazon:
Classic Reprint - Ironically, this edition is part of the "Forgotten Books" series.
Paperback only

For the online version on the Hungarian Online Library click here.

Find out more on Goodreads, or comment here!