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!


Starting in school, we, Hungarians read a decent amount of foreign literature. Many cultures have had an influence on what we call our literature and literary knowledge, but it is time to ask the question: Where is the place of Hungarian literature in the world?

A big obstacle in the way of Hungarian writings towards fame on an international level might be the fact that the language is only spoken by roughly 14 million people- not too much. If this would not be enough, Magyar, or Hungarian, is very different from other European languages.

As a consequence, the only way to introduce our literature to other nations is through translation, particularly by ones in English. Unfortunately, the number of translated works is small compared to the vastness of Hungarian literary treasures and even these are not well-known.

I wish I was capable of translating poems, short stories, plays and novels! Since I lack those skills, I will introduce the ones that others, much more talented than me, have already translated. If everything goes the way I planned, soon all students will be familiar with Hungarian literature. Okay, probably I should not pursue such wild dreams, but it would be great, wouldn't it?