You’re one of several Hungarian writers going to Frankfurt. What are you expecting from the Fair?
As a writer I’m rather lost at such huge book fairs. What am I to do? But I’m lucky this time, because my publisher, Bence Sárközy, the director of Jelenkor Publishing, has organised an extraordinary meeting with most of my foreign-language publishers in Frankfurt, among them the German publisher, the director of Fischer Verlag, Hans Jürgen Balmes. I am very excited to meet all of them, and I will also be participating in a public discussion of my book that will be published next autumn. That, I think, resolves the problems of a writer who is supposed to be representing (or selling) his book, but who in fact is happy just strolling around and observing people.
Your book is the story of the realisation that your mother was an informant for the Communist Secret Police. You had access to her reports and the files her handlers kept on her. How did you go about turning that into a narrative? Was it difficult to imagine all this from her point of view?
It was a very difficult process, psychologically, both as a son, and also as a writer, because I had to find a single way to interpret what had happened, and to be as objective as is it possible. My parents, both of them, were ardent Communists, so, after the transition to Democracy, when all the discussion about informants and the workings of the secret service began, I was absolutely sure that they weren’t part of this secret organisation. But I was wrong. I had to re-evaluate all my beliefs about the system, about my family – about which I have written two books already. I thought that everything was in those books already, but I was wrong. This “re-evaluation” is also important for the whole Hungarian society, I think, as the vocabulary and knowledge of this whole phenomenon is not very developed in my country – if somebody is branded and stigmatized as an “informant”, he is simply a “traitor”; it is almost the end of the story. People simplify, generalise very easily. It is very comfortable. I hope my book helps the discourse about this still quite repressed subject in Hungary.
You originally wrote this book, Élő kötet nem marad, in Hungarian. It’s now making its way onto the international stage in English, as No Live Files Remain. Tell us about that journey. What made you decide to translate it yourself? What changed? What stayed the same?
It was Bence Sárközy’s idea that I translate as much as I possibly could after the book coming out (and it was really a kind of “coming out”) in the middle of November into English, because he wanted to present it at the London Book Fair in April, and I ventured, albeit with some fears and doubts, into this territory. In the end my translations, my rendering of my own text, my own “music” into a foreign language happened to be quite successful, because there was an instant echo from a lot of publishers, including some incredible and well known publishing houses: Swedish, English, Spanish, Danish, French, German, Italian, and Greek. Just to name a few, they are Gyldendal, Bonniers, S. Fischer, Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Canada, Gallimard, and others, who could sense that the writer himself is speaking. I even wrote one piece that was not in the original book, in English (the title is London, 1962). But now, as Simon and Schuster has bought the world rights for the book, a professional translation is being prepared, by Paul Olchvary, who is a wonderful translator, and who has already translated György Dragomán, Ferenc Barnás and Ádám Bodor into English.
How did you find self-translation? Was the process of writing a text in Hungarian and then re-writing it in English difficult? Was your ‘voice’ different in English than it was in Hungarian?
It was a terribly difficult and time consuming process, but I learned immensely from it. Firstly, about my original text and also about how the imagination works (the subconscious also) differently in different languages. I think, even if the English was a bit uneven, my “voice” came through, and that must have played a huge part in the book’s initial success. If we don’t take into consideration the delicate or so to speak “scandalous” nature of the subject, that undeniably must be part of the appeal of the book.
This was a very personal book about your parents, especially your mother. Was that difficult to talk about so publicly?
Of course. It is partly an open confession about my family. What made it a bit easier was the fact that ten years before I wrote a rather voluminous, 700 page-long book about my family, called Zehuze, which is based on the letters my grandmother wrote to my mother, first from Palestine, then from Israel for almost thirty years. Her letters served as a kind of guide through the times, although the book contains a lot of things (partly fictional things as well) that are not in the letters. So I had an idea about how I could talk about private matters publicly, how it can be made into a legitimate artistic form, how one can go beyond the private. But it was an excruciating journey nevertheless.
The background was quite specific to the Cold War era, and the Eastern Bloc generally, but the book has now been sold in a number of countries outside Hungary. What is it about the book, do you feel, that has made this transition possible? What will foreign readers relate to most?
I hope they will relate. I think the story has many universal elements, and if the stories, as they are written themselves open up a segment of Hungarian history, that can be interesting for all other cultures. As a child I read many folk stories from different countries and also as a young man I enjoyed tremendously learning about different cultures. The only thing that counts is whether the reader can connect with the music of the book. And I think these very choosy, exigent and critical people, the publishers, many of whom also wrote to me, and with whom I had long conversations on the phone, could get attuned to this personal music. And this is what counts. This is what is most important. But I was really surprised during these conversations, how much really did come through of what I wanted to say. So I am quite confident now that the book is more than simply a particular fragment of Hungarian history; it must have some universal appeal, but we shall see what happens when it comes out in so many and such different countries. What is most important for me is the dialogue, the discourse that the book can start. If any of that will happen, I mean real dialogue, real discourse, then I will already be satisfied.
In the book, there’s a scene when the Secret Police wants to observe a friend of yours, the poet György Petri, in your flat. How did being under that kind of surveillance affect your daily lives as writers?
Yes, we lived in the shadow of constantly knowing that we were being observed. But still, in the soft-ish dictatorship of [János] Kádár, among ourselves we had absolutely free conversations and tried to keep that up in public as well. Most of my friends were part of the so called opposition, although I wasn’t specially active. I am more or less a contemplative person, but already at 18, I had started to detach myself from the lies of the system, and we had big discussions and clashes in our family with our parents. What was wonderful was that my mother, who was a faithful Communist, had a deep understanding for the different views of her children, and – it is clear from her dossier – she protected us from possible repercussions, whenever it was necessary. She was a very complex and beautiful person, in spite of being an informant, or rather, a kind of spy, because her task was first and foremost doing work for them abroad, and I think this complexity of the person adds to the mystery, the magical (and tragic) appeal of the whole story.
What books are on your bedside table at the moment? And which Hungarian writers, living or dead, would you most recommend to an English-speaking audience?
I am reading many books, partly preparing myself for the courses I have at the University for Theatre and Film; so I am reading Don Quijote now, again, and it is magical, and also some of the works of the late Péter Esterházy, as I grieve for him through reading him. And as I have just finished drawing the illustrations for a book by Péter Nádas: Celestial and Earthly Love, I read that too. I have also been reading some Ovid, because of this theme, and I am reading Ludmilla Ulitskaya’s latest book, Jacob’s Ladder, as I will have a conversation with her before the public in Budapest, after Frankfurt, when they publish her book in Hungarian. And so on, and so forth. This year’s literary production in Hungary was incredibly rich, and I must mention here three Gábors: Gábor Németh’s very fine book, The Summer of the Marmot, Gábor Zoltán’s incredibly brutal book, Orgy, about the Arrow Cross Party, Gábor Schein’s novel, called Swedish. Last but not least, something comes to mind as bedside reading: there is a new translation of Dante’s Commedia by Ádám Nádasdy, with scholarly annotations, the poem translated without rhymes. The whole book is incredibly instructive, and opens up this beautiful, complex and rather archaic work before our eyes.