07. 08. 2009. 12:35

Berlin, then and now

Szilárd Borbély: Berlin-Hamlet

Berlin-Hamlet is a rich tapestry of "subjective", "pseudo-subjective" and "meditative" texts, all related to present-day Berlin, though tinged with memories of more sinister places like Wannsee, where the decision about the systematic extermination of European Jews was taken by Nazi bureaucrats in 1942.

Berlin-Hamlet, originally published in Hungarian in 2003, is a curious, often enigmatic cycle of poems by Szilárd Borbély (born 1964). From the poems it transpires that he spent some time in Berlin. The book consists of 49 poems   of various lengths and mood in free verse. The poems can be divided into five different sub-genres, though they are not grouped as such; allegories, letters, fragments, poems about places (in Berlin and Vienna), and epilogues. The positioning of one of the ‘epilogues’ is rather enigmatic. Why should "Epilogue 1," "the recording of a drawn-out scream" of some kind of a mythological creature, come almost at the beginning of  the book? "Epilogue II", on the other hand, at the end of the book contains axiomatic statements of gravity: "God’s being is an open box, filled/ with the dead". In Borbély’s Berlin the dead are present almost as much as the poet’s own contemporaries.
 
Indeed the second half of the title, “Hamlet,” indicates that the author is compelled and constrained by the spirit of the Father or/and of the deceased relatives. The spirit of a much earlier Berlin is also there in the form of certain crypto-quotations from the childhood reminiscences of Walter Benjamin (not familiar with readers who know only of Benjamin the critic) and edited texts from Franz Kafka’s letters to Felice Bauer and others. Kafka serves as yet another "Hamletic" character, hesitating between Prague and Berlin, work-oriented loneliness and marriage with Miss Bauer, a problem for long unresolved. Finally, the author himself is "Hamletic," that is, hesitant to commit himself to the city, while walking through the intriguing scenery of post-1989, united Berlin. This is an often bleak, disturbed, but also a vibrant and colourful city, full of foreigners and passers-by; indeed, some of the most striking images and memorable lines come from place-poems such as "Schöneweide", "Alexanderplatz" or "Tiergarten" (see excerpts on HLO).
 
Berlin-Hamlet is a rich tapestry of "subjective", "pseudo-subjective" and "meditative" texts, all related to present-day Berlin, though tinged with memories of more sinister places like Wannsee, where the decision about the systematic extermination of European Jews was taken by Nazi bureaucrats in 1942. While one could challenge Péter Nádas’s view that Borbély’s poetry is “epoch-making”, it is certainly carefully constructed, conscientious and relevant. The previously little-known translator Ottilie Mulzet should be thanked for it; she is also the author of an informative but somewhat long-winded “Afterword” which tries to associate Borbély’s cycle not only with Benjamin and Kafka, but with the less famous Hungarian poet and playwright Erno Szép. The slim volume is published in the poetry series of Fra Publishing, Prague, with Michal Rydval’s photograph on the front page.
 

 
This review was originally published in World Literature in Review.
 
Szilárd Borbély: Berlin-Hamlet
Translated by Ottilie Mulzet
Prague: Agite/Fra, 2008

George Gömöri

Tags: Szilárd Borbély