09. 02. 2013. 10:20

Devastating silence. An interview with Szilárd Borbély

Overwhelming; gut-wrenching; the most significant Hungarian novel of the year, of the decade― Szilárd Borbély’s The Dispossessed, a powerful novel about soul-wracking poverty in a Hungarian village in the 1960s and 70s, has earned such and similar praise.

In The Dispossessed, a novel that portrays the destiny of a family in a small village in the north-eastern part of Hungary close to the Ukrainian-Romanian border, you wrote about people living in appalling poverty…

No, no, it is not appalling at all. It is an essentially mistaken approach to that world to put it like this. The poverty I described was absolutely normal, appropriate poverty when seen from the inside. One does not dream of a different sort of life there. Actually one does, but just like one dreams of a journey in space―it would be nice, but it will never happen. We did not even have a TV in those times, so we did not see the outside world.

What you are saying is that in the 1960s and 70s children in the Hungarian countryside just grew into poverty?

The poverty I described was dignified poverty, it was not the deepest one by far. The Gypsies in the village were much poorer and humiliated―in those times they had not yet forgotten the beatings they had received from the gendarmes during the war. Compared to their life, we lived like gentlemen: we had two sets of clothes, one we wore on weekdays, the other on festive occasions. And we had shoes―often shoddy and second-hand ones, but still shoes. At that time I did not feel any of these humiliating. For those who live in poverty―the have-nothings, in a broader sense―this is all natural. For instance, I truly found bread with grease and sugar tasty, since I was hungry. I did not know that it was because I ate hardly anything else that I was losing my hair and nails, had a strange skin and regularly bleeding palate, and felt dizzy all the time. At that time I felt that I did not lack in anything. I did not have too many desires. I was not supposed to have desires. As I recall, what I was missing was peace between my parents.

Is it possible to grow out of such a childhood trauma and to survive it?

Every childhood includes traumas―birth itself is a trauma. There is only a difference of grades and reactions. Psychotherapist András Feldmár claims that depression comes from suppression and lack of expression. The schism between the individual and the environment leads to depression which can be healed if we reconstruct our personality on a different level and find a new relation to the outside world. I had to do this more than once. It is an extremely difficult process, but it is one of the best ways to handle such a conflict. My reaction was childhood depression and―even though this might sound paradoxical―it helped me. Back then no one realized it, of course, the adults around me were happy that the child was quiet. It is due to suppression and expression that I learned to deal with the whole situation and to survive it. In short, depression helped me. But these processes can never be finally concluded.

Your book represents peasants as cruel creatures who follow only their instincts.

Well, murder is an integral part of peasant life. We kept animals in order to kill them. Romantic literature claimed that poverty is full of love, yet privation, the necessity to survive, the merciless selection of the strong, avidity, as well as self-surrender and self-sacrifice for the sake of future generations cause enormous emotional losses. These people did not hesitate to die out of haughtiness and stubbornness, if honesty or revenge demanded it. The lack of modern personality and emotional poverty are deeply interconnected.

The novel is centred around a kulak family of Ruthenian and Romanian-Jewish origin. The villagers, who have their own laws, norms and customs, reject them. What is the reason for this rejection?

Exclusion is a natural behaviour―it is part of the way all human associations are organized. The village in itself is not a bad thing. Western European villages have been accommodated to modernity. But in our region, the village continued to exist as a closed system. I am not an expert, but―based on the little that I know about this―I think the Eastern European peasant world has been deformed, having survived itself and its own possibilities. The Eastern European village used to be an archaic, providing and comforting community, with not an excessive amount of work, an organic culture, communal property and safety. However, the unaccomplished process of modernization individualized the village, and transformed it into a competitive, overpopulated community, which led to devastating processes. To date, Eastern European mentality bears the marks of the devastation of the village. Then in the early 20th century the village was idealized and mythicized in Eastern Europe for political reasons. This, however, was merely ideology, a false image promoted by a counter-culture which hindered modernization.

Yet you managed to break out from this milieu.

My escape is a system error, just like every individual escape. I was born to be different, and when this was discovered, I was thrown out from the nest. But the real solution should be on a societal scale.

And can you see a solution on a societal scale? Has the village changed in comparison with the conditions you described?

The contemporary Hungarian village is different in many aspects from the village of forty-fifty years ago. But the hopelessness of the villagers is the same, and the arrogance of the politicians who seem to have made the decision to leave these people behind became more shameless in comparison to the Socialist period. I am highly sensitive to the increasing child poverty. Behind the criminal news, I can recognize the aggression of fathers, eventually turned against themselves, the suffering of mothers and the anxiety of children. And meanwhile, I can also see that the migration routes are continuously closing down, and chances are decreasing. Our society, which is becoming poorer year by year in its turn, is alarmed by the sight of poverty, and fear leads to aggression. Hope is lost as studying opportunities are lost. Overworked, underpaid and humiliated teachers are not happy when they encounter talented and problematic students. I was a problematic kid myself―I caused trouble by my very existence. But in those times there were a few escape routes. All of these have been closed down by now. And when escape routes are closed, a sick and aggressive society is created, which increases the sense of illness. Consequently, hopelessness is increased. Silence can be convenient for a while for those who prefer to avoid disturbing questions, who dislike competition and inconvenient debates. But in fact, silence is the most dangerous of all.

This interview was originally published in Hungarian in Vasárnapi Hírek.

Anna Kertész

Translated by: Ágnes Kelemen

Tags: Szilárd Borbély