04. 17. 2012. 08:11

István Örkény was born 100 years ago

2012 is the centenary year of István Örkény, the master of grotesque, whose one minute stories and absurd plays depict the predicament of modern man with a keen sense of humour. Among the events of the Örkény Memorial Year are the 'Örkény Islands' in Budapest cafés, where his books are placed in several languages for guests to thumb.

"A sad, much suffering man, this is how I have always thought of him. That he is my contemporary. That he is an Eastern European, so ab ovo, he knows a great deal. A great deal, and—ab ovo—not enough. I thought I could see all this on his heavy, furrowed, laughing face."
From the Preface to More One Minute Stories by Péter Esterházy

Besides his dramas, István Örkény is best known for his one minute stories which became his trademark: short, succinct, often shocking, grotesque or absurd pieces, anecdotes, sometimes objets trouvés, taken from newspapers or official notices and slightly twisted, stories that “encapsulate some of the absurdity of the age in a succinct and hilarious manner.” (Miklós Györffy)

Several collections of his one-minute stories, as well as two of his novellas and one of his dramas are available in English translation. Catsplay (Macskajáték) and Tóték (The Toth Family) are among his best known works. Both were developed into drama by Örkény himself and to film by Károly Makk and Zoltán Fábri, respectively. The topic of Catsplay—that was successfully staged at Arena Stage, the Guthrie Theatre, and the Manhattan Theatre Club—is a love triangle, but a somewhat uncommon one: the people involved are sixty-something years old. The Toth Family (the title of the film is Welcoming the Major) takes place during the war, and tells about a visit of a neurotic army officer to a village family. In the hope of getting better treatment for their son, who had already died—a fact the major and the reader or spectator know, but the parents don’t—they go out of their way to cater to his every whim, until the shocking climax.

Born in Budapest in 1912, Örkény studied pharmaceutics and chemical engineering in the 30s, and published his first collection of short stories in 1941. One of these stories, published on the eve of Nazi terror, is about a city where the inmates of a lunatic asylum take power and introduce insane measures. Örkény soon found himself as if in the middle of his own story when the war broke out: when he was drafted, he reported to the army in his officer’s uniform, but had to take it off immediately: though a Catholic by religion, he was of Jewish origin, and was therefore sent to the front on labour service in 1942. He was taken prisoner of war in 1943. When he came home in 1946, he wrote a book on his experiences as POW in Soviet Russia. However, in postwar Hungary, which was drifting towards Communism, this was not considered a favoured topic, and Örkény, who initially sympathized with Communism, started to write bad novels which fitted the current ideology. He soon became a leading ‘socialist realist’ writer, but eventually became disillusioned with Communism, and after the 1956 Revolution, with which he was affiliated, he was squeezed out of the literary scene and subjected to publication bans. That was when he started to write his one minute stories. In the second half of the 1960s, his books were published again and his plays were performed. In fact, he became one of the most successful playwrights of his era who opened new paths for Hungarian drama with his absurdist plays. His dramas are determined by the sense of being Eastern European and Hungarian which—as he stated—equals to living with a constant feeling of lack. He died in 1979.

Örkény in English
Catsplay. Translated by Clara Györgyey. New York: French, 1976.
The Flower Show. The Toth Family. Translated by Clara Györgyey and Michael Henry Heim. New York: New Directions, 1982.
"Stevie in the Bloodbath". In A Mirror to the Cage. Three Contemporary Hungarian Plays. Translated by Clara Györgyey. Fayetteville, Ark.: University of Arkansas Press, 1993.
One Minute Stories. Selected and translated by Judith Sollosy. Rose Bay, N.S.W.: Brandl & Schlesinger, 1994.
One Minute Stories. Selected and translated by Judith Sollosy. 9th print. Budapest: Corvina, 2007.
More One Minute Stories. Selected and translated by Judith Sollosy. Preface by Péter Esterházy. Budapest: Corvina, 2006.

'Örkény Islands'
Petőfi Literary Museum - 16 Károlyi Mihály Street
Café Bobek - 53 Kazinczy Street
Fecske Terrace - Reviczky Street
Mozsár Café - 2 Mozsár Street
Hadik Coffee House - 36 Bartók Béla Road
Praha Café - 8 Baross Street
Púder Bar Theatre - 8 Ráday Street
Puskin Coffee House - 4 Kossuth Lajos Street
Pöttyös Café - 20 Medve Street
Odeon Lloyd - 7 Hollán Ernő Street
Tranzit Art Café  - corner of Bukarest and Ulászló Streets

A website on Örkény, created by the Örkény family and the National Széchényi Library 

See our portrait of Örkény and read some of his one-minute stories

Cat's Play, directed by Károly Makk, with English subtitles:

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