11. 08. 2013. 15:49

Turkish times in Hungarian eyes

"Stars of Eger" in Turkish

A new translation of the novel that won Hungary's Big Read survey was launched last week at the Istanbul Book Fair. A story of patriotic heroism and romance, Géza Gárdonyi's novel recounts the improbable victory of the defenders of the fortress of Eger.

A new anthology of Hungarian poetry in Turkish from the beginning to the present day was launched at the 32nd Istanbul Book Fair, held between 2–10 November 2013. Hungary had an independent stand at the International Hall, with several hundred volumes in Turkish, Hungarian and English on show, as part of the Publishing Hungary programme of the Hungarian government. Turkish readers had a chance to leaf through numerous works by classical and modern authors, including books by Sándor Márai, Attila József, Magda Szabó, Ferenc Molnár, Imre Kertész, Szilárd Rubin, György Dragomán, Attila Bartis and László Krasznahorkai, as well as Antal Szerb’s History of World Literature.

The two Hungarian programmes at the Book Fair included the launch of the new anthology, and a talk about the presence of Hungarian literature in the world. The director of the Balassi Institute in Budapest Pál Hatos announced that the Hungarian presence in Turkey will soon be enhanced by the imminent establishment of a cultural institute in Istanbul as part of the network of Hungarian cultural institutes, coordinated by the Balassi Institute. The Hungarian audience will also get a chance to engage with Turkish literature as Turkey will be the guest country of the 2014 Budapest Book Festival, held in April.

According to Hungarian translator of Turkish literature Edit Tasnádi, Turkish people tend to be open to foreign literature. Lately there has been a renewed interest in contemporary Hungarian literature, with translations of works by Imre Kertész, Sándor Márai, István Örkény and Péter Esterházy appearing in recent years.

An especially interesting case in point is the new Turkish translation of a Hungarian novel, published in English in 1991 with the title Eclipse of the Crescent Moon by the Budapest publisher Corvina. Géza Gárdonyi’s 1899 novel, the title of which is literally Stars of Eger, was rated first in the Hungarian Big Read survey in 2005. A great favourite of generations of Hungarian kids, Stars of Eger takes place in 1552, the year when the Ottoman army besieged the fortress of Eger in Northern Hungary. A story of patriotic heroism and romance, the novel recounts the improbable victory of the Hungarian defenders of the fortress, which was partly due to the ruse of the protagonist, Gergely Bornemissza (whose name literally means ‘non-drinker of wine’). Sadly, this triumph proved to be a short episode in the century-and-a-half-long history of Ottoman rule in Hungary that soon followed.

The novel has been translated into many languages: English, German, almost all the languages of Eastern Europe, and even Chinese, Vietnamese and Russian. Turks, however, had to wait more than a hundred years to be able to read it in their mother tongue. The translator of Stars of Eger, Erdal Şalikoglu, used to work in Budapest as a medical doctor, where he also played Hungarian and Turkish folk music together with a Hungarian musician. A few years ago he decided to translate Stars of Eger because, as he says, he wanted Turkish people to understand how Hungarians felt and thought about their common history. “I wanted to remain neutral while translating the book”, Şalikoglu told the Hungarian paper Magyar Nemzet, though he confessed it was hard at times, especially when he felt Gárdonyi didn’t do justice to the Turkish side, for example when he portrayed Turkish warriors as less capable fighters than Hungarians. Some of the data concerning the Turkish army were also falsified, he says; historians have proved that the number of the besiegers that Gárdonyi puts at 200 thousand was far less, about 40 to 60 thousand. “And as for the whirling dervishes dancing in front of the sultan, they are completely fictitious”, Şalikoglu adds. “Whirling was a sacred business, one couldn’t just do it on the road – besides, it would have been an impossible feat.”

Gárdonyi’s book is written from the point of view of a Hungarian writer for whom, as is the generally accepted opinion in Hungary, the Ottoman rule was a disaster from which the country could never fully recover. An interesting counterpoint to Stars of Eger is provided by a recent Hungarian book, Turkish Mirror, written by Viktor Horváth, winner of the European Prize in Literature in 2012, which portrays everyday life in Ottoman Hungary from the point of view of an old Muslim man.

Ágnes Orzóy

Tags: Viktor Horváth, Géza Gárdonyi