02. 13. 2013. 18:18

A guide to Hungarians

János Lackfi: What are Hungarians like?

The last few years have been abundant in books specializing in understanding and interpreting the attributes and the behaviour of Hungarians. János Lackfi experiments with well-known elements that have been on the periodic table of Hungarians for decades, and tries to create a new and interesting compound.

The last few years have been abundant in books (of varying quality) specializing in understanding and interpreting the attributes and the behaviour of Hungarians. These people, who originally came from the distant and austere region of the Ural Mountains, have been engaged in a constant search for identity from the very beginning. They have been struggling hard to find their place in Europe, and their historical and political moves bear witness to this struggle. The desire to belong to the West and a sense of superiority to neighbouring peoples are part of the preconceptions about Hungarians; the advantages and disadvantages of these attitudes are discussed in many books on the subject.

The year 2011 saw the publication of a collection of essays about the problems and the faults of Hungarians (Mi a magyar most?), as well as a delightful collection of tales (Magyarmesék) about Hungarians by Aliz Mosonyi, author of Tales of Budapest. A volume of Imre Kertész’s diary entries written between 2001 and 2003 was also published in the same year (Mentés másként). It was in that period that Kertész received the Nobel Prize and shortly after decided to relocate in Berlin, and he paints quite an unfavourable picture of Hungary and Hungarians in his diary.

In 2012, there were two more contributions to this topic, with roughly the same titles as above: one is a book by Lajos Parti Nagy with the subtitle Magyar mesék [Hungarian Tales; the title Fülkefor és vidéke alludes to the nickname of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, invented by Parti Nagy]. This book is a collection of short pieces on the current political situation, written for the weekly Élet és irodalom – untranslatable pseudo-folktales written in a hilariously funny language incorporating elements of folktales, slang and politician-speak. The other book is János Lackfi’s collection entitled Milyenek a magyarok? [What are Hungarians like?], which sold ten thousand copies within the first two months of its publication.

János Lackfi is one of the most prolific writers in contemporary Hungarian literature. Only in the last two years he published four volumes of poetry, prose and essay, one each, the fourth being this collection. In most pieces of this book, written in a hard-to-define genre, humour is the weapon to fall back on, especially if we do not want to let ourselves be disarmed by the topic of the pieces. Because in reality, theft, alcoholism, suicide or tax evasion are quite depressing topics. However, it is not the aim of this book, written in an ultra-light, gossipy style, to give a smart explanation to the problems. At long last, this is a book about Hungarians which does not want to explain something or warn us of the enormity of the problems without offering viable solutions, nor does it want to force the author’s opinion upon the reader. Without delving into the causes, Lackfi merely intends to give a colourful description of this nation, Hungarians – settlers in the Carpathian Basin for quite a few centuries – with their habits and traditions.

The narrator does not pose as an outsider; he describes himself as one of the Hungarians. This ‘Hungarian man’ simply tells us what he has seen and experienced in his country, and he does so without fuming and complaining: how Easter is celebrated in his country; how Hungarians take advantage of not speaking any foreign languages when abroad; or how, as opposed to Western Europeans, Hungarians enjoy gossiping with their neighbours and sharing their problems and griefs with them. Take, for example, this story: “In Finland, there were two boats on each shore of a river. Someone explained to the Hungarian man that those who want to cross the river must do it three times: first they row to the other side, then they tow back the other boat, then they cross to the other side again, and continue walking. ‘And what happens’, the Hungarian man asked, considering past experiences he had had at home, ‘if someone fails to tow back the other boat?’ ‘This is impossible’, the Finnish people explained patiently. ‘They would know that the next person would not be able to cross the river.’”

Lackfi’s book is not confined to the listing of faults. Hungarians can feel proud when reading some of the pieces, especially when he writes about Hungarian inventions or Hungarian scientists. I haven’t read a book about Hungarians for a long time which is written in such an easygoing and charming style while treating dark, leaden topics, and which at the same time helps us draw far-reaching consequences. Lackfi experiments with well-known elements that have been on the periodic table of Hungarians for decades, and tries to create a new and interesting compound. Sometimes he comes up with memorable results, like when he writes: “At the time of the so called ‘really existing socialism’ there was a saying that went, ‘There are two paths in front of intellectuals: one is alcoholism, the other is impassable.’ In the 1990s, it turned out that this is true of Hungarian society as a whole.”

There are lots of stories, anecdotes and jokes that make this book a colourful one. The author even ventures into cultural history and historiography. The book does not take risks, but it surely delivers what it promises – this collection justifies and strengthens our opinions, impressions and knowledge about Hungarians. And as for those who are still at a loss after reading the book as to what Hungarians are like, I suggest they reread it more attentively.

Lackfi János: Milyenek a magyarok?

Budapest: Helikon, 2012

Ayhan Gökhan

Tags: János Lackfi