Interview – 25th November, 2010

The attraction of the periphery

An interview with Ádám Bodor

Interview–25th November, 2010


"What makes one a writer? Probably it is not being locked up, because then we would be chock full of writers, but undoubtedly, for someone who does not want to be a writer but ends up becoming one, like me, such an event can prove crucial."

ZSUZSA SELYEM : We all know that Ádám Bodor works a lot on his texts, that he is never satisfied with them. Which was the first piece that you let go of?
ÁDÁM BODOR: A short story entitled ’Winter Days’. All I can say about how it came about is that I wanted to write a short story. I didn’t consider it particularly successful, but the Cluj literary weekly Utunk wanted to publish it in order to see how the censors would react. Not that the story had anything to do with politics, but because that was a moment when they decided to let a particular author publish or not. And since I had a political record, this was highly unlikely. Actually, I started to write in a very lucky period. This was 1965, when there was a certain loosening up in Romanian political life – a permissiveness and openness towards the arts that almost gave grounds for hope. So the fact that I was allowed to publish was certainly at least partly due to the momentary political constellation.
How can one have a political record at such an early age?
My political record was due to the fact that in 1952 I printed and circulated pamphlets against the state with some of my schoolmates. The whole company – except for me – was arrested by the Securitate in the course of one night. My turn came three days later, because I was hiking in the mountains at that time. A whole commando set out to find me, successfully.
Were you all 17 years old?
Yes, yes. But according to Romanian law a minor is responsible for his or her acts after the age of 15 – in the political sense, that is to say – so I could be sentenced without further ado. I was sentenced to five years in prison, which was mitigated to three years by the appeal court. Actually, I was quite lucky even then, because I got a very nice interrogation officer – I don’t know why he was among these butchers, seeing his benign face. He helped me compose my confession, he always said in advance whatever I was trying to withhold, pleading bad memory. I did not know then that they already knew everything about the organization from the confessions of the others. In the end I asked him how much I was going to get. Five years, he said immediately, and added: but if all goes well, it will be mitigated to three. And that was exactly how it happened. The verdict was probably all ready. But finally we spent only two years in prison.
In The Smell of Prison (published in English in The Hungarian Quarterly, parts 1, 2, 3) you write that in order for someone to become a writer it does not hurt if something happens to them. You also write about what happens to a 17-year-old who finds himself in the prison of the Securitate. These things are not there in your writings directly, but they are present in the way you perceive things, in the way you direct your attention. But let’s come back to how Ádám Bodor became a writer. When you were out of prison at 19, you had to pass your matriculation test. First you worked as a physical worker. What made you start to write?
Our personality changes from age zero till the beginning of the 20s, but it is ready maybe even earlier. It is essential what kind of impulses one gets until then. It is especially important which are those memories that subconsciously determine our whole life afterwords. What makes one a writer? Probably it is not being locked up, because then we would be chock full of writers, but undoubtedly, for someone who does not want to be a writer but ends up becoming one, like me, such an event can prove crucial. In spite of the fact that I never considered writing about my prison experiences, or to write a prison novel at all, yet I feel that this surplus that distinguished me from those of my generation probably led me into this direction. Anyway, I was not in a position to choose a profession. I would not have been admitted to the university because of my political record, so I enrolled – or rather took an entrance exam – to the theological seminar.
What attracted you to reformed theology? In such a tough dictatorship what did this institution mean? Could it retain some independence?
When I started my studies at the theological seminar, I did not know anything about the institute. The idea was to find a refuge for a few years until the inevitable stint in the army, and then – who knows? – something might happen. At that time, the institute was not yet controlled by the powers that be. It enjoyed a certain independence, with only one course in the whole curriculum where one had to learn about ’really existing socialism’, the theory of state and law, which, as a matter of fact, gave us some quite useful information. At the other courses as well, if one was interested in the antiquity, in classical philology and history, one could find quite a lot to read and enjoy. Of course there were some less pleasant courses like pastoral care or preaching, which were closely related to liturgy and were therefore boring. For me, at least.
Is there anything that found its way into your writings later from these studies?
In one of my short pieces there is a theologian, or even two, I think, who pretend to be lawyers. But they slipped in by mere chance.
What does it mean in the case of Sinistra District, published in 1992 and written already in Budapest (see The Hungarian Quarterly 149 for three excerpts), that you are there in a text, what does it mean for you to be there in its atmosphere? Let’s approach this question from the fact that in Sinistra District there is a character called Andrej Bodor who tells the stories – shocking stories – in the first person singular. Obviously imagination plays a great role in this book, yet it is told in the first person singular by a character whose name is very similar to yours. However, there are four chapters where the I-narration shifts to he-narration, with an external voice continuing the story. Are you less present there?
Yes, this is an invented I who has nothing to do with the subjectivity of the narration. This is simply a means; a means of conveying my attitude to the novel and to history. When I exit from the I-narration, it is another means. Then I suddenly felt that it was not an I telling the story.
The story of Andrej Bodor is the story of an anti-hero.Of somebody who, because of a beautiful idea, enters the circles of a dictator and slowly he begins to do everything that those in power demand of him. Hero, anti-hero – what do you think of these? Do you think that in the 20th century, in the period that you saw, there are no heroes?
No, there are absolutely no heroes. I have not met a single hero. I just read about them, but did not quite believe in them. So this is very far from me.
Do you think that the heroic posture became impossible in the 20th century, or was there something false in these roles even in earlier centuries?
Well, there was always something false, but writers had to adapt to the demands. In the age of Romanticism, and even later, even much after the Enlightenment it was unthinkable not to write about heroes. The big turn was of course World War I, when Europe turned out not to be the land of peace and stability, and from then on there have been perceptibly less heroes in artistic portrayals. Of course this demand continued to exist in the requirements of false ideologies. The Komsomol, for example, was full of heroes, as we all know. Anyway, it is always suspicious when an ideology starts to create its own heroes or suggests that artists should create them.
In your life you have experienced prison, then dictatorship, censorship, the promiscuous relations between literary life and power interests – in other words, the fact that when a totalitarian power wants to be eulogized, it usually gets what it wants from less talented but more approachable writers. When was heroism exposed for you for what it was?
In the prison, the moment we entered the prison; at least for me it was like that. Outside the prison one thinks that the political prison is an academy, that one could not find better company. But this is a big mistake. The political prison is also a den of scoundrels. Perhaps this is because the circumstances are so debasing. And this could not be noticed immediately. This was the essence.
By the way, you mentioned the word censorship. Unbelievable as it may sound I never had any problem with censorship. I know this exactly because all my writings were published without any changes. The only thing that comes to mind is that when the head of the state and secretary of the party, whose name I prefer not to mention here, held a speech and all the media had to publish the text, I could not participate in that issue. I absolutely understood this. In such cases my story was delayed a week or two, so that it should not destroy the elevated tone of the rest. Yet even this was not censorship, but rather the wisdom of the editors. This decision was due to the understanding of the circumstances, of the atmosphere.
Why do you never write about the rich? You always write about people and regions who live in a state of extreme poverty and destitution.
The life of the rich, the fate of the rich is boring.
Another lack in your writings is that although you have lived most of your life in big cities – Budapest, Berlin – and in a way as to enjoy the opportunities a big city offers (you have mentioned that there are certain cafés in European cities where people recognize you), yet your scenes are always the margins, the borderlands and liminal situations. Why is that? Have you never thought of writing a story that takes place in a big city?
No. This is not interesting for me. My awakening was within the social and national circumstances of Transylvania. When I was a child, a Romanian guy called Abrudan brought us the milk who walked barefoot, and we bought cheese from a Saxon woman. So I was still a child when I was faced with the fact that something is awry. The circumstances I lived in in Cluj with my parents, my friends and my relatives was basically an island in Transylvania. This was a very colourful place, but not everything that I heard at home – the moral environment I lived in – seemed to apply to it. This experience determined my attraction to the periphery. I was attracted to the cheese lady, because she spoke broken Hungarian and I knew that she was German, therefore I understood that there were Germans living in Transylvania, and to Abrudan, because he lived eight kilometers from Cluj and walked barefoot. And as one started to walk out of the city along the avenues, one was faced with a morally and otherwise totally different dimension of existence.
Films are made of your books. Do you feel that they belong to you? What does it feel like to see what you wrote on screen?
When one sits down to negotiate with a film director, one should know that there is trouble in store and one should get rid of all illusions. Not because the director is a bad person, but because he is an artist. And artists have their own artistic personality and vision that they express in a very different genre. So a writer who attaches any hopes to this is far too naive and vain. He should know that something very different from what he expects is going to happen. And this is all right as long as the work of art that comes to being is approximately of the same value. The problem starts when the director simply transplants or copies the prose work to the celluloid, subserviently and without any imagination. Real films are those which hardly remind us of the original work, but where the original work is there only as deep inspiration for an excellent work of art in a different genre. There is no greater satisfaction than that for a writer. Whether one meets such a director is another thing.
How much are the characters in your novel rooted in reality?
These characters were not influenced by personal meetings. I invented them, and invented them such as they are, and the reason why I can present them in any way is that I invent them. I could not invent an existing person – he is already there.
Don’t you think that the world of your novels has disappeared by now?
I can only answer what I feel about this. That world has not only not disappeared from me, it has not disappeared from our environment. One can feel how it threatens us each and every day – twenty years is not a long time in history. It is not enough to draw any lessons, let alone to gain perspectives.
Previously on HLO
Scaffold in winter: Ádám Bodor's prose

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