01. 22. 2015. 07:51

Kelemen Mikes: Letters from Turkey (excerpts)

Addressed to an imaginary aunt, these letters from the 1700s, written by a member of Prince Ferenc Rákóczi's retinue in Turkish exile, are the first example of art prose in Hungarian. – – Excerpts from a new English edition forthcoming from Corvina Press, Budapest.

Prince Ferenc II Rákóczi was a leading figure in the kuruc opposition to the Austrians, who replaced the Turks by the end of the 17th century as oppressors of the Hungarians. As leader of the failed War of Independence (1703-11), he had to flee Hungary, and ended up in Turkey with his retinue, including Kelemen Mikes, writer of the present work. The Hungarians, by now in many cases destitute and dependent on the charity of the Porte, had nowhere to go and were obliged to remain in Turkey. After some three years in various places they were finally settled at Tekirdağ (called in the Letters by its Magyarised Greek name Rodostó), some eighty miles west of Istanbul on the Marmara. There Ferenc II died in 1735 and was succeeded by his elder son József, who himself died only three years later. Some of the Hungarians contrived to leave Turkey over the years, and others came to join the little community, but most died there of old age or disease.

Kelemen Mikes entered the Prince's service in 1707 as a member of the Society of Noble Youths and accompanied him into exile, even though under the provisions of the Treaty of Szatmár he could safely have remained in Hungary. Clearly of a bookish disposition, he was widely read in Latin and French, and in his years of exile produced no small corpus of translations of philosophical and religious material, together with the present work. The Letters are addressed to an aunt living in Pera, a suburb of Constantinople (modern Beyoğlu in Istanbul), but no such person can be shown to have existed and in fact the Letters are a memoir, written at irregular intervals over a period of forty-one years, possibly with the intention of eventual publication.

The range of topics covered in the Letters is extensive. Some are on purely domestic themes, revealing the hopelessness of the prospect of ever seeing Hungary again, Mikes's thwarted desire to be married, the boredom of the quasi-monastic routine that the Prince imposed on his exiled court, and the impossibility of befriending the neighbours. There are descriptions of various places and events, discussions of silk-worm farming and the propagation of wheat, comments on the education of boys and girls – Mikes is an early feminist – and accounts of political activity in Turkey and abroad, together with a campaign up the Danube and an embassy to Wallachia. He translates passages from his foreign reading, some of which can be identified; Western newspapers, in particular the French edition of The Spectator, reached Tekirdağ. Mikes was a religious man and discusses religious themes, displaying a tolerant view of Islam while reciprocating the disdain of the Moslem for the Christian. In one curious incident he loses and subsequently regains his sight – but through all this rich variety there runs a unifying vein: his devotion to the person of the Prince.

Mikes makes no mention of the fact, but it is known from his correspondence years later that on the accession of Maria Theresa he applied for permission to return, only to be told “Ex Turcia nulla redemptio”. On the death of the Prince he made no further attempt to go back to Hungary, but settled for spending the rest of his days in a slightly uncomfortable alien land. He spoke none of its languages, had no prospect of advancement, wealth or marriage, even of friendship outside the dwindling circle of exiled Hungarians (which evidently received new members now and then).

The last of the original party to remain alive, Mikes died of plague in 1761. The Letters were found among his effects and were first published in 1794. Their importance as a historical document was immediately apparent, and much scholarly effort was wasted in attempts to identify their mysterious addressee; their high literary quality too was recognised – they are, in fact, the first example of art prose in Hungarian, and the finest that the century produced. Mikes's portrayal of the lot of the exile was novel in that it was unsentimental; sad but never self-pitying, humble but never crushed; when hope of returning was lost – which happened early and repeatedly – never yielding to despair; and never losing sight of the ideals that justified his exile – love for his Prince and his absent native land.

Letters from Turkey was first published in English by Kegan Paul in 2000. These excerpts are from a revised translation, forthcoming from Corvina Press, Budapest.


From Gallipoli, Anno 1717. 10 Octobris

My dear Aunt, thanks be to God, we arrived here today without mishap, though we set sail from France on 15 Septembris. Our Prince, praise be, would be in good health if the gout would leave him, but let us hope that the Turkish air will dispel it.

Dear Aunt, how good it is to be on dry land. Even St Peter, you see, was alarmed when his feet sank in the water: how then should we sinners not be afraid as our ship rolled from side to side among masses of foam as high as the great mountains of Transylvania – sometimes we would ascend to their crests, sometimes be plunged into so great a valley that we could but wait for those mountains of water to fall upon us; but none the less they were sufficiently humane not to give us to drink more than was necessary. Suffice it that we are here and in good health, for one can fall ill at sea as well as on land – and here, when the carriage shakes one, it leaves one tired but distinctly peckish, whereas on shipboard the ceaseless rocking and tossing to and fro stupefy the head and upset the stomach, and one is obliged to do as does a drunken man that cannot hold his liquor. My poor stomach was thrown into such distress for the first day or two, but thereafter I had the appetite of a wolf.

Our Prince had not yet left the ship when a Tatar khan who resides here in exile sent him gifts, among which a fine horse, saddled. Our Prince has been given good lodgings, but we are quartered like dogs, although I like being here better than being in the ship.

Dear Aunt, it must be two years since I received your kind letters. I tell the truth, if the year is a month in length. I hope, dear Aunt, that henceforth, now that we breathe the same air, I shall receive your letters more frequently. But just as we are some hundreds of miles closer one to another it seems that you must love me more; I, on the other hand, much though I love you, can write no more; for it seems that the room is rocking about me, as if I were still aboard ship.


Yeniköy, 28 Decemb. 1718

I had foreseen that you would like Lady Bercsényi. Truth to tell, she is a real lady; for many bear the title of countess, but not all deservingly, and such should be called ladylets or females. Let us not speak against the fair sex. Suffice it that you do better to spend your time with this lady of quality than with affected Greek ladies. She herself does not indulge in amusement, for as winter draws on the leaves on the tree turn yellow; but she very much enjoys talking of cheerful things – in particular, about the things of springtime.

You write that from her complexion at her age it seems that in youth she must have been beautiful and compare her to a beautiful winter. But who would not laugh at your wanting to know why the lady's nose is black, and her cheeks white? I shall tell about this straight away. The fact is that after she married she caught the smallpox. You will know that ladies of quality are treated differently from anyone else – they often profit by this, but it is not always to their advantage. When she fell ill an army of doctors was gathered around her – one recommended one thing, another another to prevent the pox from leaving its mark, so that her beauty might not be marred. One of them recommended that her face be gilded. This proposal was taken up, her face was covered with gold leaf, and she became a living picture. Once this had been done it had to remain in place for a while, but then it became necessary to remove the gold; because as you can imagine she could not go about with her face golden, a rosy cheek is always more attractive than a golden one. But the problem arose of how to remove it? No water would wash it off, but it had to be picked off her cheeks gradually, with the point of a needle; they succeeded in removing it, but on her nose it had dried hard and the task was more difficult; the gold was eventually removed, but her nose was left black. Therefore I do not advise anyone to gild their nose.


Rodostó, 8 April 1735

What we feared is now come upon us. God has made us orphans, and this morning, after three o'clock, took from our midst our beloved lord and father. It is Good Friday, and we must bewail the deaths of our fathers heavenly and earthly alike. God has delayed our lord's death in order to sanctify the sacrifice thereof through the merit of Him that died for us on this day. Such was the life that he lived and such the death he died, that I believe it was said to him 'This day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise.' Let us pour forth our tears abundantly, for the cloud of grief has indeed fallen upon us. But let us not grieve for our worthy father, for after all his sufferings God has taken him to his heavenly home, where He will give him to drink of the wine of joy and gladness, but let us grieve for ourselves, who enter upon great bereavement. It is impossible to tell what great weeping and sorrow there are in our midst, even among the lowliest. Judge, if you can, in what condition I write this letter. But since I know that you will be eager to learn in what manner the poor man's death occurred I will describe it with ink and tears alike, although in so doing I shall increase my grief.

It appears that I wrote my last letter on the 25th of last month. Then the poor man was feeling a great lassitude at all times. He did very little, but otherwise everything in accordance with custom. He worked at the lathe, despite his weakness, until the first of April. That day, however, he felt the cold acutely, and it weakened him all the more. Next day he was a little better. On Palm Sunday he could not attend church because of his weakness, but heard mass from a neighbouring room. After mass he knelt to receive the consecrated palm from the priest who brought it to him, and said that perhaps he would never receive another. On the Monday he was a little better, the same on Tuesday, and he even asked for tobacco and smoked. But all of us were amazed that until the hour of his death he omitted nothing from the order of the house, nor permitted anything to be omitted on his account. Every day he rose, dressed, dined and retired at the customary hours. Although scarcely able, none the less he observed the order as in the time of his health. On Wednesday afternoon he lapsed into great weakness and slept frequently. On a number of occasions I asked him how he was. His only reply was 'I am well, I have no pain.' On Thursday he was very near his end, becoming very weak, but received the Sacrament with great fervour. In the evening, when it was time for bed, his arms were held on both sides: but he went into his bedroom by himself. It was by this time very hard to understand his words. As midnight drew on we were all at his side. The priest asked him if he would receive extreme unction. The poor man showed by a sign that he would. That being done, the priest spoke to him with fine exhortations and words of consolation, but he could not reply; yet we could tell that he was conscious – we saw tears come from his eyes at the exhortations. Finally, after three o'clock in the morning the poor man gave up his spirit and fell asleep – for he died like a child. We had been looking at him ceaselessly: but we only noticed his passing when his eyes opened. He, poor man, has left us orphans in this strange land. Here there is much and fearful weeping and wailing among us. May God grant us consolation.


Constantinople, 21 Sept. 1737

As we are quite new here I cannot write of any new matter, but I shall write, merely to pass the time, that I have seen a huge animal of a sort that I heard tell of in my childhood, and had wished to see. From that you will have realised that it was an elephant. This great creature has hair like a mouse. Its head is as in pictures. Its ears are like ladies' fans. From the sides of its mouth there sprout two teeth as thick as my arm. These are long too, and cannot be much use to it for eating; but it is certain that Nature has bestowed them for a purpose – certain too that turners put them to much costly work. But what I wondered at most was its nose – though I cannot call it a nose, because from the base of its nose comes a hanging portion, like that of a turkey. And it is more than half a fathom in length, and as thick as my arm. It hangs like a whip – and its end is like a pig's snout, two nostrils go the whole length of it, like two suction tubes. With it the animal sucks up water when it drinks, and sprays itself when it washes. With it the animal takes food, as we do with our hands. It will pick up a poltura with it, or a bale of straw, and will fan any part of its body; for its tail is no use for this. And anyone that it strikes with it is struck well and truly. In a word, one cannot imagine without seeing it how many uses the animal makes of it. Its legs are equally thick at all points, like pillars, and are as thick as a man's thigh. Its height is thirteen spans, and this was a small one. Wondrous is God in his works. Enough said for now about the great beast.


Rodostó, 20 Dec. 1758

Dear Aunt! Not only we, but all the race of men are like slaves under sentence of death, who know not when it is to be carried out. Such is our fate. How many gentlemen and noble persons have we buried, one in one year, another in another, until only Lord Zai and I remained. God took him too from exile on 22 Octobris. Now I alone remain of the exiles, and I cannot say as hitherto 'Let this one or that be brought before me,' for being left alone I myself have to come forward as victim. After the death of Lord Csáki the Porte made Lord Zai head of the Hungarians that are under the Sultan's protection in this country. After his death I had to go to the Porte to announce his demise. As is the custom, I have been made başbuğ. For you must know that of those that came to this country with old Rákóczi I alone remain. Those that are with me now are newcomers. What a world! How many changes I have lived through, but God's care has always been with me and with us all. I could preach a whole sermon concerning our inconstant life in this vale of tears, which inconstancy we shall continue to experience until we ascend into the hill of delight.

It is a few days now since I returned here. What will the Lord ordain for me in the future? I am in His hand. But I know that dust must return to dust. And happy is he that dies not to the Lord, but in the Lord. After so lengthy an exile, can I desire any other happiness?

When I wrote my first letter to my Aunt I was twenty-seven years of age, and this one I write at the age of sixty-nine. With the exception of seventeen years, the remainder I have spent in fruitless exile. I ought not to have said 'fruitless,' for in the ordinances of God there is no fruitlessness; for He ordains all things to His glory. We must therefore beware that we too turn everything to that end, and thus all His ordinances concerning us will be to our salvation. Let us then wish for nothing but the will of God. Let us ask for an edifying life, a good death and salvation. And then we shall cease from asking, from sin, from exile and from insatiable desires alike. Amen.

Translated by: Bernard Adams

Tags: Kelemen Mikes