12. 17. 2015. 20:49

Migrants in Hungarian literature

Emigrants and immigrants: Hungarian writers and poets whose oeuvre was influenced by the experience of living between two (or more) worlds.


“Leave the place that is not good for you. Those who are leaving are right to do so. And they will regret it, just like those who are staying.” (Endre Kukorelly)

These months, Europe is experiencing the biggest wave of migrants since World War II. In Hungary, the issue exploded in the hot summer of 2015, with thousands of migrants arriving in the country daily. While the media image of Hungary sunk to an all-time low, this development brought out the best and the worst instincts in locals, deeply disturbed by images of exhausted families living in tents at Budapest’s Keleti Railway Station and stalwart young men marching through border villages. Most of the migrants do not want to say in Hungary, however―their intention is to continue toward more affluent Western and Northern European countries.

Both for historical and economic reasons, Hungary has certainly not been a popular target for immigrants in the last few centuries. According to 2014 figures, migrants make up less than two per cent of the country’s population. For over a hundred years, our problem has typically been emigration rather than immigration, with only a few considerable waves of immigration. Even at those times, however, Hungarians were not confronted with people coming from distant cultures as the immigrants were mostly ethnic Hungarians from neighboring countries―mostly from Romania, but also from Slovakia, Ukraine, Croatia and Slovenia. In this blog entry, I have collected some Hungarian writers and poets whose oeuvre was influenced by the experience of living between two (or more) worlds.

The great wave of emigration that started in the 1870s and lasted up to World War I is documented in a recent novel by Imre Oravecz, a major poet and novelist. Oravecz had spent years in the US in the 1970s, travelling back and forth between the US and Hungary, before eventually returning to settle in his native village. In 2012, he published Californian Quail, a novel about his grandparents who emigrated to America around the turn of the century. The life of this generation of emigrants―about 1.5 million Hungarians, mostly young agricultural and industrial workers―has not really been part of the national memory, except for the mere fact of their absence, present in a well-known, powerful line by Attila József: “s kitántorgott Amerikába másfél millió emberünk” (roughly translated as “and one and a half million of our people staggered to America”). Oravecz did extensive research about the life of Hungarian communities of workers on oil rigs in Toledo, Ohio and Southern California, who left Hungary with the intention to make some money and return. Many of them, however, including Oravecz’s grandparents, eventually decided not to return to their homeland, as the world they had left behind was lost forever, ravaged by World War I and the Treaty of Trianon that ended the war, in which Hungary lost roughly two-thirds of its pre-war territory and one-third of its population.

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When the initial hope for a better future after World War II was quickly disproved by the Soviet occupation and the Communist takeover, a number of Hungarians chose emigration, among them Sándor Márai (1900–1989), one of the most successful writers of the pre-war period. With an astonishing clairvoyance, Márai foresaw that Communist power would entail a complete loss not only of freedom of speech but of freedom of silence as well. He decided to leave the country, and lived the remaining 41 years of his life mostly in the US, yet hovering in the void. A non-person for official Hungary, a writer without an audience in America, Márai continued to write in Hungarian, and published a number of books, including his diaries and Memoir of Hungary, a fine account of the years 1945–48, including his decision to leave the country. He committed suicide in San Diego in 1989, and did not live to see his renascence in Hungary and his international success after the translation of Embers.

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If the summer of 2015 was an all-time low in the international image of Hungary, the autumn of 1956 was certainly the highest ever. The Hungarian revolution was regarded as the fight for freedom of a tiny nation against a tyrannical empire, and Hungarian emigrants were seen as heroes―the gorgeous, dauntless Hungarian freedom fighter on the cover of Time Magazine was voted as Man of the Year. As the new Hungarian government, headed by János Kádár, officially declared the events to be a counter-revolution, writers who emigrated in 1956 were punished by damnatio memoriae in their homeland, similarly to Márai and others who had fled from Communism. Victor Határ, George Faludy, János Nyíri or György Ferdinandy never really became part of the Hungarian canon, although they continued to write in Hungarian (Ferdinandy wrote in French and Spanish as well, while Nyíri wrote mostly in English and French), and two of them returned to their homeland―Faludy lived the last two decades of his life in Hungary, Ferdinandy moved back in 2010.

As none of the writers mentioned above switched languages, they could not be integrated into the literature of their chosen countries. Agota Kristof, however, who fled to Switzerland in 1956 with her husband and young child, wrote in French, a language that she learnt as an adult, and that she claimed she never managed to learn perfectly. Her case is especially interesting as the success of her Trilogy―narrated by a set of twin brothers living in symbiosis during the war, then separated by the division of Europe―is due not least to the eerie, fragmented language in which it was written.

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Some writers who emigrated from Hungary in 1956 and became successful in their chosen countries have played a mediating role, translating and disseminating Hungarian literature. Two poets living in the UK should especially be mentioned here: George Szirtes, the T.S. Eliot Prize-winning British poet, the translator of Sándor Márai and László Krasznahorkai; and George Gömöri, who has translated several volumes of poems by Miklós Radnóti and György Petri, in collaboration with British poet Clive Wilmer.

The first decade and a half of the new millennium has seen a new wave of emigration. In the intoxicating years of the regime change, most young people believed that once the Communists are toppled, Hungary would catch up fast with its Western neighbors. This did not happen, however, for a variety of reasons, including the resurfacing of major traumas and antagonisms within the society that had been suppressed during the Kádár era, as well as the economic crisis of 2008, the repercussions of which hit Hungary extremely hard. Hundreds of thousands of Hungarians, many of them young and well-educated, left the country, mostly to Western Europe, especially the UK, Germany and Austria.

As opposed to those who emigrated in the previous waves, the writers of this new generation mostly create in the language of their chosen countries―some of them very successfully so, like Terézia Mora, who left the country in 1990 for personal rather than political reasons. Mora, who writes in German, has garnered such prestigious awards as the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize and the German Book Prize. Her books revolve around the experience of being between two worlds: the stories in her collection entitled Seltsame Materie take place in a village on the Austro-Hungarian border, whereas her novel Das Ungeheuer takes the reader on a journey through Eastern Europe. Mora keeps close ties with contemporary Hungarian literature; she has translated a number of books (by Örkény and Esterházy, among others) into German.

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Another Hungarian who has won the Deutscher Buchpreis is Melinda Nadj Abonji, who emigrated to Switzerland from the province of Vojvodina in Serbia which has a large population of ethnic Hungarians. Her novel Tauben fliegen auf recounts the experience of a family of immigrants in Switzerland, whose identity is further complicated by the fact that they arrived in the country from a minority status.


In this region, the eastern and southern parts of Europe, borders are very important, because history has always been equivalent here with the shift and change of borders; individual and family histories were always about how the movement of people related to borders. The border is a point where the impersonal fiction we call history overlaps the very personal fiction we call life, memory, or fate. (György Dragomán)

Immigration usually involves a change of language and an adjustment to a largely foreign culture. The writers mentioned in this post, however, did not have to change a language, and had to undergo only a relatively mild culture shock when they immigrated to Hungary. Our immigrant writers are ethnic Hungarians who moved to Hungary from neighboring countries, mostly from Romania, but also from the former Yugoslavia.

Ever since Transylvania was annexed to Romania after World War I, the status of Transylvanian Hungarian writers has been special in Hungarian literature, with many Hungarians within post-Trianon borders looking at Transylvanians as guardians of ‘true Hungarianness.’ Up to 1989―the end of the Ceauşescu era― the expectation towards them was often comparable to that of Westerners vis-à-vis Eastern European writers: that their works should reflect their traumatic historical experience―in the case of Transylvanian writers, the trauma of being threatened in their ethnic identity in a hostile majority culture.

This situation slightly changed for those Transylvanian writers who left Romania and immigrated to Hungary―some in their forties as mature writers, harassed by the authorities in the Ceauşescu era, others as teenagers or young adults who arrived in the large wave of immigration around 1990. But although many of them are seamlessly integrated into the Hungarian canon, their Transylvanian origin has continued to play an important part in their identity, which manifests in their chosen topics as well as in their sensibility. As Andrea Tompa said in an interview: “I envy those writers of Transylvanian origin who managed to quit writing about Transylvania. Right now, however, I am not interested in anything else, though this may change in the future. As a writer, I am lucky to have the attitude of a native and a stranger at the same time: I am both an insider and an onlooker. In Transylvania, I am regarded as someone from Hungary, which creates a certain tension. My students at the university [in Cluj/Kolozsvár] are not sure how to relate to a lecturer who is originally from Transylvania but now lives in Hungary and returns to teach them: is she Transylvanian or someone from Hungary? In Hungary, I am still regarded as Transylvanian, but it has also happened… that I was called a Romanian by a reader who wrote me: ‘nobody forces you to live in our country.’ I think I would be much better understood, here as well as there, if I had a less complicated identity.” The incident that prompted Tompa’s reader to call her a Romanian was Tompa’s declaration that she would give the sum of her Márai Prize to a charitable purpose, as an act of protest against the cultural and social policy of the government. Tompa was awarded the Márai Prize, a major state award, in 2015 for Top to Tail, the story of two Transylvanian medical doctors. Starting a few years before World War I, the novel describes how the trauma of Trianon affected Transylvanian society, and shows the complexities of life in post-Trianon Kolozsvár/Cluj.

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A transfigured Carpathian landscape dominates the works of Ádám Bodor, a major author whose Sinistra Zone was recently published in English. Bodor’s short stories and novels report about an elusive and overwhelming world, and often take place in border regions or the peripheries―as Bodor said in an interview, the great questions of human existence are easier to contemplate in such circumstances.

Bodor was imprisoned for two years as a 16-year-old boy for distributing leaflets calling for the overthrow of the regime. He talked about his prison years in a long interview (published in book form as The Smell of Prison) with another Transylvanian from Cluj living in Budapest, poet Zsófia Balla, who had also been under constant surveillance by the Securitate before she emigrated to Hungary. Balla’s well-crafted, richly metaphoric poetry is laden with images of loss, absence, and the sense of constantly hovering between two worlds.

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As opposed to Balla, whose public appearances are few and far between, another major Transylvanian poet, Géza Szőcs, served as Secretary of State for Culture under Viktor Orbán from 2010 and 2012, and has remained an advisor to the prime minister in matters of cultural strategy. An excellent poet with a radical experimental vein and a prominent dissident who was tortured by the Securitate in Ceauşescu’s Romania, Szőcs is highly controversial as a political figure.

Two writers who left Romania in their teens before the regime change have achieved international acclaim. Attila Bartis’s Tranquility is a claustrophobic and powerful novel about an aging actress who torments her son, with the backdrop of a dictatorial regime falling apart.

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György Dragomán’s widely hailed The White King, a parable of dictatorship narrated by a young boy, has been translated into almost thirty languages. In an essay entitled “From A to B” (see here in Hungarian) Dragomán gives a gripping and lucid account of the internal process of separating from the homeland and becoming an emigrant. He records the process of alienation: as he walks in the streets cataloging every detail, trying to learn his hometown by heart, his gaze gradually turns cold, precise, and cruel. For Dragomán, this process coincides with becoming a writer: the reality surrounding him in his old world is transformed into sharp, intensive images that he can get rid of only by writing them down.

Dragomán is married to poet Anna T. Szabó, who also came to Hungary from Cluj as a teenager. Some of Szabó’s poems have been published in English in an anthology edited by George Szirtes, with an excerpt from one featuring in the London underground.

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Ceauşescu’s Romania was far poorer and much more oppressive than Hungary in the Kádár era. Tito’s Yugoslavia, however, was a colorful, lively and free country when compared to other countries in the Eastern bloc. The situation of the Hungarian minority within Yugoslavia was special as well―in their case, the peripheral status meant an increased freedom rather than provincialism.

There was a legendary journal published in Vojvodina from the mid-60s up to 1992, which had a seminal influence not only among Hungarian intellectuals in Serbia but within Hungary as well. A journal with a wide intellectual horizon, original vision and openness to experimentation, New Symposion reflected the unique spirit of ethnic Hungarians in Yugoslavia. When the Balkan Wars swept the journal away, its former editors founded Ex Symposion in Veszprém, Hungary. Some of the writers involved in New Symposion moved to Hungary, including Nándor Gion, a major novelist; János Sziveri, a poet of great visionary force who died at the painfully young age of 36; Attila Balázs; Ottó Fenyvesi; and Péter Bozsik. Others, like László Végel or Ottó Tolnai, are permanently on the road between the two countries.

In September 2015, Hungary was guest of honor at the Göteborg Book Fair. It was far from an untroubled event for Hungarian writers as they were continually taken to task for the Hungarian government’s treatment of migrants. Among the Hungarian programs, there was a performance by Katalin Ladik, a poet and performer who was involved with New Symposion from the beginnings―one of those who are continually on the road: she divides her time between Novi Sad, Budapest and the Croatian island of Hvar. Ladik stretched a wire fence between two microphone stands, and placed a sign on it saying ’Transit Zoon’―an expression carrying overtones of both ’zone’ and ’zoo.’ Then she kept metamorphosing into various animals and back into a human being, with an enlarged version of a Yugoslav passport on her chest and on her back. A meditation on the liminal existence of migrants, Ladik’s performance seems like an apt way to enhance our sensitivity to all those for whom home is a concept that cannot be taken for granted.

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This article was originally published on ELit Literaturhaus Europa's Observatory blog.

Ágnes Orzóy

Tags: Katalin Ladik, György Dragomán, Andrea Tompa, Ádám Bodor, Melinda Nadj Abonji, George Szirtes, Terézia Mora, Sándor Márai, George Gömöri, Agota Kristof, Imre Oravecz, Endre Kukorelly, Zsófia Balla, Géza Szőcs, Attila Bartis, Anna T. Szabó