Review – 6th February, 2008

Fantastic realism

István Örkény: One Minute Stories

Review–6th February, 2008


Örkény brought something radically new to literature by creating fantastic realism, which appeared to be the only valid and viable formal solution to fit a reality that had turned completely fantastic and absurd. Behind each of the almost Dadaistic situations he depicts, we sense the workings of history.

This author can still remember what an uproarious response greeted the appearance of the One Minute Stories at the 1968 Book Festival. People would actually memorise one or other of these pieces to impress friends at the coffee table – not that that required much sweating, their language inevitably working its way into the human ear and memory. What were the causes for this unprecedented literary hit? Let us look over a few reasons.
By the end of the 1960’s, Hungarian literature had reached a state of stagnation. Poetry, traditionally the leading genre of Hungarian literature, always had something valuable to offer to readers. Many of the great contemporaries who had made their name before the socialist era were still alive, and the regime, while tolerating them with a less-than-kind smile, allotted them relatively lavish means. (Sándor Weöres, Gyula Illyés, László Kálnoky, Zoltán Zelk are but a few names from a more extensive list.) Lajos Kassák and Milán Füst had died but a year before, their impact still very much alive. The weightiest authors of the middle generation, such as János Pilinszky or Ágnes Nemes Nagy, were reaching the apex of their careers, as were the representatives of rural surrealism such as Ferenc Juhász and László Nagy. The youngest generation of lyric poetry was already waiting on the doorstep. Dezso Tandori was to become the greatest figure of avant-garde of post-modernism; György Petri injected the language of philosophy into love poetry and proved the best Hungarian disciple of Kavafy and T. S. Eliot.
There was poetry aplenty, but prose and drama were threatening to be forever lost in the ever more dreary intellectual desert of the age. In such a sparse setting, Örkény’s works had an explosive effect. Besides, it was he who had set to work breathing new life into Hungarian drama. Few people knew that he was also an important prose writer. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that Tóték (The Tot Family), which premiered in 1967, may be called practically the first Hungarian absurd play, which pushed the rest of Örkény’s work into the background.
From the very outset there was a slight shadow of obscurity around him in the eyes of the Hungarian audience. His career began late. To be more precise, he made a second start in the mid-1960’s – a fact for which History or, to use a more modest phrase, contemporary politics were far more responsible than the author himself. His basic stance of self-irony is beautifully illustrated by the fact that he includes his own life story among the ‘one minute’ pieces:
This [Örkény’s birth] happened in 1912, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War (…). From then on my life has been one of continual decline. (...) Though I had always wanted to be a writer, my father, who was a pharmacist, insisted I follow in his footsteps. But, even that did not satisfy him. He took it into his head that I should have a better life than his own. So after I became a pharmacist, he sent me back to college to make a chemical engineer of me. This meant another four and a half years of delay before I could indulge my passion for writing. I had hardly put pen to paper when the war broke out. Hungary declared war on the Soviet Union, and I was taken to the front. Here, our army was made short shrift of and I found myself a prisoner of the Russians, a POW. This took another four and a half years out of my life. And when I returned home I was faced with yet further trials which did nothing to ease my way towards a career in writing. ("One Minute Biography")
Since the year of publication is 1968, Örkény could only make the most cautious allusion to the renewed difficulties that he experienced after the war. A few years of safety were followed by Communist dictatorship, then the revolution. After the revolution was stifled, Örkény was banned from publishing, as he had been the author of the renowned text which was broadcast in the independent Free Radio and which was circulated almost like a poem: ‘we lied by day and we lied by night, we lied on every wavelength.’ His father’s foresight came in handy at this point: his degree in chemical engineering allowed Örkény to take a job in one of the leading pharmaceutical firms in Budapest. The messy political and moral conditions of the age are shown by the fact that the person who ordered the factory to grant Örkény a job was the same György Aczél, head of cultural politics of those and the coming years, who had ordered a ban on his publication. The second start to Örkény’s career came about in 1966 when he published the volume The Princess of Jerusalem, which already included a number of one minute stories.
In the period of stagnation described above, Örkény arrived like the blast of a meteorite into a world of silence. Something that was hard to see at the time, but has become more clearly discernible from a distance of almost 50 years, is that he actually hit the very centre of the intellectual landscape of the time. The age itself was one of Great Reduction in the arts in and outside of Hungary. Everyone was striving for simplicity; the age of long poems, sprawling novels and great summaries was over – the epoch of the grand narrative had waned, or at least this is how contemporaries saw it. Sándor Weöres, who once wrote immense mythological poems now suddenly started publishing one-liners. János Pilinszky, after a long period of silence, came out with a volume of extremely short non-rhyming poems simple to the degree of barrenness. The most talented lyricist of the period, Dezso Tandori, wrote a two-line Zen poem in his first (1968) volume which rather clearly defines this period, “Silence instead of sound, / But silence instead of what?” In the next volume this was followed by a poem which was an empty page with only a title at the top: “The impossibility of signifying the pawn’s step on an unmarked field”’ (No wonder that Örkény himself has a one minute story whose title and ‘content’ are the same, “Empty Page.”) To go one step further, in his commentary to his second volume, György Petri claims that his greatest merit in terms of poetic maturation was that his poems had grown much shorter. In a milieu like this, Örkény’s short stories proved a revelation, and the fact that all of this happened in the prose genre rendered it extra significance.
The point at issue is realism. It is commonly known that the cultural politics of ‘existing socialism’ first made it a requirement that authors use socialist realism, while the later Kádár era contented itself with what they called critical realism. But even the honest and bona fide authors of the age (as opposed to cynical time-servers) could not possibly take this dictum seriously, even less follow up on it, even if they had wanted to, as it was little short of an oxymoron. A prose writer of ‘existing socialism’ could in no way depict the world of his age truthfully, as he kept bumping into taboos. To mention only the most powerful example, how could anyone talk sincerely about the 1960’s if one perpetually had to refer to the 1956 revolution as a ‘counter-revolution’? Under circumstances like this, realism loses credit and grows atrophied and thin. There appeared to be no way out. What Örkény found in the One Minute Stories was a way around realism and direct representation that in fact led back to realism through a trick of genius. The best of these pieces comprise entire novels in a few lines. "The Loudspeaker", "Budapest" or "The People of Técso" are excellent examples.
To make the situation worse, innumerable WWII novels, shorts stories and films discredited and watered down the tortures suffered by the victims of Nazism. Örkény’s dark, absurdist masterpieces such as "In Memoriam Dr. G. H. K.", "Snowy Landscape, Two Onion Domes" and "Let’s Learn Foreign Languages" reinstated the dignity of suffering. The greater the density, the closer we drift from realism to the world of the fantastic. In this respect, Örkény is a close relative of Kafka’s. In his seminal essay on the fantastic, Tzvetan Todorov claims that in the fantastic literature of the modernist period, largely thanks to Kafka, values become reversed; the fantastic becomes normal and vice versa. He quotes a thought experiment by Sartre:
I sit down in a café. I order a light coffee, the waiter makes me repeat my order three times, and repeats it himself in order to avoid any chance of a mistake. He rushes off, transmits my order to a second waiter, who scribbles it in a notebook and transmits it to a third. Finally a fourth waiter appears and says: “Here you are,” setting an inkwell down on my table. “But,” I say, “I ordered a light coffee.” “And here you are,” he says as he walks away. (...) if we have been able to give the reader the impression that we are speaking to him of a world in which these preposterous manifestations figure as normal behaviour, then he will find himself plunged at one fell swoop into the heart of the fantastic.
This scene sounds exactly like a one minute story by Örkény. The situation repeats itself almost verbatim in "In Our Time" and in the short stories "When It Comes to the Most Complicated Matters" and "Embarras de richesse". Suffice it to say that Örkény brought something radically new to literature by creating fantastic realism, which appeared to be the only valid and viable formal solution to fit a reality that had turned completely fantastic and absurd. Behind each of the almost Dadaistic situations he depicts, we sense the workings of history. Not only in the historical narratives – the same is true of the stories where depictions of reality are more covert. The social truth wrapped in the absurd humour of "Embarrass de richesse", for example, will resonate with anyone who remembers the ‘choice’ of commodities offered by the socialist market.
This method of writing grew to its full height feeding on many genres, and literary theorists have called Örkény’s little stories by many names. György Konrád speaks of modern fairy tales; French translator and fellow-author Tibor Tardos used the phrase Minimythes as the title to his selection of one minute stories. Both are bull’s eye appellations. From the arsenal of grand literature, the most crucial influence certainly came from Kafka’s short stories and parables. Yet Örkény also drew on the lowest strata of the literary universe. We can clearly hear the tones of Budapest cafés – jokes, mainly Jewish jokes, from Pest, snippets from the Hungarian wealth of anecdotes, the world of the folk story, news items and innumerable objets trouvés. The latter gain odd overtones from the fantastic take on reality. Often Örkény simply gives a title to material he finds ready made, and this is enough to elevate the most trivial text of everyday life to the higher, more heady stratum of surrealism ("Who Writes the One Minute Stories, You or I?"; "So Much to Keep in Mind"; "The Executioner’s Handbook"; "Instructions for Use"). Örkény was a very conscious writer. His ars poetica gives the profoundest interpretation of his own methods:
The grotesque shakes the foundations of what claims to be ultimately valid, but does not replace it with another validity. Where the full stops were before, it puts so many question marks – it does not conclude or finish but opens new ways, starts you off.
This magic of incompletion instead of finality, the rapture of setting off along new ways may have been the most powerful impact at the time when the book was published. Örkény’s short masterpieces shook the old, ossified order that had proclaimed itself final. What they offered in its place was no less and no more than the fresh promise of freedom.
Zoltán András Bán
Previously on HLO
Five one minute stories by Örkény, translated by Judith Sollosy
István Örkény: One Minute Stories
Translated by Judith Sollosy
Budapest: Corvina, 2007 (9th print)
István Örkény: More One Minute Stories
Translated by Judith Sollosy
Budapest: Corvina, 2006

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