Bullies, adventures and slingshots, absent parents, totalitarian systems, chalkboards and cruel teachers, the brutality of adults, the mercilessness of children. – A portrait of György Dragomán.
It’s been a busy couple of years for György Dragomán. The feature film The White King was released in the UK in June 2016. Around the same time the original Hungarian novel of the same name which has been translated into more than 30 languages (!!!) was given a second publication. A Chorus of Lions became his second work after The Bone Fire to be shortlisted for the much coveted 2016 Aegon prize. And this is all on top of the existing Bródy Sándor prize for best debut novel (The Book of Destruction) and the Márai Sándor prize (The White King). Here is our portrait of the prolific György Dragomán.
Bullies, adventures and slingshots, absent parents, totalitarian systems, chalkboards and cruel teachers, the brutality of adults, the mercilessness of children. The White King described in the NY Times as "a cold-war Huck Finn". A fictional world "designed by Joseph Stalin and Roald Dahl", and it’s this clash of totalitarianism and magic which characterises Dragomán’s stories best, placing them among David Mitchell's and Marjane Satrapi's. But with his latest collection of short stories A Chorus of Lions, the writer has proven that he is not only a writer of children’s voices, as the short stories feature a mixture of young and adult narrators. What he actually enjoys writing, as he stated in an interview with KönyvesBlog, are monologues; the only reason he writes about children so much is his “memory is frightfully good”.
And much of the subject matter of Dragomán’s work does riff off memories of his own childhood. Born in Târgu Mureș (Marosvásárhely) Romania in 1973, a major town in the Transylvanian Székely Land, Dragomán lived in a small council block with his parents during the Ceaușescu regime. In a documentary made by Litera, Dragomán explains that after signing an illegal petition his father was arrested and taken away with no information of when he would return. He suggests their flat could easily have been bugged. In 1988, after his father was released, they moved at his father’s will to Hungary’s most Western point, Szombathely, where the writer spent his high school years before ending up in Budapest. Landmarks of Dragomán’s abandoned boyhood can be found throughout his novels, the blocks of The White King smack of the family’s flat in Târgu Mureș, while the house in The Bone Fire draws from his grandparents’ quaint semi-detached house in the same town.
In Szombathely Dragomán met his future wife T. Anna Szabó, the poet, and together in Budapest the two confected their own private writing school, Szabó writing Dragomán a poem a week, Dragomán a short story for Szabó. The two are still married in Budapest. Their eldest son has already set out on his own literary career after publishing a translation of the first of the British novel series Tom Gates. Dragomán himself stepped onto the literary stage through translation, debuting with a translator’s nightmare: Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, followed a year later by Welsh’s Acid House. Perhaps a sticky residue of Welsh’s grotesque violence has remained in the lawlessness of Genesis Undone or The White King, or the brutality of Emma’s grandmother and teachers in The Bone Fire.
Dragomán wrote his PhD on Samuel Beckett and we’d be wise to look there for influence. The writer’s protagonists may not be base down-and-out souls of the underworld themselves, as in Beckett, but on their adventures his heroes routinely encounter the dregs of society, those who’ve fallen through the cracks. Be they a deformed man who keeps songbirds in his shack, chiding hard-labourers, an alcoholic grandfather forced into retirement, or countless school teachers cruel to the point of buffoonery. And every so often a superior being soujourns to the lower levels, as when violent inspectors knocking at the door.
At the end of such encounters, anecdotes or adventures Dragomán doesn’t present any conclusions. In The White King Djata is naively unable or too stubborn in his faith to reflect on his environment and draw closure on his experiences, and so, like with Beckett, the chapters remain nothing more than details from a stagnant unchanging existence. Djata is stuck, he sees the reality of the bleak totalitarian world around him, but in his naivety or in the stubbornness of his own faith fails to acknowledge it; regardless of the building evidence and rumours, Djata continues to insist that his father is doing scientific research by the sea, rather than in a prison camp digging a colossal canal. Meanwhile in The Bone Fire, Emma listens to story upon dubious story from her grandmother, failing to question their validity or to provide any reflection, at the end of such an anecdote a chapter might simply come to an abrupt close. There is no revelation.
Ádám Bodor also seems to have a hand in constructing Dragomàn's worlds. We might assume that The White King takes place in a Romanian town in the 70s to 80s, but the location or period is never named. This fuzziness in time and space sharpens a magical air to the text, and is notably expanded upon by the new feature film, where the environment seems distinctly Hungarian but the characters distinctly American, and costumes nod towards the 70s while technology reaches centuries into the future. Dragomán states in the Litera film that he never intended to write about the actual town of his childhood Târgu Mureș. And why strive for the absolute truth, he explains, when our own memories are far from reliable. Instead, using ellipses and adjustments to his memory, he creates worlds like Bodor’s Sinistra Zone, caught between fiction and reality.
And we couldn’t give an honest portrait of Dragomàn without mentioning the winding Dragomàn sentence, that coasts across two pages in one breath, and glides past commas, heaping detail upon detail, of the body or a classroom, with no full stop in sight. A stream of consciousness he may have learned from Beckett or Nàdas, zipping along from one thought to the next, drawing no conclusions. The bottomless sentence only serves to heighten tension; something must be awry, though the reader has no time to pause and consider the facts. Urging on the clauses are the misunderstandings, naiveties and desires of the narrators trying to make sense of an unruly reality, it’s a hyperrealist flowing description of a mad world, and hurtles on right up to the last beat:
... and I raised the crowbar above my head and ran, faster and faster, as fast as I possibly could, and then faster after the police van.