Migrants in Hungarian literature I: emigrants

“Leave the place that is not good for you. Those who are leaving are right to do so. And they will regret it, just like those who are staying.” (Endre Kukorelly)

These months, Europe is experiencing the biggest wave of migrants since World War II. In Hungary, the issue exploded in the hot summer of 2015, with thousands of migrants arriving in the country daily. While the media image of Hungary sunk to an all-time low, this development brought out the best and the worst instincts in locals, deeply disturbed by images of exhausted families living in tents at Budapest’s Keleti Railway Station and stalwart young men marching through border villages. Most of the migrants do not want to say in Hungary, however―their intention is to continue toward more affluent Western and Northern European countries.

Both for historical and economic reasons, Hungary has certainly not been a popular target for immigrants in the last few centuries. According to 2014 figures, migrants make up less than two per cent of the country’s population. For over a hundred years, our problem has typically been emigration rather than immigration, with only a few considerable waves of immigration. Even at those times, however, Hungarians were not confronted with people coming from distant cultures as the immigrants were mostly ethnic Hungarians from neighboring countries―mostly from Romania, but also from Slovakia, Ukraine, Croatia and Slovenia. In this blog entry, I have collected some Hungarian writers and poets whose oeuvre was influenced by the experience of living between two (or more) worlds.

The great wave of emigration that started in the 1870s and lasted up to World War I is documented in a recent novel by Imre Oravecz, a major poet and novelist. Oravecz had spent years in the US in the 1970s, travelling back and forth between the US and Hungary, before eventually returning to settle in his native village. In 2012, he published Californian Quail, a novel about his grandparents who emigrated to America around the turn of the century. The life of this generation of emigrants―about 1.5 million Hungarians, mostly young agricultural and industrial workers―has not really been part of the national memory, except for the mere fact of their absence, present in a well-known, powerful line by Attila József: “s kitántorgott Amerikába másfél millió emberünk” (roughly translated as “and one and a half million of our people staggered to America”). Oravecz did extensive research about the life of Hungarian communities of workers on oil rigs in Toledo, Ohio and Southern California, who left Hungary with the intention to make some money and return. Many of them, however, including Oravecz’s grandparents, eventually decided not to return to their homeland, as the world they had left behind was lost forever, ravaged by World War I and the Treaty of Trianon that ended the war, in which Hungary lost roughly two-thirds of its pre-war territory and one-third of its population.

When the initial hope for a better future after World War II was quickly disproved by the Soviet occupation and the Communist takeover, a number of Hungarians chose emigration, among them Sándor Márai (1900–1989), one of the most successful writers of the pre-war period. With an astonishing clairvoyance, Márai foresaw that Communist power would entail a complete loss not only of freedom of speech but of freedom of silence as well. He decided to leave the country, and lived the remaining 41 years of his life mostly in the US, yet hovering in the void. A non-person for official Hungary, a writer without an audience in America, Márai continued to write in Hungarian, and published a number of books, including his diaries and Memoir of Hungary, a fine account of the years 1945–48, including his decision to leave the country. He committed suicide in San Diego in 1989, and did not live to see his renascence in Hungary and his international success after the translation of Embers.

If the summer of 2015 was an all-time low in the international image of Hungary, the autumn of 1956 was certainly the highest ever. The Hungarian revolution was regarded as the fight for freedom of a tiny nation against a tyrannical empire, and Hungarian emigrants were seen as heroes―the gorgeous, dauntless Hungarian freedom fighter on the cover of Time Magazine was voted as Man of the Year. As the new Hungarian government, headed by János Kádár, officially declared the events to be a counter-revolution, writers who emigrated in 1956 were punished by damnatio memoriae in their homeland, similarly to Márai and others who had fled from Communism. Victor Határ, George Faludy, János Nyíri or György Ferdinandy never really became part of the Hungarian canon, although they continued to write in Hungarian (Ferdinandy wrote in French and Spanish as well, while Nyíri wrote mostly in English and French), and two of them returned to their homeland―Faludy lived the last two decades of his life in Hungary, Ferdinandy moved back in 2010.

As none of the writers mentioned above switched languages, they could not be integrated into the literature of their chosen countries. Agota Kristof, however, who fled to Switzerland in 1956 with her husband and young child, wrote in French, a language that she learnt as an adult, and that she claimed she never managed to learn perfectly. Her case is especially interesting as the success of her Trilogy―narrated by a set of twin brothers living in symbiosis during the war, then separated by the division of Europe―is due not least to the eerie, fragmented language in which it was written.

Some writers who emigrated from Hungary in 1956 and became successful in their chosen countries have played a mediating role, translating and disseminating Hungarian literature. Two poets living in the UK should especially be mentioned here: George Szirtes, the T.S. Eliot Prize-winning British poet, the translator of Sándor Márai and László Krasznahorkai; and George Gömöri, who has translated several volumes of poems by Miklós Radnóti and György Petri, in collaboration with British poet Clive Wilmer.

The first decade and a half of the new millennium has seen a new wave of emigration. In the intoxicating years of the regime change, most young people believed that once the Communists are toppled, Hungary would catch up fast with its Western neighbors. This did not happen, however, for a variety of reasons, including the resurfacing of major traumas and antagonisms within the society that had been suppressed during the Kádár era, as well as the economic crisis of 2008, the repercussions of which hit Hungary extremely hard. Hundreds of thousands of Hungarians, many of them young and well-educated, left the country, mostly to Western Europe, especially the UK, Germany and Austria.

As opposed to those who emigrated in the previous waves, the writers of this new generation mostly create in the language of their chosen countries―some of them very successfully so, like Terézia Mora, who left the country in 1990 for personal rather than political reasons. Mora, who writes in German, has garnered such prestigious awards as the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize and the German Book Prize. Her books revolve around the experience of being between two worlds: the stories in her collection entitled Seltsame Materie take place in a village on the Austro-Hungarian border, whereas her novel Das Ungeheuer takes the reader on a journey through Eastern Europe. Mora keeps close ties with contemporary Hungarian literature; she has translated a number of books (by Örkény and Esterházy, among others) into German.

Another Hungarian who has won the Deutscher Buchpreis is Melinda Nadj Abonji, who emigrated to Switzerland from the province of Vojvodina in Serbia which has a large population of ethnic Hungarians. Her novel Tauben fliegen auf recounts the experience of a family of immigrants in Switzerland, whose identity is further complicated by the fact that they arrived in the country from a minority status.

Ágnes Orzóy

Ágnes Orzóy is the editor of Hungarian Literature Online (hlo.hu) and editor-at-large at Asymptote (http://www.asymptotejournal.com/). She also writes reviews, teaches literature, and translates from English into Hungarian.

Ágnes Orzóy ist Redakteurin bei Hungarian Literature Online (hlo.hu) und Asymptote (http://www.asymptotejournal.com/). Außerdem schreibt sie Rezensionen, lehrt Literatur und übersetzt aus dem Englischen ins Ungarische.

Ágnes Orzóy is the editor of Hungarian Literature Online (hlo.hu) and editor-at-large at Asymptote (http://www.asymptotejournal.com/). She also writes reviews, teaches literature, and translates from English into Hungarian.

Ágnes Orzóy ist Redakteurin bei Hungarian Literature Online (hlo.hu) und Asymptote (http://www.asymptotejournal.com/). Außerdem schreibt sie Rezensionen, lehrt Literatur und übersetzt aus dem Englischen ins Ungarische.

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