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.

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