04. 06. 2009. 11:36

God is telling me to shout

Károly Pap and Azarel

Similar to the character of Gyuri Köves in Imre Kertész’s Fatelessness, Gyuri Azarel is a young boy capable of intellectual observations far above what would normally be expected. Released from the rules and conventions that define an adult’s existence, a child can ask and say anything; in the case of Azarel, this results in a narrator who hides behind the mask of childhood in order to gain free expression.

The key to understanding Károly Pap’s life and literary work can best be found in his short story, Blood. A perfect work in itself, Blood contains all the themes and characteristics that define this author’s art: an obsessive quest for truth ultimately leading to self-destructive rebellion, a sense of defiance verging on the suicidal and a hollow despair deepened by an overwhelming knowledge of his own isolation. 
 
Similar to Azarel, the main character of this work is also a child whose personality could be interpreted as a kind of alter ego to Károly Pap himself. According to Blood’s extremely simple plot, a kosher butcher arrives at the synagogue in order to carry out the ritual butchering and bleeding of a flock of geese. The main character—“the rabbi’s son”—looks on in fear and disgust, while simultaneously overcome by the need to drink the butchered geese’s blood the way Christian children do, something their mothers say will make them strong and handsome. In fact, the boy longs to be strong and free, to race through the streets like all the other children and never again be lonely. He does not want to be different: in other words, he does not want to be Jewish. 
While it is only by committing the deadly sin of drinking the geese’s blood that the boy can leave behind the dire loneliness and total isolation surrounding him, renouncing his religion would also cause a deep schism between himself and his family, his past and everything else familiar. The boy drinks the blood and falls unconscious, beset by a deathly illness. Later, struggling to recover, the boy asks his father, the rabbi, why he cannot drink blood like the other children. The father’s reply leaves no room for compromise: “Because they aren’t like you and you can never be like them.” As the father continues to explain, the boy was born a Jew and the son of a rabbi, and as such will forever be a Jew, just like his ancestors were before him, a fact that cannot be changed even if he drinks blood. When similarly confronted by the ominous predetermination caused by God’s will, the main character in Azarel, Gyuri Azarel, finds that his only choice lies in turning his back on God. Not surprisingly, this decision was also made by the author himself, who denounced his father, Judaism and any other connection to God in order to take his place in the world, where he looked to literature as his salvation. Needless to say, Károly Pap was eventually disappointed by this as well.
 
Life: a battle with the father
Károly Pap was born in the city of Sopron in 1897, the son of Miksa Pollák, an enlightened, intellectual and typically assimilated Hungarian Jew who regularly published essays on literature while also serving as the rabbi to a neologic congregation located in Sopron. From the time he was a small boy, Pap regularly found himself in confrontations with his father, a struggle directed not so much toward Miksa Pollák personally, as to the kind of Judaism he represented. According to Károly Pap, the process of assimilation had leached his father’s religion of the spiritual, resulting in a functional belief that closely resembled a profession expressed in a series of mundane activities. Even after joining the Red Army and playing a role as city commander in the Communist revolution of 1919, Pap’s rebellion never truly focused on any concrete object or person, for his interpretation of Marxist and Leninist theories was colored by the kind of illusions typical of most pipe-dreams. As could be expected, Miksa Pollák disowned his son from the pulpit; any further contact between son and father was minimal from this point on. 
 
Following the defeat of the revolution, Károly Pap was arrested and taken to prison. Fortunately, he was not sentenced for political reasons—a charge that could easily have resulted in execution—but for theft. After serving a year and a half in jail, Pap lived for a time in Vienna, then returned to Hungary, where he struggled to support himself with a variety of jobs. At one point Károly Pap even worked in a coffin factory, where he made coffins by day and then slept in one by night. In fact, his first poems were actually written on a coffin lid.
 
In 1923, Pap showed his poems to Lajos Mikes, a highly-respected editor of a Budapest newspaper. While Mikes immediately sensed Károly Pap’s enormous talent, he also found his poetry lacking in form and therefore convinced Pap to experiment with prose instead. At Mikes’s request Károly Pap wrote his first short story, which was subsequently published in 1923 in a daily paper with a mainly middle-class audience, called The Budapest Journal. This event marked a definitive moment in Pap’s career, who almost immediately discovered his own, literary voice and produced dozens of short stories in an explosive outpouring of talent. The author’s unrestrainable compulsion to write lasted until 1937, the year his autobiographical novel and best-known work, Azarel, appeared in print.
 
After 1937, Károly Pap laid his artistic ambitions aside in favor of writing political tracts and pamphlets, few of which he ever attempted to have published. At this time he also  mentioned working on an enormously lengthy novel surrounding the life of Christ, but only a few fragments of this work have been found. In 1944, Károly Pap was summoned to a forced labor camp; in 1945 he was later deported from this camp and taken to Buchenwald. Records show he was still alive on January 31, 1945, the day he entered Bergen-Belsen. After this date no further traces remain of Károly Pap. Eternal opposites in life, their fate was still the same, for Károly Pap’s father also met his end in Auschwitz. As the author discusses in a tone of bitter anger in his pamphlet Jewish Wounds, Jewish Sins, published in1937, “assimilation is a failure,” a statement underlined by the fact that neither the assimilated father, nor the rebellious son was able to escape the Nazi concentration camps. If they had survived, Károly Pap most certainly would have asked his father what point there had been to assimilating—through his literary works Károly Pap continues to battle with his father, even after death.
 
The Figure of Christ
It can hardly be debated that Károly Pap perceived his own life as a kind of redemption similar to that experienced by Christ, a figure he inevitably arrived at through literature. Károly Pap’s attraction to the example of Christ’s life was unavoidable, for in Jesus he found an example of a Jew who turned his back on Judaism, abandoned his people’s faith and rose up against anything that smacked of compromise, shallowness, or the sins committed by his elders. In Károly Pap’s interpretation, Jesus Christ was nothing less than a revolutionary, a social rebel and a forerunner of anti-capitalism who cleansed the temple of all peddlers. It is no secret that Károly Pap saw numerous similarities between his own life and Christ’s, a fact that most likely kept him from completing his novel based on the life of Jesus, for the subject matter was probably far too personal. Yet it is also true that Christ-like figures generally stand at the center of most of Pap’s depictions, even if appearing under other names. Examples of this can be found in Álarcos Mikáel Krisztus, the main character of Pap’s first novel, The Death-Redeemer, as well as in the author’s description of the character György Leviát in his work, Eighth Station of the Cross, the story of an artist whose attempts to paint Christ’s face always end in defeat.
 
As the author László Németh aptly described Károly Pap’s situation, “Károly Pap’s monomania can be assuaged by one work, and one work alone: a novel about Christ. Yet it is with precisely this work that his imagination constantly struggles. He builds it up, throws it all away, then plots each and every detail with painstaking care—only to fall into a quarrel with the whole. He manages to grasp it all, then becomes thoroughly ensnared by the first chapter. For years he has been running back and forth bearing the constantly changing versions of his novel on Christ: like a mythological character damned by the gods to accomplish the impossible, he girds his loins by making a public display of his labor. In the end, however, he spends so much time switching from weapon to weapon that combat is always put off until another day.” Modern readers, however, can be relieved at Károly Pap’s lack of success, for the surviving fragments of his novel on Christ (especially true in the case of the short story entitled Jesus’s Sermon on the Border of Magdala) are closer to being lofty religious tracts than literature. It is an aesthetic triumph for both Károly Pap and his readers that the author was never capable of directly portraying Christ; instead, Pap depicts the many faces and aspects of Christ throughout his entire oeuvre.
 
Azarel
The young boy at the center of this novel, Gyuri Azarel, also proves to be yet another Christ in disguise. A rebel from the very first, this child Jesus refuses to accept his half-mad grandfather Jeremiah’s obsessive quest for the essential meaning and significance of the all-redeeming tenets. His heart conquered by cold reason, Jeremiah holds every worldly object—whether drink, food or idea—to be impure and sinful, yet would not hesitate to sacrifice even the life of his grandchild in return for a true explanation of the Ideal. There is no doubt that this goal will end up a ridiculous fiasco. Indeed, paralyzed by his feelings of impurity, Papa Jeremiah never makes it to the land of his dreams, Jerusalem, and when his grandson finds him lying dead in the “meditation tent” erected for the purpose of locating the Ideal, the reader clearly understands that a cheerless death has put an end to a barren and meaningless life.
 
At the same time Azarel also rebels against his father, the neologic rabbi, for the boy is precisely aware of the fact that his father’s faith is not based on religious conviction, but rather rooted in professional arrogance. As a result, Azarel judges his father to be a lying hypocrite who does not believe in God, yet claims to believe out of cowardice. In contrast to the grandfather’s crazed conviction, the father’s faith is nothing more than an adherence to convention; it is therefore natural that Azarel eventually comes to question God’s very existence. After all, if God did exist He would not tolerate such hypocritical lying: “There is no God, there isn’t, and you’re nothing but wicked liars!” This is what Azarel accuses his parents of, before running away to become a beggar amongst Christians, a role that frees him to imagine himself as a Christ-like martyr willing to bear any misery in return for the truth.
 
In Azarel, Károly Pap successfully combines traditional novel elements—such as the conventional family saga, or novels of a child gaining maturity—with a variety of mythological or metaphysical elements. Similar to the character of Gyuri Köves in Imre Kertész’s Fatelessness, Gyuri Azarel is a young boy capable of intellectual observations far above what would normally be expected. Without this bit of artistic license, Károly Pap’s rendering of this tale would be less believable, for a child can utter truths that would sound far more wooden coming out of the mouth of an adult. Released from the rules and conventions that define an adult’s existence, a child can ask and say anything; in the case of Azarel, this results in a narrator who hides behind the mask of childhood in order to gain free expression.
 
With relentless consistency, Pap leads the reader from event to event, finally culminating in the explosive scene of Azarel racing into the synagogue and yelling out in the middle of his father’s sermon, “God is telling me to shout, God is telling me to shout!” Then he falls in a faint, just like the young boy in Blood.  This fainting spell represents a symbolic death, for Gyuri Azarel believes that he actually died. While recovering, he continues to believe that he is dead, a fact his parents haven’t seemed to notice. After death, the next logical step is resurrection, but in this case Gyuri Azarel’s rebirth is marked by a sense of resignation: the boy lies to his father and everyone else that he has forgotten everything that happened beforehand. Thus, Gyuri Azarel takes his place in the world of hypocritical adults bound by convention. The boy has gained a wealth of experience, and now knows that his rebellion must take an alternate form.  The author obviously intended Azarel’s path to lead him into the disciplined world of an artist, at least according to Károly Pap’s plans for a sequel that was only partially realized in a short story entitled Azarel in Budapest. The following inner monologue marks Azarel’s estimation of himself and his past: “There’s no denying it—a lack of discipline or any true position leads to an ineffective life. I’m far too scatter-brained—always scurrying about in utter dread or in a fevered rush. First I skulk about in the shadows, then I explode in a burst of energy, a Jew, a creature of the East. Art, however, takes a sense of balance, a fine sense of restraint. This is what the art of living demands as well. If I can’t develop both of these in myself, then I’m doomed. This is my final chance to get a grip on myself, to watch my every move! I have to grab myself by the scruff, like an animal! Then hold on with an iron fist, otherwise I’ll fall apart like I have so many times before, scattered to the wind just like the people I come from. And what a downfall this would be! Here I am, the last descendent in a family of lasts! Hardships like these are difficult enough to be fatal. No matter where you look, whether at your family, your relatives, or yourself, all you see is great powers crumbling to nothingness. And you—you pose the biggest threat of all.”                 
 
In the end, Károly Pap never truly attained this sense of discipline. He remained, to his final days, a rebel, a writer who was—to a certain extent—his own worst enemy. Incapable of forcing himself within the constraining rules of iron form, he instead glittered white-hot, creating a heat that rendered his art uniquely individual.   
 
Károly Pap: Azarel
Translated by Paul Olchvary
South Royalton, Vt.: Steerforth Press, 2001
 

Zoltán András Bán

Translated by: Maya J. LoBello

Tags: Károly Pap