The Czech Republic and Hungary are countries of similar size with plenty of history in common, whether we look back to the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire or the common experience of invasion in more recent decades: in 1956 for Hungary and 1968 for Czechoslovakia. And you don’t have to look far to find parallels in the literature of the two countries. In Czech Books, David Vaughan looks at some of these Czech-Hungarian literary links from the point of view of a Czech who is steeped in contemporary Hungarian writing.
Adéla Gálová has translated some of the most important works of 20th century Hungarian literature into Czech, and her link to the Czech Republic’s not-quite-neighbour to the south-east is more than just an academic one. Her father is Evžen Gál, who teaches Hungarian literature at Prague’s Charles University and as a Hungarian himself originally comes from southern Slovakia. Her mother, Dana Gálová, is also one of the Czech Republic’s most prominent literary translators from Hungarian to Czech. So, although she jokingly complains that her father didn’t speak to her in Hungarian as a child, Adéla Gálová’s choice of career does not come as a great surprise. And, as she tells me, it’s a career that goes back a long way.
“At the age of eight, as far as I remember, I started my first translation. I started to translate my first book, which was a book for children, and what was interesting about it was that I did not only try to translate it from Hungarian to Czech, but I also tried to translate the illustrations. So I tried to re-illustrate it – which meant copying the pictures from the Hungarian book to the Czech version!”
Hungarian has a reputation for being a notoriously difficult language to learn. Would you agree?
“When you talk about Hungarian being a difficult language, I would like to slightly disagree here, because I’m deeply convinced that the reason why so many Czech people think that Hungarian is so difficult is because of the different phonetics of the language, not because the grammar of the language would be that difficult. I think the grammar is rather logical, much more than in the case of the Czech language, for example. So I really think that the reason why they consider it so hard to learn is because it sounds to them as if it was some Martian language!”
Which Hungarian writers are you particularly interested in and do you find strike a chord with Czech readers?
“The one who was without question the most popular after the Velvet Revolution is Sándor Márai. His books experienced a huge boom after the revolution in Czechoslovakia and Hungary, where he actually couldn’t be published, not only because of the regime, but also because he himself forbade them to publish his books until, as he literally said, the last Soviet soldier moved his leg out of his country. “
Tell me a bit about Sándor Márai and why he is so interesting from the point of view of readers here today. I suppose that one important factor is that he was born in Košice, which is today part of Slovakia and for 70 years was part of Czechoslovakia.
“Yes, he embodies in one person the entire history of this area, and that’s also one of the topics he deals with the most in his literature. It’s the atmosphere in this area, the history of this area and the specific phenomenon of being what the French call “bourgeois”, the Czechs call “měšťan“, meaning a particular part of the middle class…”
It’s something typically Central European that you associate with the Austro-Hungarian Empire – a middle class urban culture that was quite sophisticated but quite provincial at the same time.
“And the moment that interests him the most is the vanishing of this phenomenon in society.”
“Vienna, to me it was the tuning fork for the entire world. Saying the word Vienna was like striking a tuning fork and then listening to find what tone it called forth in the person I was talking to. It was how I tested people. If there was no response, this was not the kind of person I liked. Vienna wasn't just a city, it was a tone that either one carries forever in one's soul or one does not. It was the most beautiful thing in my life. I was poor, but I was not alone, because I had a friend.”
Sándor Márai, “Embers” (1942) trans. Carol Brown Janeway
Sándor Márai was born just at the beginning of the last century, so he really lived through the whole of 20th century history, but he actually died before he could experience the post-communist transformation.
“Yes, unfortunately he died just a few months before the regime changed.”
One thing that is prominent in both Hungarian literature of the second half of the 20th century and Czech literature of the same period is the theme of the Second World War and the Holocaust. If I think of writers here and in Hungary, such as the Nobel Literature Prize laureate Imre Kertész or Arnošt Lustig, both of whom who survived the Holocaust, this is a theme that has haunted them.
“In both countries you can find novels already shortly after the Second World War and the Holocaust that are dealing with the topic, but they are more descriptive. They deal more with the facts. After the  revolution, it seems to me that the writers both here and there attained the necessary distance from the historical event itself to work the topic out in a philosophical, more metaphysical way. And one of the writers who I think is most important is the Nobel Prize winner, Imre Kertész, whose book I have just finished translating and it is going to be published next month or so.”
And this book is called in English “Someone Other: The Chronicle of the Changing”.
“It’s a sort of mutation between an essay and diary notes, based on his short notes on the Holocaust and on identity, which is the second topic which he deals with the most.”
I believe that when Imre Kertész was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Czech writer Arnošt Lustig was another of the front runners, both writing about the Holocaust.
“Lustig is a story-teller in the first place. Kertész is not so much of a story teller. He tries to embrace the topic more generally and more philosophically, which in my opinion is the only possible way to approach the topic so that it will say something about the essence of the entire problem.”
Lustig and Kertész have often been mentioned together, but politically they went in completely different directions. Arnošt Lustig became very much a Jewish nationalist and a strong supporter of the right in Israel. Kertész has always distanced himself far more from Jewish nationalism, hasn’t he?
“He never managed really to express what it means for him to be a Jew. That is one of the topics that he is dealing with all the time, and in all his books that is what he tries to find out what it is to be a Jew. Of course, he also went to Israel, where he tried to find ‘the way home’, as he calls it, but disappointedly he has to state that he never lived through the feeling of finding the way back. The only place where he feels at home is his writing.”
But I believe in writing — nothing else; just writing. Man may live like a worm, but he writes like a god. There was a time when that secret was known, but now it has been forgotten; the world is composed of disintegrating fragments, an incoherent dark chaos, sustained by writing alone. If you have a concept of the world, if you have not yet forgotten all that has happened, that you have a world at all, it is writing that has created that for you, and ceaselessly goes on creating it; Logos, the invisible spider’s thread that holds our lives together.
Imre Kertész, “Liquidation” (2003), trans. Tim Wilkinson
We’ve talked quite a lot about the older generation. How interested are young Hungarians today in what is happening on the literary scene in the Czech Republic?
“There definitely is lively exchange between the two nations. There are two characters in Czech literature that have gained almost cult status. They are the fictional Švejk and as a writer, Bohumil Hrabal. Many Hungarians have read most or all of Hrabal’s books and liked him very much, and I think one of the reasons – or maybe the reason – why the Hungarians picked these two – Hašek’s Švejk and Hrabal – is because they both portray something that is so untypical for the Hungarians: this kind of humorous, light approach to political and life issues, which for the Hungarians really is very untypical.”
Does that mean too that Czech readers find a refreshing depth or philosophical aspect in Hungarian literature? For example, you’ve already mentioned the difference between the storyteller Arnošt Lustig and Imre Kertész as a more philosophical writer.
“I didn’t want to draw such a strict line between the two of them or the two literatures. I definitely wouldn’t dare to say that Hungarian literature is philosophical, deep and serious and that Czech literature is light and humorous. That’s not true. But yes, when you read the contemporary Hungarian literature, when you watch the contemporary Hungarian films or the theatre, it shows some features of a more serious or philosophical approach to the topics. I think it might be influenced not only historically, but also it might be the influence also of the current political situation in Hungary, which is more controversial than the political situation in the Czech Republic. The young people in today’s Hungary might have the feeling that it puts some significant weight on them.”
And what are you working on at the moment?
“Right now, I am not working on anything, because I am expecting a baby in a couple of weeks! But, as soon as possible, I would like to finish my own novel, and then, maybe, I would like to go on translating Imre Kertész. I feel him as the author of my heart.”
You mention that you’re going to complete your own novel. I hope that we shall have the chance to talk about that before too long in this programme. But I know that you’re not going to tell me anything about the novel now, so I’m not going to ask you about it… You already have one daughter and you’re expecting a second child very soon. Do you speak Hungarian with your family?
“My first child, my daughter, refused with all her strength to speak Hungarian. I don’t know why. She wants to speak English, but I’m determined not to allow that to happen in the case of my second child. I just want the second child to speak Hungarian.”
So it’s going to be total immersion.
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