News – 10th May, 2009

Introduction to Hungarology

László Garaczi

News–10th May, 2009


How is the homeland represented in the works of authors from different cultures: this was the question asked by the organizers of the 2009 PEN World Voices festival. Here is what László Garaczi had to say.

In order to tell you what the concept of homeland means to me, I have to start with a short history lesson. I promise it won’t be long. After centuries of travelling, the Hungarian tribes occupied the Carpathian Basin, where present-day Hungary is located. As soon as they settled down, a miserable era of adopting Christianity began, followed by centuries of disunity caused by feudal dynasties and clans. First, the Tartars ravaged the country, then, from the 16th century on, the Ottoman Empire and the Habsburgs took control. We lost two world wars in the 20th century, and two-thirds of the country’s territory was detached, which means that a significant population of Hungarians lives in foreign countries today. Our revolutions and uprisings were consistently suppressed, and in the second half of the century, Russian troops kept Hungary under occupation. To top it all off, we were defeated in the 1954 World Cup Soccer Final. 
The fact that we still exist is a kind of natural wonder. Under such circumstances, it is understandable if the concepts of “homeland,” “nation,” and “country” do not coincide, and mean something different to us, something complex and painful. The idea of “homeland” was not so much reality, more a kind of fictional place which we desired, daydreamed about, or hoped for. If the concept of “nation” can be defined as a group of people who are joined by common memories and plans for a common future, then we can hardly find any memories that might serve as a basis for hopes of a common future. Memories do not help define ourselves but, rather, incite argument and conflict. 
In the 19th century one of the greatest Hungarian thinkers said, "Hungary has not been, but will be." In the 20th century, the poet Gyula Illyés wrote the symptomatic poem Homeland Up High, whose title became a kind of concept in itself. “Homeland up high” means that, though our history is made up of a series of defeats, our national freedom only a vision, and our everyday lives are wretched, nevertheless our imagination, our spirit, our culture “up high” does, indeed, definitely exist. 
In difficult times, it was culture, or, to be more precise, literature, that kept the concept of the Hungarian nation alive. As a kind of compensation for the difficult state of affairs, a surprisingly rich and high-quality literature was created, which provided both comfort and hope. Throughout history, writers had crucial roles in preserving our national identity. As a Hungarian writer you had a mission and patriotic duty that was as important as cultivating and enriching the Hungarian language. Another quote from the 19th century says: “A nation lives through its language.” For lack of anyone better, writers were responsible not only for independence, but also for improving social relations and public conditions.
At the beginning of our careers as writers in the 1980s, we accepted this difficult heritage. Communism, though fairly tired and bloodless by then, was still in existence, and we saw that writers either served the ruling power or attempted to solve political and social tasks. All statements made by a writer were immediately placed into an ideological context. Even if I had tried to write about my shoelace, that piece would have been interpreted as a figurative criticism of the required style of socialist realism. In other words, it would have been seen as an attempt to mock the authorities and show off my heroism. No one was interested in my shoelace in itself; the shoelace would simply have become lost in the composition, and what remained would have been ideology versus counter-ideology. Art was seeped with politics to such an extent that “small” human themes were pretty much forced out of the picture, while writing about the “big” things was forbidden by default. A kinds of underworld jargon, or rather, several underworld jargons, came into existence. We wrote between the lines and created complicated language-games in order to talk about the thing itself and, simultaneously, criticize the dictatorship. Language became our main terrain; it became our homeland. We snuggled into this place: our Macondo. 
You might ask about what has happened in the past twenty years. What has happened since national independence was achieved and the democratic republic was declared? Well, there’s not much good news I can fill you in on. It seems that this amount of time wasn’t enough for us to come to terms with the past and this new experience called freedom. Great works have been written; Imre Kertész was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, but the discord that we inherited continues. 
Determining the idea of “homeland”, or processing it as a writer, is not an easy task under such circumstances. It is freighted with ideological baggage and misunderstandings – the legacy of National Socialism or communist internationalism, to name just two – so that it is difficult to speak intelligently about this topic in today’s environment, which is, once again, too much about politics.  
I love the language that I speak and in which I write; I love the culture I live in; I breathe in Hungarian, dream in Hungarian, and love this nation. But I don’t much like talking about all this, because it seems like every word I utter inevitably takes on the form of an ideological argument.  
I believe that people who write good books enrich national culture. You might say they are fulfilling a patriotic duty, no matter what the topic of the book.
Irony and forgiveness: these might be the key words in my own private homeland concept. This is my special and present-day Macondo. 
In closing, let me read you a short piece I had to write a few weeks ago, which refers to this topic. My task was to introduce Hungary to an American audience.
The title is: Introduction to Hungarology.
Hungary is a small valley in the heart of a peninsula called Europe that sticks out from Asia. Its inhabitants are Hungarians. The valley was once a sea, and Hungarians: fish, the proof of which is that if you lick a Hungarian they taste salty. The traces of gills are readily seen on the temples, and if one leans close enough, one can also hear a faint roaring of the sea and some sort of primitive song like a dolphin calling for its mate. It is no accident that the Hungarians garner the most gold medals at the Olympics in swimming and water polo.
The closest relatives of Hungarians in the primeval ocean were sea horses, with the result that the Hungarians are an equestrian nation. Ever since the Pannonian Sea dried up, the Hungarians have occupied themselves with riding, football, reading, fretting and the consumption of alcohol (the latter being likewise an enduring atavism of the Hungarians’ past as fish).
Hungarians live double lives and are divided against themselves. The world sees them as peaceable, gentle and hospitable, who over the last thousand years have instantly joined any war that was going, with a deadly sure knack for picking in advance the losing side to be on.
The most renowned Hungarians are Béla Bartók and Leo Szilárd. Even more famous are Béla Lugosi and Zsa Zsa Gabor. This is the right place to clear up a common misconception: Béla Lugosi was Hungarian, but Dracula was Romanian.
It is also important to know that ten per cent of the Hungarian gene pool is of unknown origin and consequently nine times out of ten, a Hungarian will give a normal answer to a question, and nine times out of ten will use an object as intended, but on the tenth occasion he will balk and start pronouncing words backwards or, for example, try and use a playing dice to spoon up his fish soup. If ever fate should bring you together with a Hungarian, it is worth finding out when the last seizure occurred because, although the seizures are usually harmless, they may still have an unsettling effect on anyone in the vicinity.
As was already suggested at the start, the Hungarians are an equestrian nation, which is to say that no Hungarian will ever be fazed to be woken up from his sleep and have to break in herds of galloping mustangs. It would be no exaggeration to say that the Hungarians could have taken occupation of the Wild West except for the small detail that, sadly, they were not there at the right time. But what a stirring sight that would have been! The tiny band of Hungarians reaching California, then, sitting down alongside each other on the beach and, to the throb of a shaman drum, blubbing tears of joy into the ocean water. 
Thank you for your attention…

Subscribe to our mailing list