02. 10. 2014. 20:13

A witness who needs to be heard

János Nyíri, 1932–2002

János Nyíri was one of those talented, promising young men whose lives were radically changed by the dramatic events of the 20th century. He gave account of his experiences in novels and plays which were successful abroad but remained unnoticed in Hungary.

János Nyíri’s parents divorced when he was a small child, and since the mother could not support him and his older brother in Budapest, she sent him to live with her family in the Tokaj wine region, where Nyíri attended primary school. His father, Tibor Nyíri, a writer belonging to the third generation of the Nyugat, the most important 20th century Hungarian literary journal, was a rare presence in the life of the family. Shortly before the outbreak of the war, the young Nyíri returned to the capital. During the German occupation and the Arrow Cross rule the family lived for a while in a ‘yellow-star house’ (yellow-star houses were designated buildings where the Jewish population of Budapest was forced to move), then – with forged documents – went into hiding in the outskirts of Pest, thus surviving the Holocaust, unlike the majority of their relatives who remained in the countryside. After the war and the years of military service, Nyíri enrolled into the Academy of Cinema and Dramatic Art in Budapest to become a theatre director. He graduated in 1954 in the class of Tamás Major, a major figure of Hungarian theatre, and started working in Pest, Kecskemét and Szeged. In the autumn of 1956 he joined the protest movement of students and young intellectuals in Szeged, then traveled to Pest, where he wrote radio programs and took an active part in the uprising. Not long after Soviet tanks invaded Budapest he fled to France, and could not return to Hungary until 1973.

In Paris, he enthusiastically joined the world of the theater, studying at the Sorbonne and the Comédie Française, and giving classes at the Conservatoire. At the beginning of the 1960s Nyíri, together with his British wife, Jenny Hippisley, founded the Jeune Théâtre de Marseille, a reform-minded theatrical project which tried to create a new, open, and democratic theater. By the end of the decade the family had moved to Great Britain, and for the years to come, Nyíri would work as a director in both countries. Through his choice of plays he intended to present the French classics to the British audience and British classics to French theatergoers, but his oeuvre included important contemporary authors too (like Genet or Ionesco), as well as his own plays.

Due to the hardships and social injustice suffered in his childhood, and also being a survivor of the Holocaust, Nyíri was understandably drawn towards the Left. However, he was too much of a critical and sovereign spirit to readily accept ideologies or join any political parties. His first and most successful play, entitled If Winter Comes, is set in the world of the 1950s Budapest theatre school and relates a Romeo and Juliet-type love story between the daughter of an officer of the pre-WW2 Horthy regime and a naïve communist young man that unfolds in the midst of vibrant ideological discussions. The French version, entitled Le ciel est en bas, was presented in 1970 in Paris, dedicated to the “comrades of Budapest and Prague”. It was very well received both by the public and the critics, despite some lively discussions it stirred in the tense political atmosphere following the Paris student movements and the Prague Spring. The play became a major success in several European countries, Australia, and the United States, and was adapted to television in England, Germany and Hungary.

Nyíri’s first novel, Streets, published in 1979 by Wildwood House in London (and still not translated into Hungarian) portrays the everyday lives of a group of high school friends in 1950s Communist Hungary. It is both a personal and a collective “coming-of-age” novel which presents how teenagers having different personalities and family circumstances become grown-up men in a country heading towards revolution. This process of transformation is remarkably intensive and fast, driving the protagonists from childhood pranks into the very heart of history in the making. The vividly described political and social background reflects a chaotic world in which there is unresolvable contradiction between the official ideology of the Party, proclaimed values and the reality seen on the streets, and in which growing dissatisfaction leads to open uprising. The last chapters of the book present the dramatic outcome of events in the autumn of 1956, and the consequent fate of the main characters; they all leave the country and become disillusioned, uprooted, lonely people in foreign countries.

From a stylistic point of view, Streets is an interconnected collection of various scenes and characters, painted with fast, edgy, expressionist brushstrokes, which makes it somewhat similar to a film script. It is an uneven, not entirely accomplished novel that in parts nearly falls apart; yet it has several remarkable characters and excellent scenes that evoke convincingly the atmosphere, the language and the values of the period. A reviewer in the Financial Times said that the book was not written for readers who expect simple conclusions about 1956, and while it was “hard to get into, the novel becomes riveting and illuminating”. According to The Literary Review, “it is a complex and powerful work, deliberately unostentatious and undramatic, yet it moves and disturbs one as only great fiction can.”

Battlefields and Playgrounds

Nyíri spent close to ten years working on the next novel about his wartime experiences in Hungary. In an interview he said that “for a very long time I did not know whether I would write this novel. I had a deep apprehension about much ‘Holocaust literature’, I could not bear the ‘art’ of such books or of the sort of Holocaust films which have well-fed Hollywood actresses got up to look like prisoners at Auschwitz. For another thing, I myself never went to Auschwitz. What could I know about it? I was on the threshold for a long time and I saw many people walking through the door. Then I realized that time of waiting on the threshold was more agonizing and more important than anything else that happened to me since. I decided to write the book. I would try to reconstruct the events as much as possible. I do not despise illusion, so it would be a novel, but I would avoid moralizing.”

Battlefields and Playgrounds takes place between the late 1930s and the end of the war, and presents the steady downward slide of Hungarian society into Fascism, from the perspective of an intelligent, sensitive and precocious little boy. Contrary to Streets, which can be seen as an experimentation with literary forms (shifting narrators and points of view, combining narratives, journal fragments, internal monologues, letters, and newspaper articles), Nyíri’s second novel adopted a more conventional narrative form. We see the main protagonist, Jóska Sondor, first as he tries to escape from the constrained, rigid world of his family and rural Hungary, and then, already in Budapest, as he faces poverty and various conflicts at school. He perceives all these troubles as annoying obstacles that prevent him from freely and passionately dedicating himself to his favorite activity: soccer. The novel shows how for a long time soccer successfully bridges religious, cultural and class differences between the children. Yet at a later stage, when the former team-mates brutally beat up the two Jewish boys who came to join them on the field, it becomes apparent that the camaraderie of sport had disappeared in the general atmosphere of hatred.

Perhaps the most brilliant aspect of the novel lies in the genuine depiction of a child’s perception: the spontaneity, the down-to-earth and sometimes even cruel honesty, the amazing ability of adapting to the facts of life, combined with a unique vision of the world, blending elements of reality, imagination and dreams. Jóska is a tough, unruly and often impertinent kid, who never misses a chance to mock the faith of his grandfather, but goes gladly to the synagogue on Friday evening with his adored uncle. He can drive his teachers to utter exasperation, but would do anything to please Mr. Torma, his favorite tutor. Being a devout Christian, Mr. Torma is truly appalled by the degeneration of Hungarian society, and does everything possible to maintain the spirit of mutual respect, reason and humanism at least inside the classroom. Right until the moment when he is denounced by one of his pupils and, as a consequence, sent to his death on the Eastern front.

The novel relates increasingly tragic events, but it is far from being heavy, oppressive reading. Written in a lively, witty tone that occasionally becomes utterly humorous or movingly poetic, it is not a book about martyrdom, but about revolt and resistance, imbued with a fundamental and irrepressible love of life.

Battlefields and Playgrounds was published in 1989 by Macmillan, and quickly became a success in Britain. The subsequent German, US and Israeli editions were also highly acclaimed. The reviews unanimously considered it to be one of the best novels written about the Holocaust. The critic of the Sunday Observer declared that “it is the best novel I have ever read about the Holocaust.” The Neue Allgemeine Zeitung wrote that “hardly any novel of the previous decades can match the power of this heart-rending and moving book, full of humor and sorrow.” Kirkus Review called it “a wonder not to be missed”, and the Wall Street Journal celebrated it as “the Great Hungarian novel”, stating that “nothing in recent memory approaches the greatness – the narrative beauty, the sublime character portraits and the cliff-hanging tension and drama” of the book. The novel was published in Hungary under the original title Madárország [Birdland] in 1990 by a small publishing house, but remained largely unnoticed, aside from some favorable reviews published in a few journals, and an interview with the author entitled Is it a sin to be Hungarian?” in the prestigious weekly Élet és Irodalom. This can partially be explained by the fact that at the time of the publication Hungarian society was focusing on the stormy events of the regime change. However, even after two decades, János Nyíri’s novel is still entirely unknown to Hungarian readers and is regrettably missing from the contemporary literary canon. It is high time for Battlefields and Playgrounds to take its deserved place among the exceptional Hungarian novels that relate the Holocaust from a child’s point of view, like Imre Kertész’s Fatelessness, Mária Ember’s Hajtűkanyar [Hairpin Bend], Imre Keszi’s Elysium, and György Konrád’s Elutazás és hazatérés [Departure and Homecoming].

János Nyíri died of cancer on October 23, 2002, the anniversary of the outbreak of the 1956 uprising, just a few weeks shy of his 70th birthday. Shortly before he passed away, he finished his last novel, written in English and still unpublished to date.

This article was originally published in Hungarian in Magyar Narancs, 2014/3.

Yudit Kiss

Translated by: Szabolcs László

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