Portrait – 20th May, 2004

László Darvasi


Portrait–20th May, 2004


"...if there were no words, sentences, if there were no poems or novels, there would be no life."

László Darvasi was born in 1962. He is one of the most versatile contemporary writers, and possibly one of the best-known authors of his generation. As well as a writer of prose, especially short stories, he is also a poet and playwright. He graduated at a teacher's training college in Szeged - an important town in Darvasi's life - in 1986, and after some years of teaching he started working for Délmagyarország, a regional daily newspaper.

It was here in Szeged that the character of Erno Szív - in the eyes of some, Darvasi's alter ego - was created as an escape from the daily routine of newspaper journalism. This is how Darvasi remembers the birth of the character: "I was working for the cultural column in Délmagyarország. I wrote a feuilleton using this name. And two days later I wrote another. Then another one. It was an instinctive process, a self-defence mechanism perhaps, to think of something personal in journalism, to create a character with its own life between two reports, something that was closer to literature." Darvasi/Szív soon found himself writing about four to six pieces a month, appearing in Délmagyarország, then also in the weekly Élet és Irodalom, to which Darvasi (and Szív) became a regular contributor, thus gaining national recognition.

But it was only later that Szív started publishing - books, that is. First it was Darvasi's turn to establish himself.

His first published volume, in 1991, was a collection of poems called HorgerAntal Párizsban (Antal Horger in Paris). The following year he produced a volume of poems and short stories - a genre much more characteristic of his future career. In this volume - A portugálok (The Portuguese) - the first piece of the 'Stories of the country' cycle is about stories and story-telling itself. The need and longing for telling stories is evident from these pieces. His first purely prose volume was A veinhageni rózsabokrok (The Rosebushes of Veinhagen), with short stories such as A világ legszomorúbb zenekara (The Saddest Orchestra in the World), which eventually made it into the German, Dutch and French short story collections of Darvasi's work, with the same title.

As László Márton said (Beszélo, 2000), in retrospect we can all see that the style was already unique, and though possible, it is pointless to compare him to any writers, foreign or Hungarian, if we do not analyse the similarities within his own context.

After the melancholic stories of A Borgognoni-féle szomorúság (The Borgognoni Sadness) came A Kleofás-képregény (The Cleophas Comics), a collection of 'histories, legends and comics'. With this volume he seemed to have proven his skills, so much so that a review appeared under the title 'The Story Rehabilitated'. Darvasi was hailed as one of the few young writers who could break out of the constraints which post-modernist trends seemed to have placed on prose-writing, and who were brave enough to go back to the roots: telling a story.

A könnymutatványosok legendája (The Legend of the Tear Tricksters, 1999)

After these volumes of short prose, Darvasi wrote a novel. This did not come as a surprise, because chapters of it appeared in various literary magazines over the 5 years of its writing, but as some reviewers said, those created more insecurity in the reader than reassurance. It was difficult to grasp the nature of the novel and its structure from the separate pieces. At first sight the published novel also seems a collection of short stories, and one has to submerge into and be overwhelmed by the stories to realise they are all interconnected and are truly part of a grandiose whole. We are introduced to the numerous plotlines one by one to later realise we are taking part in an intellectual game as well, of remembering details and names we should relate to the new information and new characters we encounter on the voyage within/through the novel.

On the surface it is a (pseudo-)historical novel, with a time span of about 150 years, from the occupation of Buda in 1541 by the Turks until its liberation by the Austrian army in 1686. The connecting force in the story is the appearance and re- and disappearance of five mysterious men travelling in a rickety covered wagon with a great teardrop painted on its canvas with the 'bluest blue'. They are the tear tricksters. They all cry different kinds of tears and have miraculous powers, but it is not really clear what their aim is. They bury the dead or save lives, give hope to some and despair to others. But most importantly their ever-lingering presence leaves us with the feeling that miracles are always possible while we follow the lives of our numerous heroes through innumerable types of execution and sexual intercourse. We have the feeling Darvasi does not approach the sentences from the aspect of thought but rather creates a sensual connection, trying to take them into his possession, and the sentences in their turn have the same effect on us.

Darvasi's style here has been most often compared to the magical realism of Márquez. The complicated plotline and the types of characters may be viewed as far-off relatives of those in One Hundred Years of Solitude. With all the similarities, however, the social and geographical setting is rather different, with Turks, Jews, Hungarians and members of different Balkan nations all active in shaping the story - and history with it.

Darvasi once defined himself as a provincial writer, and it is the same 'lack of centre' of this self-definition which we see in his accounts of our history during the 150 years when Hungary was torn into three parts and cut off from the centre, from Europe.

A lojangi kutyavadászok (The Dog-Hunters from Lojang, Chinese stories, 2002)

Just is he studied the historical background for the novel, Darvasi also studied Chinese traditions for these pieces, only to make sure what it was he was not going to use. The short prose pieces build on our knowledge or feelings of Chinese literature and culture, but do not want to recreate those long-past times. The volume has two parts, the first with longer stories from the Emperor's court; the second is a collection of short pieces from the archives of the Chin Academy. According to the author, it was an experiment to see how the stories wrapped in Chinese relations work here and now. The volume's reception was controversial, precisely because of the exotic cultural background against which the stories are displayed.

A more straightforward success was Trapiti - or the Great Squash War. It was awarded best volume of Hungarian children's fiction in 2002. The novel follows the best traditions of our children's literature, in as much as he creates a world within the grasp of the young, with cities and towns and kingdoms, while using a great deal of irony regarding history, the use of power, and excessive order, creating very funny and easily identifiable characters, ones children can play with even after they - and their parents - are through with the book. Darvasi said he wrote the novel as an antidote to depression. The treatment must have worked, because it works for anyone who reads it.

Darvasi has also written a number of plays. The first one was based on the Erno Szív character (Szív Erno estéje); the later ones (Vizsgálat a rózsák ügyében, Bolond Helga, Argentina) have a common trait of mystery in them, reflecting the playwright's interest in classical crime stories, the latter piece with a pinch of allegory. His last play to date is his reinterpretation (rather than adaptation) of Milán Füst's wonderful novel Feleségem története (The Story of My Wife) with the title Störr, thus making the husband (Captain Störr) the real protagonist of the story instead of the woman. All the plays have been staged to greater or lesser critical acclaim. The most successful was his latest, which premiered in two theatres within a short period, and is still on in an important repertory theatre in Budapest. 

The Erno Szív phenomenon

We should discuss the character of Erno Szív and his impact on Darvasi's career in a little more detail, because he is a very important part of Darvasi's creative oeuvre. The character is a mythicised figure with turn-of-the-century traits, placed into a contemporary or rather timeless setting. Even the name has a fin-de-siecle flair to it: szív is the Hungarian for heart. He is probably not like a newspaper-man/hírlapíró (N.B we did not use the word journalist/újságíró!) of that era, but an idealised version. His character also has literary connotations, alluding to Kosztolányi's character Kornél Esti. And just as in that case, the two characters, the two authors, are inseparable, yet there is a clear division between the pieces they write. It is not that Darvasi hides behind Szív and writes, using a different persona (as was the case with Esterházy using Lili Csokonai to write something very different from what he had written before.) Szív personifies everything that is out of date in Darvasi's approach to literature and to life in general, but this obsolescence, being part of a conscious game, has a function, and that in itself makes his character modern. Erno Szív has published three volumes so far, carefully selected collections of the abundant newspaper writings, A vonal alatt (Below the line, 1994), Hogyan csábítsuk el a könyvtáros kisasszonyt? (How to Seduce the Young Librarian, 1997) and Összegyujtött szerelmeim (Collected Loves, 2003).

The way Darvasi is at home in different genres, writing articles in the morning, a novel during the day, and a play at night, if he has to, is a work style he has become used to during the years, and is remarkable in itself. He seems to be instinctively at ease with poetry and plays, short prose pieces and large-scale novels. He has recreated and renewed many traditional forms of short stories. His language is a sensual one, backed up with artistic control.

His international recognition started in Germany, thanks to Katharina Raabe, who worked on Darvasi's first German volume, and continued to work with him after she went to Suhrkamp Publishing. Due to the publisher's good reputation in Germany, the critics keep track of its authors, Darvasi among them. He received good reviews for the German edition of The Tear Tricksters, and has also been awarded this year's Brücke Berlin Prize together with Heinrich Eisterer, his translator into German, for the novel and its translation.

Eszter Orbán


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