Ádám Bodor's books describe a world that is foreign yet uncannily familiar to East European readers, an absurd world determined by obscure powers. Bodor's 1992 masterpiece, "The Sinistra Zone" will be published in English this August by New Directions.
Is there a meaning to the term 'Transylvanian writer'? Can you relate to this term yourself?
I think we can definitely speak of a Transylvanian identity. If you are born in an unusual gepgraphic-historical region, in a multiethnic society, with the paraphernalia of a neighbouring culture close by, and if you realize that your neighbours, who speak a different language, feel the same and consider this region their home – this affects your whole attitude to life. So it is only natural that this realization accompanies you in your whole life and becomes part of your emotional life and your identity. And if this is true, it also seems to follow that this literary landscape has specific features that justify a literary historical differentiation. But this is not true. Linguistic determination, the sense of belonging, the geographic closeness of the mother country and the common historical past are all decisive factors for a writer. I have always considered myself a Hungarian writer above all, and I don't think my generation of writers ever felt a need to be distinguished from the rest of Hungarian writers. Of course, there are certain common elements to Transylvanian writers – life in Transylvania, with its material and intellectual infrastructure, imbues our writings, but without necessitating our treatment in a separate chapter.
Transylvania plays a very important role in your books, as you have mentioned several times – as a geographic and natural environment, as a landscape, as a multicultural environment, all the social and political experiences you had there, etc. You even said once that Transylvania has provided you with material enough for a lifetime. My question is not why this is so, since it is obvious; I am rather interested in why nothing else seems to affect you. You have lived in Budapest for thirty years, yet this environment does not seem to inspire your writing.
I spent the major part of my life in Transylvania, after all, and those were my most susceptible years at that. Besides, I think this is mainly a question of sensibility – mine seems to be attuned to this peculiar Eastern Europe experience. I am impressed by this mixed ethnic makeup and the varied, magical geographic landscape, the instability and the helplessness, as well as the virtual morality of it, compared to which I feel I have nothing to do with Budapest – this environment is absolutely indifferent to me in an artistic sense; it has no inspiring force.
Is this as simple as that?
Yes. There is nothing I could add to this. It is very possible that if I had seen the daylight in Budapest and spent my youth here, I would not have become a writer. I am not attached emotionally and morally to contemporary Budapest, or to the contemporary social environment in general, and it is these attachments that determine the artistic vision of a landscape. Once formed, these attachments cannot be established elsewhere with the same intensity – that would be a slight shift towards prostitution. Actually, I am not keen on those artisan-writers who move from one area to another with routine and ease. It is usually artistic and emotional authenticity that suffers in the process.
You often emphasize the importance of the landscape, but let's not forget about the socio-political environment in which you were brought up, and the two years of prison that you experienced when you were sixteen. These must have some role in your becoming a writer – even if they do not appear directly in your works – for example, in your attraction as a writer to absurd and grotesque situations and existential experiences.
The prison was naturally a formative experience in my life, probably because it happened in a very important period of awakening, from seventeen to eighteen. I felt from the beginning that something very important was happening to me, and that if I survived, it would determine the quality of my life forever. I even intimated that this experience would slowly become an asset rather than a deficit, and that I might even profit from this humiliation. Some people are broken forever by prison, they become traumatized, impatient and frustrated. This didn't happen to me – I calmed down and became harder, and in my later years I became more tolerant and understanding towards the world. Even today, without accepting what is happening around me, I try my best to understand it. Morally, I probably profited a lot from the way I experienced it, the way I survived. As I said, it was in my most susceptible years that I found myself in a completely different, merciless environment that did not have respect for the law – a morally unfamiliar, if you like, immoral, environment. As opposed to those who were imprisoned as mature adults, I could somehow see this horrible situation as exciting, funny, or even, though rarely, as beautiful. Older people, like my father, who were condemned innocently, were shattered by the prison years that they experienced as incomprehensible affliction. This may also be a matter of sensibility – I may be a bit of an adventurer: I almost enjoyed being part of something that happens only to a small minority of people, within normal social circumstances. This is a fortunate talent that I happen to have. Humour and self-irony worked all the way, and I tried to transfer it to my companions as well – I think this was actually what helped me survive. I needed this ability in the decades that followed the prison years as well. After captivity, I had to somehow survive freedom. And if possible, to maintain my integrity. It is all too natural that the whole store of objects, ideas and moral values of this youthful experience found their way into my artistic world.
Your works require an extremely active contribution from the reader, because of their conciseness and at the same time semantic openness, the unfinished scenes, the lack of essential information (causes, antecedents and consequences), the indeterminacies, the repetitions and the sense of mystery. One could say that your works are characterized by a productive uncertainty. But how long can this strategy of uncertainty be productive? Doesn't it become an obstacle for reception; won't the reader be discouraged if there are too many things that are left uncertain? Do you have such questions in mind when you are writing?
No, it is impossible to have such questions in mind; this would hinder the free flow of imagination. And I don't think it discourages the reader when he encounters puzzling situations. I do not think of this when I write, nor do I think of the reader, it would only cause problems, as speculation, or even calculation, would enter the creative process, depriving writing from its virginity, its original value. I only obey my own artistic expectations when I write, and when I tell only as much as I do. This may sound as a facile procedure, but I only keep in mind the fact that I am not omniscient, I cannot always look behind the facade of things and characters, I do not know everything about the real motives of the story. So it is the sheer spectacle that remains, often with certain riddles and gaps that the reader may or may not fill. I must pay attention to providing the reader's imagination with data that make her the writer's partner to a certain extent.
The subtitle of your recent novel, The Birds of Verhovina, is "Variations on the Last Days”, and in the stories we constantly face deterioration and the approaching end, caused primarily by external factors. This world is definitely threatened and endangered. These stories are even more apocalyptic than your earlier books – is this a conscious decision on your part?
Yes, the end of Verhovina seems to be somewhat more apocalyptic than that of Sinistra. I do not contest this. Perhaps my worldview has changed to some extent. This just happens: I write stories without the intention to implant an apocalyptic vision in them. On the other hand, it is probably not a mere coincidence that, here and now, the guarantees of relative stability seem to disappear gradually, and something seems to be ending. It would be wrong not to realize this, since it seems that within a few hours, the whole world will change under our very eyes. If this is how I feel, it is no miracle that certain elements of this recognition seep into the story, unintentionally and without affectation, and that they seem to darken my works retrospectively, to a certain extent.
Let me end our conversation where we started: Transylvania. But let's narrow down that space. Many people wonder where exactly Ádám Bodor's stories take place. I tend to agree with those who think that these are imaginary landscapes, imaginary worlds. Yet at the same time, there are lots of references in the texts to actually existing geographical areas and settlements – such multicultural worlds as Maramures, the borderland between Ukraine and Romania. Why is this the region that nurtures the realistic elements of your imaginary world?
There is a simple explanation. During my hikes in nature this was the region I was first struck by – the sight, the mountains and the valleys, and its peculiar mysteriousness, somewhat different from the rest of Transylvania. This relatively small area is perhaps the most colourful and exciting region of Romania ethnically. This beautiful region, surrounded by mountains, used to be the land of ethnic tolerance: even in the sixties and seventies you could hear Hungarian, Romanian, German, Yiddish and Ukrainian spoken in the streets of Sighetu Marmatiei. Ethnic tension was virtually unknown unless it was in someone's interest to stir it up. So when later on I tried to model the locations of my stories, elements of this landscape determined the environment of the narrative. Sinistra cannot be found on maps, but Verhovina (the word means 'highland') is the northern part of historical Maramures, today in the part of Ukraine known as Transcarpatia. I was already writing the novel when I checked the origin of the name: it is also a brand of motorcycle and a placename in Bukovina, beyond the Carpathian Mountains. But where exactly are Sinistra and Verhovina situated? I think they are situated right here, close to the city limits – or even closer: within ourselves, with all their threats.
This is the shortened version of an interview published in Hungarian in the literary magazine Bárka (June 2012, see online version here).
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