09. 17. 2006. 18:12

In search of a lost identity

Exile: a workshop in Budapest

On September 11, while the world was busy commemorating the attack on the Twin Towers, a small group of scholars and intellectuals gathered in Collegium Budapest – a beautiful, ancient building in the Castle District – to discuss their thoughts on exile in Eastern Europe.

The title of the conference was "Exile: Between Home and Host Cultures: Twentieth-Century East European Writers in Exile", and while it was destined to offer a distinctly Hungarian-biased treatment of the subject, a range of intellectuals were invited to express their views from around the world – the US, UK, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany. At first glance, you might be wondering where the Eastern Europeans were, but you will soon realize that most of them were themselves exiles from Eastern Europe.

Though the problem of writers in exile might seem to be a personal or exclusive problem of a few; in reality, the question of altered national identity is a recurring topic of Hungarian literature, made current by Imre Kertész’s recent Nobel Prize and the extraordinary success of some Hungarian writers in Germany. Most people have a distinct idea about Kertész’s identity, but the debate is not settled at all: did the Nobel Prize go to a Hungarian or a Jewish writer? In other words, is Imre Kertész a Hungarian writer in spite of his exile, in spite of his work that connects him to a universal Jewish experience, and in spite of the fact that his Nobel Prize is a direct consequence of his successes with the German audience?

The first day of the conference bore the title, “Forms of Displacement; the Dynamics of Movements”, and included speakers from Hungary, the US, and Amsterdam, like Susan Rubin Suleiman and Katalin Orbán from Harvard University, Zsófia Bán from CEU and ELTE, and Guido Snel from Amsterdam.

Susan Rubin Suleiman, a child survivor of the Holocaust who left Budapest in 1949 with her parents shortly after her tenth birthday and who recently published a memoir called Budapest Diary: In Search of the Motherbook – gave a short introduction to the mechanisms of exile (differentiating internal and external, voluntary or imposed exile) and gave reasons for alienation and group exclusion. She finally mentioned Imre Kertész as a writer who lives in an internal exile from his mother tongue, living in Germany. Nonetheless, this might not necessarily be a drawback for the writer, who said “… the more authentic I feel with the language, the more I feel the impossibility of writing.”

While Kertész’s exile seems self-explanatory, given the filthy regimes that forced him to leave, there is another group of writers living in exile who fled the country after the change of regime without evident political reasons. Katalin Orbán talked about these authors, mainly Péter Nádas, and as a reason for their actual or internal exile, she identified “the multigenerational damage of dictatorial systems” that will not heal in a lifetime.

Zsófia Bán continued Orbán's train of thought and added a few reasons for Nádas’s literary and public success in his chosen host country, Germany – namely a certain power of German linguistic thinking that helps to dissemble the lack of conceptual clarity of Hungarian thinking and to talk about taboos. At the same time, his works are easily recognizable to German readers in translation.

Guido Snel, who is Dutch, but speaks a dozen eastern languages and has traveled a lot around our region, talked about his main subject, the Serbian poet and novelist Milos Crnjanski, who fled to London after being in a kind of internal exile at home for a long time, writing a trilogy of novels about his years in exile.

That night in the club-space of the soon-to-be-opened Merlin Theatre, Guido Snel had the opportunity to further elaborate his views about exile. But being a Dutch man living in Amsterdam, he had relatively less material than his conversation partners – all residents or one-time residents of Amsterdam; John Neubauer, who was born and raised in Budapest; Dragan Klaic, who fled Belgrade 15 years ago from the Balkan war; and Tijn Sadée, a Dutch man living in Budapest as the correspondent of NRC Handelsblad. In the company of a few bottles of wine, we had the opportunity to discuss our favorite subjects in an easy manner, and when even that proved too hard, we could just get lost in the music of Chalaban, Moroccan musicians living in Budapest.

The next afternoon was opened by literary historian Mihály Szegedy-Maszák, who elaborated on the relation of Márai and Lukács, as well as Márai’s reception at home and abroad. Dragan Klaic, a Serb professor from Amsterdam, introduced us into the world of exiled post-Yugoslav theatre and performing arts. Through a number of examples, we saw that the groups leaving ex-Yugoslavia had a hard time making ends meet in the West, especially after international interest shifted from their region to other troubled regions. Only a few personalities like Goran Bregovic managed to achieve fame and success.

Art historian Éva Forgács emphasized the importance of the cultural breaking point that was the 1919 Commune in Hungary, and she went on to describe the Hungarian intellectual scene in Vienna of the time. She spoke at length about one of the most important personalities, Lajos Kassák, who lived in the Austrian capital as an exile. His departure created a huge vacuum at home, since Hungary lost the only true progressive personality of the years preceding 1919, while he himself was led into a historical vacuum in Vienna, where he published his journal Ma (Today) in Hungarian.

The second day’s panel was closed by Neil Stewart of the University of Bonn, who told us a wonderfully entertaining story about how people of different Russian cultural identities celebrated Pushkin’s birthday. Pushkin, being the center of the Russian classical canon, was celebrated all around the world, wherever Russians live. In all, about 120 committees were set up for the celebrations. The differences in their commemorative words adequately showed the intellectual abyss dividing Russian exiles and those who stayed home.

The closing event of the conference was held Monday evening in Gödör Klub, with Margaret Obexer from Berlin reading from work with the title, "Who counts as a subject?"

Daniel Bart

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