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.