06. 12. 2014. 13:42

"I could be an African sorcerer"

Interview with Árpád Kun

The word “happy” is a surprisingly rarely used term in Hungarian literature, and this is one of the reasons why I chose to use it. It is rather the expressions for “unhappiness” that have become all too trivial.

In Árpád Kun’s new novel, Happy North, the protagonist, an African-born Frenchman, recounts the story of his life and his long journeys. Aimé Billion starts off from the West African country of Benin and eventually arrives in Norway where he finds a home and a partner. In a manner quite unaccustomed in Hungarian literature, the novel tells a story about happiness while weaving together such disparate things as voodoo magic and Northern rationality. The author, who started as a poet, has been living in Norway with his family since 2006, in a village located in one of the fjords that served as the setting for the novel – thus he was able to observe at close hand the adventures of the book’s central character.

You have been living up north with your family for seven years now. How did you end up in Norway?

After coming back from Bordeaux, where I worked as a lecturer for a while, my wife and I—both of us studied humanities—had to seriously reflect upon the question of how to support our family in Hungary. Since Orsi, my wife, holds a degree in Scandinavian studies and Norwegian language, we decided to try our luck in Norway. Soon she found a job through the internet, and so we were off. At first, I went on paternity leave and stayed home with the kids, and Orsi started working at her new job. We did this until February 2008, when I also found a job there as home carer. It was the experience gained from this job that later became the foundation for the novel. When I started work I soon realized that it would be a gold mine for me as a writer. Yet I have to thank Aimé, my African-born, French-speaking colleague, and the protagonist of my book, for helping me in actually giving a form to all that I have learnt.

Aimé finds a home in Norway at the end of a long journey. Did you and your family also find the ‘happy north’ in the Scandinavian country?

When we moved there our primary concern was to be able to raise our children in a peaceful and safe environment, and I have to say that we weren’t disappointed. The word “happy” [boldog] from the title is a surprisingly rarely used term in Hungarian literature, and this is one of the reasons why I chose to use it. It is rather the expressions for “unhappiness” that have become all too trivial. If someone promises happiness in Hungary today they are considered to be either charlatans or liars, since people always suspect that a trick is involved. So I wanted to use the word in a manner that is entirely different from this mainstream understanding. Yet obviously happiness means one thing for Aimé and another thing for me, as an author. And this is important to keep this in mind because Happy North is a work of fiction and it is not about me. My aim in general is to write novels, but I do not wish to base them on my personal opinions and experiences—which I don’t find so remarkable anyway.

In the novel you depict Norwegian society as very alienated.

Yes, it is indeed an alienated world. But as a rule, people in the West are much more reserved than they are in Hungary. Mostly because they do not depend on each other so much and so they keep out of each other’s lives. This is increasingly true in Norway where one does not get unsolicited advice from anyone: each person is supposed to rely on his or her own powers, the pay is sufficient and the state provides help with everything. This is the most significant difference between the two countries. Here, in Hungary, everyone wants to tell me what’s best for me, and that is unimaginable there. But in spite of this estrangement the social solidarity one encounters in Norway is quite amazing. At one point I crashed our car so badly that we couldn’t use it anymore, and when our neighbors noticed that we were having difficulties getting around, they collected money and bought us a car for Christmas. And it is an astonishingly violence-free society. There are no daily power games, and people do not build up their suppressed aggressiveness just to unleash it on each other later. Public safety is also truly admirable. When we arrived in Oslo we left one of our traveling bags on a bench. Everything, all our papers, passports and money was inside. We realized it was missing only after an hour, and when we went back to the bench the bag was still there, untouched. This happened in 2006, in Oslo. So, one has to keep these things in mind when forming an opinion about Norway.

How did all this change after the mass shooting committed by Anders Breivik?

The Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, stated after the attack that Norway will become even more open and more democratic following this tragedy, and will not behave as the United States did in reaction to 9/11. The country is dealing with the attack in an entirely different manner. The fact that they started protecting government buildings more heavily is a different question. Before that was done in an unprofessional way. I mean, it is scary to imagine that Breivik could park a van containing a ton of explosives in the very driveway that the Prime Minister was using.

Your writing—both poetry and prose—has so far been characterized by short, concise and fragmentary texts which created a sense of a certain restlessness in the reader. Happy North, however, is a classic novel with a well-rounded narrative. Can this change be explained by the fact that you found a home and a peaceful existence up north?

The well-roundedness is due to the form. A poem is usually very concise and has significantly more hidden content and implicit meaning than a novel does. My volume of prose, Rainbook, is mostly made up of various images and has no dynamic narrative, so once again it is a question of form. This time, however, I wanted to write a classical novel that has a beginning, a middle and an end. As regards finding a home, I believe that in Rainbook I was already addressing this topic. Periods of unease and peacefulness were constantly alternating in our lives so I cannot see them as separate processes. But it is certainly beneficial for the writing of a long novel if one finds an Archimedean point of reference. For me this was the presence of Aimé. He became the central character and I could build the world of the novel around him.

The first part of the novel takes place in Benin, West Africa, the home country of the protagonist. So this setting had to be portrayed just as well as Norway. How did you become so familiar with Africa?

I studied in Paris and taught in Bordeaux for a while, so I became familiar with French culture which still has strong connections with Africa and the world of the former colonies. So, through learning the French language and discovering the culture, I gained an insight into this other world as well. Later, in my talks with Aimé I gradually realized that in fact I do know West Africa and Benin. And of course, when you write a novel you need to thoroughly research the environment you will describe.

You mentioned that as a writer you explored the possibilities of the world you found yourself in with the help of Aimé. After you listened to his story, did he instantly become the central character of the developing novel?

During our conversations I never consciously regarded him as a source. I was glad to befriend someone like him in that new environment, but the novel would have been written regardless of him since either way I wanted to reflect on what I saw around me in Norway. This is why I modified Aimé’s story substantially. For example, in reality he never had a voodoo practicing grandfather—I made up all of that. I did so based upon a personal revelation of sorts. At one point, in the middle of a conversation, the question just hit me: what am I doing here in Norway? A writer from Budapest in the northern fjords: what am I doing here? I couldn’t possibly feel more alien here even if I were an African sorcerer. I combined this epiphany with the story of Aimé, and so I gradually built up the novel.

In the novel, Aimé works with the elderly as a home carer—just like you do in reality—and through this job he has to deal with intimate, sensitive situations on a daily basis. Was it difficult to address a topic that is usually considered taboo?

The situations depicted in the novel could happen to anyone. I share the views of the main character about secrets: we often feel that we have to be ashamed of something, that we need to protect our secrets, but this is unnecessary. Everyone grows old, and anyone can become an invalid, so there is nothing to be ashamed of. The names, of course, were changed in each case. Not to mention that all of it is basically fiction since it was not me who went through these experiences but Aimé, the character in the book.

And what about you personally—the writer from Budapest—how did you get used to this job?

Previously I was not aware that I was so caring. But having four children and running the household have taught me how to help others. I genuinely feel good when I can help people who are sick or old, and cannot take care of themselves. Also, this work does not require much intellectual effort, so I can focus on writing in the morning. Not negligible is the fact that our jobs provide enough income to lead a comfortable life. In Norwegian society there are no significant differences in salaries, and no one looks down on a home carer—on the contrary.

The novel presents the life of Aimé down to the smallest details. Including the story of how, after long years of solitude, he finds a partner in Gréte. How did they react when you told them that you would be writing a novel based on their story, in which the characters would have the same names as they do?

As I write in the epilogue, the only honest and respectable thing to do was to tell Aimé what the novel is about. Naturally, he couldn’t read the manuscript, which was in Hungarian, but he consented to it. In the letter that I included in the epilogue Aimé confesses that he has grown tired of living a secretive life, that he does not want to hide anymore all that he had gone through, and that he feels honored to be included in the novel. Gréte said that she would feel uncomfortable only if their story was included in a bad novel. At times I was wondering what they would say about this or that, but after all, this is fiction, so it didn’t affect the process of writing.

Happy North is quite a unique book in Hungarian literature. Who were you influenced by, who do you feel close to in your way of writing?

I cannot really think of any predecessor or influence from within Hungarian literature. One of the strongest motivations while writing the novel came from the knowledge that no one before me had written about such a topic in this manner. In this sense, the book is indeed unique. I would rather mention my favorite novels from world literature: Love in the Time of Cholera by Márquez, The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal, and of course, Proust, who wrote the greatest novel in the history of literature. I was mainly influenced by French and Latin American authors.

While reading the book I was astonished again and again when I reminded myself that it was originally written in Hungarian since it all seemed so foreign and exotic. How do you think readers will receive Happy North?

Perhaps it will be the strangeness and uniqueness of the story that will make the book interesting. I have been told that the text reads as if it were not written by a Hungarian writer, it is so free of frustrations and obsessions. I’m not sure what to think of that—if it is so, thank God, at least now we have such a Hungarian novel too. The more colorful, the better.

Even the presence of a positive tone is quite alien to Hungarian literary traditions.

Now that is the product of my own worldview. I think that despite all our miseries we can still be outsiders. It is the writer’s responsibility to observe events from the outside. If I am in a bad mood I should not project that unto the world. Whether we are going through good or bad times, we have to acknowledge that this is how the world works. That is the alpha and the omega of writing a novel: to create the most sensitive, life-like and precise depiction of the world. Since despite all our hardship we are still alive, and that is truly wonderful. For me this is a value in itself.

The last sentence of the epilogue hints at a next novel which will tell the story of “how we arrived here from Hungary.”

Yes, I am already writing the next novel, and I would like to finish it as soon as possible. And, although it is also a work of fiction like Happy North, the protagonist will be easily mistaken for me, the author. It is written in first person singular, but I have to warn you, I will not be telling the truth.

This interview was originally published in Hungarian on mno.hu.

Benedek Ficsor

Translated by: Szabolcs László

Tags: Árpád Kun