06. 12. 2009. 07:31

Claiming the dead

The art of István Szilágyi

There will always be that one author who defies description, who does not follow any definite movement: that one writer whose works cannot be pared down to fit into any one genre or style. Such is the case with István Szilágyi.

One of the roles of literary criticism is to place authors and their works within a distinct moment in time: to provide the reader with a setting surrounded by the props of an appropriate literary movement. Authors must—to a certain extent—be contained. Generally, it is not only useful, but also quite necessary to think of a literary work as a reflection of historical, personal and societal influences. Yet, there will always be that one author who defies description, who does not follow any definite movement: that one writer whose works cannot be pared down to fit into any one genre or style. Such is the case with István Szilágyi.

 
Interestingly enough, the tumultuous events that shaped and defined a great deal of István Szilágyi’s childhood do not provide any direct inspiration for his novels, and receive only a glancing reference or two in some of his short stories. Born in 1938, in Kolozsvár (Cluj), a major city in the Transylvania region of modern-day Romania, Szilágyi experienced very little peace or stability before World War II not only took his father, but also determined that the nearly two million Hungarians living in Transylvania would thereafter be citizens of Romania. As a war widow, poverty forced István Szilágyi’s mother to move her family from relative to relative throughout the demolished cities of Eastern Transylvania that were traditionally strongholds of Hungarian culture, such as Zilah (Zalau), Nagyvárad (Oradea) and Szatmár (Satu Mare). By 1956, the year Szilágyi completed his secondary education in Szatmár, Nicolae Ceausescu’s brutal efforts to assimilate Hungarians had greatly reduced educational opportunities for those whose native language was not Romanian; this perhaps explains why Szilágyi first became a metalworker. In 1958, however, he was accepted by the university in Kolozsvár to study law, a degree he completed in Romanian. 
 
While Szilágyi never actually practised law, attending university in Kolozsvár placed him in the midst of a flourishing literary movement headed by Hungarian literary journals such as Utunk (Our Road), where Szilágyi’s short stories were first published. After joining the staff of Utunk in 1963, a total of three collections of short stories and the author’s first novel, Anvil, Drumbeat and Bell, were published during the period of 1964 to 1971. (Utunk was later renamed Helikon, and from 1990 to the present, Szilágyi has been its chief editor. As a result, the author’s oeuvre also includes a wide variety of journalistic writings.)  Although his masterful use of language attracted the attention and support of critics from the very beginning, Szilágyi attained lasting, international recognition in 1975, with the publication of his monumental novel, Ko hull apadó kútba (Stones Falling Down a Dying Well).
 
Stones Falling Down a Dying Well
It took nearly a decade and numerous, abandoned manuscripts before István Szilágyi finally succeeded in finishing this novel, spanning almost 500 pages, that centres around the fate of Ilka Szendy, an independently wealthy, young woman who despises the society she lives in. Set in the latter part of the 19th century in Jajdon, a name containing the Hungarian exclamation of shock and pain, “jaj,” the novel opens just after Ilka has murdered her married lover, Dénes Gönczi, the poor vineyard worker, whose body she then hides in her garden, at the bottom of an abandoned well. 
 
At this point readers would expect a work resembling a cross between Crime and Punishment and Madame Bovary, showing a character corrupted by her crime and trapped in her status as a woman. But what the reader finds instead is a novel with shifts of time, memory and narrative, resulting in a work that bears little resemblance to a 19th-century novel. As she obsessively fills the well in her garden with stones, the reader realizes that the quietly seething, dangerously clever and ultimately tragic figure of Ilka Szendy owes far more to Electra or Antigone than to Madame Bovary. Similarly, István Szilágyi’s omniscient and omnipresent narrator (who frequently punctuates the narration with lengthy philosophical ruminations) is hardly the traditional narrator of 19th-century novels. His/her identity, or even sex, is unclear; he/she seems to be someone from a future generation of Jajdon’s inhabitants.Thus, Szilágyi’s seemingly traditional usage of an omniscent narrator adds an exciting layer of tension to Ilka’s struggle to face the burdens of her past: only a future generation can narrate the truth, long after Jajdon’s unique society has crumbled to dust. At the same time, revealing this truth also serves to resurrect the hierarchy of lies and secrets that held Ilka Szendy hostage. In the end, the fact that Ilka Szendy never fully acknowledges the extent of the Szendy family’s sins leads to her violent death; by chronicling the truth, however, the narrator alone succeeds in laying this intricately drawn world to rest.
 
István Szilágyi’s beautiful portrayal is most detailed when relaying the hierarchical relationships that connect peasant to craftsman, apprentice to master, and child to parent, resulting in the seemingly invincible structure that is Jajdon. In fact, Stones Falling Down a Dry Well could well be classified as a sociological handbook on late 19th-century Hungarian society if it were not for its highly symbolic use of language. 
 
Since its first appearance in 1975, Stones Falling Down a Dry Well has seen at least five more editions, as well as being translated into German, Romanian, Polish and Slovak. Today it can safely be said that the novel has been canonized a classic, yet critics and readers alike still find this portrait of 19th-century society to be fresh and modern. A historical novel portraying the decline of an epoch through the disintegration of a great family, this novel is an elegy to a time and place dead and gone, as well as a ballad of star-crossed love, or even a murder mystery.  
 
Age of the Raven
It is not easy for a writer to recreate the kind of success that continues to surround Stones Falling Down a Dry Well. In fact, Szilágyi’s next novel, Agancsbozót (Antler-Thicket, 1990), came as something of a disappointment to readers who had spent fifteen years waiting for another Ilka Szendy. At this point, it looked as if István Szilágyi would go down in history as an author with only one truly great book to his credit. Then, in 2001, Hollóido (Age of the Raven) appeared, a novel that not only earned the author the highest award given to artists in Hungary, the Kossuth Prize, but also international recognition as a work recommended by UNESCO’s Clearing House for Literary Translation.       
 
Set in the late 16th century, Age of the Raven brings to life another imaginary town called Revek, located in southern Hungary and dominated by the Turkish forces of the Ottoman Empire. The main character is a young boy whose real name is never known; the reader is only told that he arrived at the household of Pastor Lukács Terebi under mysterious circumstances, as an orphan and almost certainly a bastard. In the beginning of the novel he is known as “the student”, but later, he matures into The Scribe, a process that constitutes one of the main themes of Age of the Raven: is it possible for an intellectual to influence not only his surroundings, but also the course of history?   
 
The student’s struggle to become an educated, free thinker capable of saving Revek and its inhabitants from the prowling Turks is not an easy one. First of all, he must discover the truth about his origins, a mystery that successfully propels the reader through this 500-page volume. Revek’s inhabitants have lived so long under Turkish occupation that they have forgotten what free thinking means. As Revek’s enigmatic schoolmaster, Master Fortuna, bitterly states:  
You have no idea what it means to belong somewhere. What’s worse, you don’t even need to know what it means—it’s not a lack gnawing at your liver. You simply belong. The guard lines up in front of the palace in a row of blue, just for the sake of protecting you, ready to follow your every command. You can muster your own army—true, it may not be the best or the biggest, but ’tis your own. You can build a tower or cast a bell, without even once having to beg for permission. Yes, you can even be your own rebel! Here, on the outside, ’tis always different. The other. Them. Those. Have you any idea what a great thing it is to be able to rule your own country? This is something you’ll never understand because you… you get to live it. I have eked out the last few years here and am forced to admit: I conform to my oppressors even when I rebel against them
When Turkish soldiers take Pastor Terebi hostage, it is eventually the student who succeeds in the dangerous mission of exchanging his favourite book, a rare manuscript called "A Chronicle of the World", for Pastor Terebi. Thus does Szilágyi add another layer to his portrayal of how war first erodes, then twists scholarship to its own purpose: the student’s hard-won intellectual abilities are put to use in negotiating with the enemy, while a wondrous book becomes booty for a greedy despot. 
 
Impatient with diplomacy’s slow pace, Master Fortuna brings a band of fearsome, renegade soldiers known as “the headhunters” to Revek. Violence leads to violence, and Revek is burned to ashes, leaving a group of Master Fortuna’s former students as the sole survivors. At this point the narration—characterized by the same kind of omniscient narrator and flashes of memory seen in Stones Falling Down a Dying Well—breaks. The characters have been abandoned; as they escape Revek on horseback, there is no calm voice leading them to the end of their tale, only Master Fortuna’s cryptic orders and the knowledge he impressed upon them in the classroom. One of the boys takes up the narration, relating how they became soldiers fighting for a homeland that no longer existed. As this boy takes the reader from life in a 16th-century garrison to the battlefield where an entire generation is either lost or marked forever, it suddenly becomes apparent that, yes, a scholar can change the course of lives and alter history. But is it actually worth the price? 
 
Age of the Raven is a harrowing description of war and the psychology of occupation, a portrayal of a boy’s development into manhood, a student’s slow development into a scholar, a thrilling tale of spies and intrigue, a philosophical treaty on 16th-century religious thought, and an incredibly detailed depiction of a long-gone society that, somehow, still seems familiar to the modern reader. 
 

 

Maya J. LoBello

Tags: The art of István Szilágyi, István Szilágyi