12. 16. 2011. 09:46

An even quieter revolution V: A high mark for Miklós Mészöly

Miklós Mészöly has already been referred to in several previous articles as a major ‘godfather’. Given the influence he has had on just about all major authors writing in Hungarian today it is surprising how virtually nothing by him has ever been published in English.

Mészöly (1921–2001) was a major influence on the slightly younger Imre Kertész and Iván Sándor (both b. 1929), Péter Nádas (b. 1942), and Péter Esterházy (b. 1950), and even on writers of a much younger generation, such as László Darvasi (b. 1962). Yet the only collection in English published by him is one that can only be purchased in Hungary itself, a volume entitled Once There Was a Central Europe, published in 1997 by Corvina Books in a translation by Albert Tezla.

That cannot be accounted for by the complexity of his style: Mészöly wrote in a plain, straightforward but very precise language in quite short sentences, eschewing descriptive adjectives or attempts to describe individual psyches. What characterises it is the way he chose to focus on people, objects, and events with an acceptance of their randomness and the possibility of co-existence of widely separate entities, sometimes with seemingly jolting leaps of focus. Tellingly, he was a master at withholding the precise bit of information that would have enlightened one as to the method behind the seemingly arbitrary narrative.

Thus, for instance one of Mészöly’s short stories from 1973 entitled “Térkép Aliscáról” (Map of Alisca), is more or less what it says: a brief list of selected features (some from different centuries) which could be associated with the place. What is not said anywhere is that Alisca was the Latin name for Őcsény, a settlement 6 km north-east of Szekszárd (Mészöly’s town of birth) in County Tolna in southern Hungary—place at which there are archaeological finds from the Bronze Age, as well as remains of a Roman military camp, and graves from the Árpádian era (i.e. the early centuries of Hungary in the first millennium), most of them referred to, directly or indirectly, in the text. Strikingly original as such stories are, readers have to work to piece together a full understanding of why they are being told and what Mészöly chose to tell in them.

It is an allusive approach which was not uncommon in eastern Europe (driven by the need to suppress certain comments to avoid undesired attention from the authorities) and compatible with literary trends in France or German but seen as alien to writers in English, where readers have become accustomed to being led by the hand. It was indeed an object of suspicion for Hungary’s cultural tsars as well, leading them to ban publication of most of his work for a good two decades. The turn came only after the manuscript for his first novel had been turned down by the two main literary publishers of the time (Szépirodalmi Kiadó, then Magvető Könyvkiadó), a decision that the Hungarian powers felt obliged to reconsider after Mort d’un athlète was published by Seuil in a French translation by György Kassai in 1965 which was soon followed by a West German edition of a translation by György Sebestyén for Hanser Verlag of Munich in 1966. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, through gritted teeth they permitted publication of Az atléta halála (1966), which in turn led to publication in Swedish (1967), Czech (1970), Polish (1971) and quite a few other languages, but not English.

In an essay volume entitled A pille magánya [The Loneliness of the Moth], published in 1989 (i.e. on the cusp of Hungary’s nominal democratisation), Mészöly himself notes:

To be very honest, it was not purely on an appealing whim that I chose a Biblical quote as the epigram for my 1968 novel Saul, which relates a big parable in sporting terms and similes. No, it was very deliberately. Sport without a soul is nothing. As is a soul without sport. All one has to do is put in place the words, the sense and practice of the words.

The Biblical quote in question (perhaps not surprisingly) was drawn from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly so fight I, not as one that beateth the air.” Unlikely as it may seem to anyone not familiar with the two works, that instantly ties the two novels together conceptually.

A similar potent allusiveness was clearly at work even a decade before with the novella Magasiskola [High School], which was written in the summer of 1956—emblematic year—and published later in the same year but little noticed for a decade. Ostensibly it deals with the capture and training of falcons for use on Hungarian farms to protect crops from birds and was made the basis for a rather well-received 1969 film by István Gaál under the same title in Hungarian but misleadingly renamed The Falconers in English (it won a special prize when shown at Cannes in 1970).

It also needs to be pointed out that both book and film clearly antedate Barry Hines's A Kestrel for a Knave (1968), which was the basis for Ken Loach's marvellous 1969 film Kes, though the inspiration for Hines's short novel was (as he himself has explicitly acknowledged) T. H. White's 1951 short novel The Goshawk, which concerns White’s own concentrated duel during the training of such a bird. This was almost certainly unknown to Mészöly, who was clearly more attuned to French literature (Camus in particular) and whose inspiration was in any case a genuine pioneer of falconry in Hungary in the post-war year: a man called György Lelovich, nicknamed “Greylag” after the goose, who in turn was inspired by what one presumes was a Hungarian translation of Baz-nama-yi Nasiri—a 1874 Persian treatise of falconry by Taymur Mirza (Husam al-Dawlah Timur Mirza, who died in 1874. As the version Mészöly quotes from is different in certain details from the English text as translated by Lieutenant-Colonel D.C. Phillott in 1908, it is more useful, when necessary, to translate directly from the Hungarian text.
 
At the time High School was composed, adult fictional works with a nature theme were still quite common. In the English-speaking world one need think only of Tarka the Otter of 1927, undoubtedly the most widely read novel by naturalist and writer Henry Williamson (1895–1977), although that had more of less overt links with the ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality soon to be associated with Hitler and the Nazis. In Hungary the genre could retain its potency, naturally with a quite different symbolism, as was demonstrated by Vidravas [Otter Snare, 1984], which was by far the most popular of four novels or short novels and a dozen or more collections of short prose put out over three decades after 1953 by Erzsébet Galgóczi (1930–89), who was not defined simply by her peasant background and sympathies but also, for instance, by a clear anti-extremist line, including opposition to Hungary’s nominally left-wing secret police.

Mészöly’s novella in fact starts off just like a typical nature story:

A dawn fog is drifting over the settlement, with sunrays breaking through the billows, flashing and dying away like bursts of Morse signals. Then the wind mixes everything up. A distant muffled rumbling trundles over the plain; the herd of horses is now galloping to the drinking troughs... A solitary eagle wheels above the fishponds; its eyes rounded like two glass pearls, fixed, its feet glinting yellowish, its long wingtips sharply raked back. It doesn’t sink, doesn’t rise, it maintains its altitude as if it were gliding around a slick track, then, shifting direction with a barely noticeable tilt…

Inhabitants of the game reserve in question:

Further off, in an aviary by the waterside, common and night herons stand to attention with ceremonial stiffness; huddling in the corner a couple of coots and hooded crows—birds of quarry. Condemned to death they may be, nevertheless a bucketful of fish waste is their due every day. There is a need for their powerful flight, their harpoon beaks, so that they will be worthy opponents for the trainee falcons. Some of them carry the marks of a disfiguring plucking on the neck and breast—those are veterans that have endured five or six exercise flights.
 
After a few deft further paragraphs, the story switches to its main concern:

The only shade anywhere around is the falcons’ quarters; the slate-grey hunters rest in the shade of an acacia grove. They are lined up next to each other on the gnarled perches like statues that are ready to come to life. At first glance, one would not believe that their legs were tethered to the perches; true, the leashes are ornately plaited, with the jesses having a silvery glint.
These noble savages are always reared in parallel with the animals that are their prey and feed; together, but never in the same place...

And then almost immediately:

Greylag, the boss of the establishment, came to meet me off the train with his two saddled greys (he dubbed himself Greylag after the prey, the wild goose, that he most liked to bag, since when that’s what everyone calls him, including big Beranek when he sends him an official document from head office). He could be seen behind the red storage cabin from a long way off. He sat in the saddle with a straight, immobile back, and the horse pricked up its ears with that same immobility. That image immediately stuck with me. Nor did it surprise me that he was waiting for me behind the “cover” of the cabin.

We are introduced to the Persian authority before Greylag and Mészöly have trotted their way to the game reserve:
   
“Prince Taymur, Husam ‘d-Dawlah Taymur Mirza… Does that name say anything to you?”
I sensed from his voice that this was a pet topic of his; he enthusiastically plunged straight in.
“A lot of people refer to him by the initials as H.D.T. this, H.D.T. that… but to me that is being disrespectful,” he said. “In point of fact, people should read his remarks over every single day. Myself, I can’t drop off to sleep otherwise. There’s something miraculous about how that pointy-headed Persian knew everything in advance! There’s nothing new; nothing changes in the way we do things. You have to catch wild animals the same way, train them, even the methods for disciplining them are the same… everything. Nature does not grow old. There’s no climacteric here, with everything going crazy all at once…

This leads more or less directly into an account by Greylag of a recent experience he had witnessed of wanton cruelty:

He could see that one of them was rhythmically hitting something with a metal pump: the two birds were fluttering their wings at their feet. Greylag let out a great bellow, at which the men in overalls straightened up in surprise. Victoria, her right wing trailing, was still trampling on the heron’s belly, then, on seeing her master, she lurched over towards him. But she no longer had the strength to fly up onto the glove; she dropped senseless to the ground. According to Greylag’s trustworthy account, the conversation between him and the two strangers went as follows:
    (Greylag): “And who are you two?”
    (Older stranger): “We might well ask the same of you.”
    (Greylag): “Very well. I’m the boss of the experimental station here. Aren’t you ashamed of yourselves? No better than animals, brutes… with a pump?! Have you any idea what this bird is worth?”

And so it continues. There is little doubt that Mészöly had some fairly direct parallels in mind:

The impressions of the first few days are strangely mixed up. You have to get used to the constant wind, the absence of shade; if you wish, you can ride hard on horseback for miles on end without feeling that you have got anywhere; the firmament over the plain shuts you in like a cage of light; it’s as if you had a billion-watt lamp shining in your eyes, it’s always on your heels, finds you wherever you are; you might as well be sitting in a cell, behind bars, where a hundred-watt bulb would have the same effect; if you could at least see someone in the vicinity who joins you and speaks to you, then you could resolve to remain silent, but there is nobody anywhere, not a person to be seen. You will confess.

There is a vivid description of struggles with floodwater:

In the middle of the night, after a prolonged drizzle, the station was battered by a tumultuous cloudburst. One of the assistants rapped on the door to tell me to hurry that instant. I sprang out of bed.
    “Where to?”
    “The quarters!”
    “What’s happened?”
    “For the birds… the water is flooding them out… Hurry!”

Apart from a tense description of Greylag’s patient efforts to pinpoint and obtain a young peregrine falcon from a rock cliff in the wild there is little further action, and the novella ends with the narrator (Mészöly) being taken to the railway station, with the conversation ending

 “You won’t recognise [the birds] when autumns come round! Then I’ll be taking this lot to the Big Show…”
 His eyes sparkled with pride, because for him, I now know, this was the Big Satisfaction, the splendid exhibition that headquarters put on every autumn. That one day made him forget even the vile pranks of the youngsters in the neighbourhood, the hatred and failure to understand...
    That was what Greylag was dreaming about as he fed the clumsy-clot fledglings. And why would they be successful—that did not even enter his head. Every aspect of the show was tried and tested and effective; it instantly carried the crowd along with it. All that was required was to perform accurately and in an orderly fashion and the applause would come.
    Taymur writes this about displays:
“First to be seen is the procession of falconers and their retainers. The horsemen step onto the ground equally spread, on well-matched mounts, at a slow gallop—the slower, the better… The falconer who takes part likewise approaches at a slow gallop, covers half the ground, before turning towards the Prince’s dais. He halts at twenty paces then, with his horse, looks the Prince full in the face for one second. After that he slightly raises his head and holds the arm carrying the falcon diagonally upwards...”

Which leads more or less straight to

He [i.e. Greylag] took leave of me with male tight-lippedness.
“I’ll be happy to see you any time,” he said and gripped my hand firmly. “And do come to see the show, and write how you found it.”

And that, bar a couple of closing paragraphs, is the end. A neatly rounded story that seemingly says little but in fact a great deal about the Hungary of the time High School was written.

Tim Wilkinson

Tags: Miklós Mészöly