When we consider the context of Bodor’s writing, we must take into account Hungarian literature in the broadest sense, as Bodor is originally a minority author from Transylvania. This sets him aside in the formal sense both from his original setting and his present environment.
Ádám Bodor, who has been living in Hungary since the early 1980’s, was born in Kolozsvár (today Cluj, Romania) in 1936. At the age of sixteen he was convicted as a political criminal and spent the years 1952–54 in prison. From 1955 to 1960 he was a student at a Protestant theological college and worked for a while at the Diocesan Library of the Transylvanian Protestant Church. His first book (A tanú – The Witness) was published in 1969 by Kriterion (Romania), while in Hungary his debut piece was a collection of short stories entitled Milyen is egy hágó (A High Mountain Pass, Magveto 1980). He later became an editor for the same publishing house. In the 1990’s he became familiar to the wider reading public, after the publication of his novels Sinistra körzet (Sinistra District, 1992, Magveto); Az érsek látogatása (The Archbishop’s Visit, 1999, Magveto); the most comprehensive collection of short stories to date, Vissza a fülesbagolyhoz (Back to the Great Horned Owl, 1997, Jelenkor), as well as a confessional, autobiographical piece which was eventually given an interview form (A börtön szaga – The Smell of Prison, 2000, Magveto. Parts of the interview have been published in The Hungarian Quarterly, No 165; 166; 167). Several of his works were made into films, the latest of them being director Zoltán Kamondi’s movie Dolina, based on The Archbishop’s Visit (see our review).
This constitutes a typically Eastern European life story – yet the facts are, as usual, unable to reflect the fullness of the human life to which they refer. This is a life the frames of which bear the stamp of the post-Stalinist dictatorship of the socialist block, further exacerbated by the merciless minority policy through which the Ceausescu regime ostracised ethnic Hungarians living in Romania. The discrimination they suffered fundamentally determined the cultural attitude of these minorities. Living in a permanent state of danger, the ethnic communities made it their chief agenda to retain their identity and to protect their cultural historical traditions and language. The Romanian state sanctioned the use of Hungarian and did what it could to hasten its deterioration. Consequently, literature, the most important medium of language, acquired the function of serving the integrity of the minority society, of maintaining the community. This set Transylvanian writers against the modernist trends of the 20th century and put them back in a 19th century context of politically committed movements aspiring to independent nationhood. In the tactical and strategic games of preservation and survival, writers became the spokesmen of the nation.
Encoding and decoding messages between the lines is the feat of writing and reading in any dictatorship. This is matched by the demand on the readers’ behalf to interpret the text like a riddle, to decipher messages about taboo topics. Hungarian literature in Transylvania, quite understandably, placed the emphasis on the rescue of its cultural-historical heritage, while literature in “mainland” Hungary put equal stress on the problems of the individual, the dilemmas of people broken in their freedom and robbed of their own personal stories. (True, similar attempts to break the historical sense of identity were also easy to sense in Hungary, even if these attempts were different in their extent and content.) Thus, progressive authors of works written in Hungary had a chance to renew the bourgeois literary tradition, while Hungarian authors in Romania were again and again standing up for the national entity. This description is to some extent exaggerated and overlooks many of the nuances of the history of Hungarian literature in Transylvania over the past 50 years, but my aim is simply to capture the chief trends and the motivations in the background.
Based on unconditional national and political solidarity, Hungary paid special attention to Transylvanian literature. After the transition of 1989, this attention shifted. The trend in contemporary literature in Hungary which had its roots in the bourgeois and avant-garde tradition entered into dialogue with minority authors in Transylvania who filtered the core questions of minority existence through their own personal autonomy; whose works lack a direct ideological charge; in whose works the memory of being stigmatised and imprisoned is free from the web of specific historical grudges and pressure; and the experience of living in oppression has been transfigured into metaphors or parables of the human condition. This group, ranging from Zsolt Láng through András Ferenc Kovács to Zsófia Balla), can be said to include Ádám Bodor as well, but the stubborn consistency of his voice and his silences still set him apart from the others as an insular presence.
Bodor’s art proves that if an author living under the suffocating influence of dictatorship deliberately or unwittingly develops a sensitivity for concealing, simulation and parabola, he or she can acquire a radically modern capability for world-building that points beyond political dimensions and creates authentic prose. One of the unique traits in Bodor’s prose is that while situations unfold in detail, motifs are left incomplete or merely hinted at, whereas the outside world, and particularly nature, are given minute description. Bodor has spun a writer’s life out of the brutal determinations and restrictions of his existence. For me, practically all areas of life were determined by being convicted as a political prisoner and having spent two years in prison. […] I am happy that it happened. To be sure, mine has been the life of a person bearing an existential stigma, but in the background it was charged not with the clinging shadow of frustration but with the richness of the pleasures of life, says Bodor in The Smell of Prison. The world he depicts always stands in correlation with the natural universe as an uncontrollable superior force, while there is no doubt that this power has its independent laws and narrative. Man living in this natural setting may from time to time attempt to cancel or re-write this narrative, not without some success, but without the hope of ever truly taming the force of nature. Although man is a part of nature, the latter is stretched out around and over humans as always incomparably mighty. Bodor clearly has the intention to stress the importance of the climate and the environment in practically all of his writings, in all the possible formations they may assume, all of which point beyond man. It is on this “model table” that he positions society, in the form of zones, districts, areas and enclosures. All of which, naturally, let us in on predictable but varied and colourful versions of the rule of power. As critic Gergely Angyalosi writes, “The problematic of the ‘district within a district,’ which occupies such a central place in Bodor’s oeuvre, took shape gradually from the vapours of the prison in 1950s Romania. In prison your main fear is still the prison. That they will deprive you of the last remnants of your freedom, Bodor says, and this explains how close the parallel is between the motif of the prison or district and Eastern European existence.
Bodor’s districts are comparable to the Zone in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, although here they are reservations rather than sacred spots for purification and salvation. By virtue of being isolated, they are places where the primordial aspirations of power are enacted, where human solidarity takes the shape of mutual dependence and where the only adequate response is flight. Human relationships, Angyalosi goes on to say, “are stripped down to raw objectivity and the predominance of material needs, where the other person as an object of emotional need is nothing more than an object among all the others. At the same time we could not say that all of the emphasis is purely and only on rigid objectivity and an individual struggle for survival. Strangers are tied together by an indifference which, however, still allows for some kind of pity; couples by mutual dependence on and use of each other but there, too, there exists some dry, objective compassion in the background.”
A solitary young woman sat beside the post. She was wearing a plain, roughly cut brown cloak and some cheap shoes on her bare feet. In her hand she held a net carrying gherkins to pickle. She had come on the morning bus from some place where gherkins grow, we read in the first lines of High Mountain Pass. In this short story, merely two pages in length but truly slow in its time structure, the woman never moves from the bus stop where heaven only knows when a bus might appear… she indifferently turns down the offer of a car driver who is willing to give her a lift. Hours later, at half past six, the bus finally appears. It now seemed as if she had been waiting for this six-thirty bus ever since the morning. Perhaps for something else, perhaps in vain. Or perhaps she just wanted to know what it was like at a high mountain pass, the story ends. Bodor knows everything about the world of his chosen subject matter, but as for the people who crop up in it from time to time, he seems to be orienting himself by chips off a rock – all we see is a brief glimpse, a hazy image through a glass, darkly. “Scaffold in winter. We know nothing.” (János Pilinszky: Scaffold in Winter)