04. 20. 2006. 11:42

He who died six times

An interview with Imre Oravecz

"I had to go as far as America, to get to know the Hopis and the Pueblo Indians, to find my way back home. All in all, I wanted to get away; and long after I finally did, I realised it had been a mistake – in a way, a failure. However, it took me half of my life to understand this."

It is hard to believe that the poems in your 1972 volume and in your 1998 volume were written by the same person. To what extent do you perceive your oeuvre as a coherent one? Do you think it is important for an oeuvre to be coherent?

I used to have a brief and aggressive answer to this question. Once I sat on a podium with a critic who tried to convince me and the audience that I always write very different things. I told him he was wrong and that I always did essentially the same thing. I do believe coherence is important, and I do perceive my body of work as coherent. At the same time, it is also important for one to follow something through, and when finished, to try out something new. It does not have to be a conscious decision. My first volume, for example, proved to be a total dead-end. I had to suspend writing and turn away from literature for a while. I started again five or six years later, and, however different I became, I still believe my oeuvre is coherent. One cannot always do different things.

Could you explain what the common ground is in your volumes – some of which are radically different from one another in terms of their poetic language? What is the common seed, the common way of thinking or seeing that makes up your poetic career?

I myself am the common ground – my personality and my effort to express everything in the most accurate and most palpable way – though I know this effort in itself does not necessarily make a poet. Over the years I realised that writing transforms everything into something else. For example, when I write about a plant, after a while I come to a point where every single word starts to gain an additional sense. I do not mean it becomes a symbol of a grand issue – like, say, the fate of a nation or a person. I only mean that in the process of recording there is always an element of secret. However, it does not mean that there is only one true way to describe a plant or anything. There can be – and there have to be – many different ways.

The geometrically constructed, hermetic poems of your first volume (Héj – Shell), apparently inspired by Trakl and Celan, were published in an era when rural (as opposed to urban) literature was the ruling poetic trend. In contrast to this, Halászóember (Fishing Man) was published at a time when rural literature was actually dried out. It seems to me as if you constantly tried to contradict or provoke ruling literary trends. Is it the outcome of a conscious decision? Are you repulsed by literary fashions?

Yes, I am, especially when this or that fashion becomes the one and only true way of writing. However, I do not intend to provoke anyone. The parallel with “rural” literature is only superficial in the case of Fishing Man. The similarity is only thematic; the goal, the approach and the style are altogether different. It is true that I contradict the ruling trends; however, it is not the outcome of any conscious decision. For example, I have been writing poems in English for a while, and that can be seen as provocation. I am sure some people will even stigmatize me for it.

I was planning to ask you why you decided to write poems in English.

I have developed such a relationship with the English language that I felt I should try it and try it now.

Does it mean that there is something you cannot convey in Hungarian, something that can only be said in a different language?

There is no practical consideration in my decision; it was a very subjective, personal move on my part. In the course of events, I happened to get close to the English language. I have long flirted with the thought of writing in English. From that moment on, each of my volumes had one or two English texts in it. However, it was only a game for me – until now. I take these new poems much more seriously than the earlier ones.

Did you write them for the Hungarian audience?

Well, I don’t know. When I wrote them, I did not have an audience in mind. Those who speak English may read my poems and think they are weak or not typical of me. Those who do not speak English may be irritated by them. However, I think it is good that two Hungarian literary magazines are willing to publish poems written by a Hungarian author in a foreign language.

You live a solitary life in Szajla (a village in Northeast Hungary), in the house you built in the place of your old family home. Is this total isolation rooted in your personality, or is it the outcome of a deliberate decision?

It is rooted in my personality; however, isolation is not the best word for it. Although I live in a little village in Heves County, I go out a lot. Also, I believe that writing – and creation in general – requires solitude, a kind of solitude that you can always suspend if you like; for, it is awfully important for one to have friends. Last but not least, I am over sixty now. The best I can do at this age is writing.

You have said several times that you want your writings to be more than literature; you want them to be documents of life. Do you think this kind of ars poetica can still be fruitful in the post-postmodern era of the twenty-first century?

Well, you seem to have misunderstood what I said. I believe any great fiction can be applied to reality. Take, for example, East of Eden. It is a novel rooted in fiction; however, it is like life. It is about real issues that concern all of us. One should not write only for literary critics, nor should one write only to contradict literary trends. The way I see it, great works – like, for example, War and Peace – do not belong to any trend. Tolstoy probably did not care about literature when writing his novel, which becomes obvious when one reads his later short stories. As you can see, my statement about literature as a document of life has nothing to do with literary documentarism. Fishing Man justifies me, in a sense. It was read by a lot of people who do not usually read poems or literature in general, and they read it as a document of life. Literature is not for literary critics, and one should not write only for them.

Writing Fishing Man took you ten years. Did you spend any of this time collecting material? Did you talk to people? Did you search for documentary evidence, look up names or anything in books or letters? Knowing you as an overtly precise, “documentarist” writer, so to speak, I do not doubt that these names and places do or did exist and that everything happened precisely the way you have told it. Did you need to do any research in the history of your village, or was everything ready in your mind? Was everything rooted deeply in your family heritage and the heritage of the village community?

Yes and no. Some part of it was ready in my head, but I also did a fair amount of research. For example, when I was not sure of a name or a date, I asked someone of the elder generation about it. Yes, the aspiration for authenticity is part of my personality, though I did not always know about it. When I found this method and saw it would work out for me, I felt I had finally found the material that suited the language I found appropriate.

What was the role of family heritage in your life as a child? How much did your parents talk about your grandparents and their lives as emigrants?

My family immigrated to America at the end of the nineteenth century, came back, left again and stayed there, except for my father. I was told he had been taken home by my grandmother because of a family argument; however, later it became clear to me that it had not been completely true. My grandfather had been different from what I had heard about him. The usual story – it is always the grandchildren who do justice between parents and children. All in all, our so-called “family heritage” was a negative example in the eyes of my parents. As for the English language, my father took notes in English in his calendar even as an old man. If it was to keep my mother from reading it, I don’t know, but I know that when he came back at the age of eighteen, he barely spoke Hungarian. He was brought up in Canada. So, family heritage was present, but it wasn’t a very disturbing presence. My childhood took place in a rural environment among peasants, and I always wished to get out of this environment, because I hated that we always had to work. We had a small patch of field, and with my father away at work, me and my mother had to farm it. As a poet, it took me a long time to rediscover this world, and when I finally did, I did it in a roundabout way. I had to go as far as America, to get to know the Hopis and the Pueblo Indians, to find my way back home. All in all, I wanted to get away; and long after I finally did, I realised it had been a mistake – in a way, a failure. However, it took me half of my life to understand this.

So, you say it was in America that you understood what Szajla really meant for you.

Yes, it was the Hopis that made me recognise the importance of my past. I do not know how much people know about them. Pueblo Indians – unlike the Indians in films riding their beautiful horses on the vast prairies – are peasants. They have grown their food in the desert, under appalling circumstances, for thousands of years. It was only when I got acquainted with their culture that I started writing again. I wrote the Book of the Hopi.

How did you end up among the Hopis?

It was in 1973 that I visited the United States for the first time. Among the books people recommended that I buy there was the Book of the Hopi by Frank Waters. Part of it is science, and part of it is fiction, but I did not know this at the time. Later, when I suspended my career as a poet and started studying cultural anthropology, I read the Book of the Hopi as well. I only visited the Hopis after my own version of the Book of the Hopi was published. It was a great surprise for me, because today’s Hopis live a modern life, and I realised I would not have cared about them if I had known them earlier. So, my book is about an ancient Hopi society that, thanks to the Spaniards, had already ceased to exist when the English settlers arrived in America from the East. The scene of the book is Northern Arizona, where the Hopis have been living up to this day. When writing the poems, I did not know any Hopi poems or songs. I heard one or two of them only after the publication of my book. There is no such thing as “Hopi literature”. Hopi is – or was – an oral culture. Hopi poems and songs are functional texts – some of them retelling the Hopi creation myth, some of them serving as collective, ceremonial texts. Hopis, unlike other prairie Indians, did not all have to become “poets” at the end of their lives. Their tradition did not prescribe them to improvise dying songs.

Your life took an abrupt turn in the eighties. Did family heritage, your history of exodus, play a part in it, or was it a purely personal matter? What was your life like in these years?

I first emigrated in the seventies. A part of the family lived in Canada, but this did not mean much to me; or, if it did, it was on the discouraging side. It was quite a failure. My father left two times and always came back. Also, it was Canada, not the United States, that I knew much better and liked more.
I stopped writing; it made no sense. I felt I had to leave this country to start a normal life, but definitely not as a writer, since it is impossible to live as a Hungarian writer abroad. An English writer can live almost anywhere, but not a Hungarian one. So, what did it mean to leave and then come back? To leave is to die, to come back is to die once again, and if you repeat it three times, you die six times. And at that time, leaving the country also meant punishment when coming back. If I had a job, I was fired. Or my poems were not published, which was not such a huge blow, since the very few things I wrote were not published anyway.

Where did you live in America, and what did you do?

In 1972, I was invited to the Iowa International Writers’ Program in London, but it wasn’t approved by Hungarian authorities. So, I was declared a defector, and when I came home, everybody was laughing at me. How could I be a defector, they asked, when I was in Hungary? Later, when I finally emigrated for real, I wasn’t declared anything by the authorities, so it became a kind of an administrational burlesque at the end.
When I left again in 1976, I went to the Midwest once again. I enrolled in Chicago University, which I quit after a while. Then, I came home, but later I was invited to become a guest lecturer at California University. Those years were full of camping in the wilderness – in Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and even Hawaii.

Did you want to become immersed in nature?

It was rather an immersion in the desert, except in Hawaii. There are huge deserts in the Southwest, and I spent most of my time wandering in them with my son, who was not even seven at the time. The circumstances there were rather unsafe. To camp in the desert is dangerous. There are rattlesnakes, scorpions and pumas. You can easily get dehydrated and die in fifteen minutes. The desert is a great challenge, and we have very few challenges in our lives – except for those greatest ones like love, illness, death and oppression – which we lived in, of course. This challenging side of America is the one that I liked best. This is what I looked for in ancient cultures, too. I know some of the East-Coast states, but I do not feel very comfortable there. There is no real challenge in them.

In 1988, you only went as far as West Berlin. This was the time When You Became She, the most personal prose poem in Hungarian poetry, was published. It is about the crisis you mentioned above. What was your life like out there? Did you come home to see the change of regime?

I was granted a DAAD scholarship. We finally came home, because it was becoming very hard, almost impossible, to be declared a defector, or so I thought at the time. I did not know that Hungary was assumed to be a Communist state by the US Government until the end of 1990. I was already given political asylum in the US once, so I might have got it a second time, too. As for the book mentioned above, I was offered a József Attila Prize for it, but I refused to accept it.

Your first two volumes qualify for the most impersonal poetic enterprises of contemporary poetry, with a very deliberate withdrawal of the author’s personality. However, When You Became She is on the opposite pole. It is an extremely personal, public vivisection, processing the crisis and failure of your marriage.

That’s why I hesitated so much before the publication, and when I finally did consent to publish it, there came widespread outrage. Everybody identified the book with me – they read it as if I myself was the lyric self. But there was positive feedback, too. Most of them were issued in the literary weekly Élet és Irodalom. I started to get letters. Many people asked me for pieces of advice, and it was a totally unexpected outcome for me. They acted as if I were an oracle who could tell a divorced husband what to do with his life, or a divorced wife how to keep her children. Still, I knew nothing, and that is why I wrote the book. If I had known what to do, I would not have started to write it. The book tells a coherent story; however, it is not a biography, although it has some biographical elements in it. Its “heroine” is made up of more than one female figure. This kind of self-exposure was unusual and ostentatious at that time. Since then, however, there have been many more indecent and rude gestures in Hungarian literature. Although at the time this book was tantamount to pornography, nowadays it is not scandalous at all. The charge of pornography was completely washed away by time.

Translated by Dóra Elekes

Tags: Imre Oravecz