07. 30. 2012. 11:02

Now boarding for Kazohinia

It doesn’t take much for a classical literary work to be overlooked—what then are the chances of an overlooked classic ever being rediscovered? - Our review on Sándor Szathmári’s masterpiece Voyage to Kazohinia (1941), now published in English by New Europe Books.

Arguably, it doesn’t take much for a classical literary work to be overlooked—what then are the chances of an overlooked classic ever being rediscovered? Sándor Szathmári’s masterpiece Voyage to Kazohinia first came along for Hungarian publication in 1941 during that mother of all Wrong Times, the Second World War, which thwarted many a writer’s reception, though Szathmári himself at least survived the war (whereas all too many great Hungarian writers didn’t). Himself a marginal, up-and-coming figure in pre-war Hungarian literary circles, Sándor Szathmári’s dystopian novel Kazohinia is still a relatively obscure piece of writing in its native Hungary, gaining a select cult following among the bookwise, and the consequent solid but low profile. The book’s subsequent Esperanto publication also created something of a stir, and worldwide the devotees of Esperanto welcomed Szathmári’s novel as a literary triumph, but altogether the work was to remain largely inaccessible to the English language public. Until now.

Besides being a highly original piece of writing in its own right, “Gulliver’s Travels in Kazohinia”, the title later abbreviated to Kazohinia, is also as much hommage to great predecessors, perhaps most noticeably Jonathan Swift through the appropriation of his protagonist Lemuel Gulliver. Pastiche serves both as backdrop and a frame of satirical reference, while the actual flesh of the Kazohinian adventure is a thorough and disconcerting investigation of human civilization as we (still) know it, from its foundations in language, power relations and technology to the utmost ends of sanity, and beyond. Such a scope is indeed a tall order, and Szathmári delivers the goods with astonishing clarity and coherence.

It may take some genre-bending to find an appropriate label for Kazohinia. Science fiction, social commentary, satire, pastiche, perhaps even philosophical treatise are all definite possibilities. Though many critics have come up with more or less obvious references, I found this work brought to mind Voltaire’s Candide, in its multifaceted approach to problems of morality. But be that as it may, Kazohinia showcases timeless dilemmas in an eerily familiar modern setting, and as one might well expect from an anti-utopian stance, we’re offered no easy solutions to society’s built-in problematics. The criticism is razor-sharp, explicit, sensitive and scathing, and in fact no less applicable today, for all the bygone history accumulated since.

Besides being sort of hopeless in a didactically complicated way, the whole Kazohinian scene righteously ridicules most of our Western civilization, and for those of us put off by magnanimous works of profound self-importance, the really good news is that Szathmári has considerable merits of humor. This book is, among other things, wildly funny, unscrupulous, playful and linguistically innovative: Kazohinian language draws heavily on an accomplished Esperantist’s talent. Just as Gulliver finds it a struggle to pull through the long Kazohinian haul without cracking, we too may find solace of some kind in comic relief.

Unlike many well-known dystopian works of this magnitude, like Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World or Zamyatin’s We, Szathmári takes a leap beyond the looking-glass in methodically deconstructing the very moral imposed by the Kazohinian premise. It is thereby an impossible challenge to actually fit Kazohinia into any single political school or tradition. Instead of jolting the reader to grab for a banner to raise in well-grounded political protest, one is left effectively scratching one’s head, and I would argue that this is the single most dangerous form of literary subversion available to a social critic.

Probably no political system as such would find this vista encouraging, and it is no wonder that the Hungarian Communist state couldn’t tolerate this text in its unabridged and uncensored form. Szathmári would’ve had a field day ripping into the fabric of our contemporary global scene, but short of living to see the day, he still comes across fresh and relevant. In its 2012 edition, the 1975 English translation received a major overhaul and re-edit, for Voyage to Kazohinia’s well-overdue reintroduction to the Anglosphere at large.

See publisher's page

Sándor Szathmári: Kazohinia
New Europe Books, 2012
Translated by Inez Kemenes

Dániel Dányi

Tags: Sándor Szathmári