In his new novel Imre Oravecz tells the story of a Hungarian immigrant family in America at the end of the 19th century. We talked to the writer about the genesis of the novel, about how he left Hungary three times, and why he always came back.
Born in Szajla in north-eastern Hungary, Imre Oravecz has lived in London, Berlin and several American cities, and settled in his native village years ago. Oravecz started to publish poetry in the Seventies. His Book of the Hopi (1983) and Fishing Man. Fragments to a Village Novel (1998) created quite a stir in Hungarian literary life. In Californian Quail, he continues the story of a family that he started in The Ditch of Ondrok (2007). The Árvai family emigrated to America with the aim to scrape together enough money to return and buy some land in Szajla. For this dream, they are willing to put up with the hard working conditions, the despisal of Americans, skimping, etc. Months become years, and the family keeps growing in number. Leaving Toledo, Ohio behind, they arrive in California. Although they manage to adapt to the new circumstances, they have to face an unexpected problem: their children do not want to go back to Hungary, a country they know barely or not at all. Californian Quail is a slow-paced novel, a greatly enjoyable classical narrative, in which Oravecz paints a detailed portrait of 19th-century Hungarian emigrants to America.
In Californian Quail you document the story of 19th-century Hungarian immigrants to America, which is also a family concern for you: your grandfather was among those who tried their luck in the New World, and your father was born in Canada. Why and how did you decide to write a novel about this topic?
Sitting in my study, I scribbled down a sentence, just out of curiosity, to see how the first sentence of such a novel would look like. Then I put it aside, and later on wrote some more. That was how it all started. The fact that my grandparents were emigrants and my father was born in Canada would not have been enough. My personal attachment to America was a necessary condition to make it a fit topic for a novel. I first travelled to the US in 1973, and I visited the country several times afterwards: as a defector from Hungary, as a student and as a political refugee, but I always came back eventually. Then I went there with my son in 1985-86 as a guest lecturer at the University of California, so there is a place in the US that I am very familiar with. I cannot write about something that I don’t have a first-hand knowledge about.
Are there any traces of Hungarians in Toledo, Ohio?
When I went there in 1990 for the first time, there was a Hungarian priest at the church, and even the mass was in Hungarian. There are some Hungarian street names and some Hungarian-style buildings – at least the Americans call it Hungarian style. They are surely different from the rest, but I wouldn’t be able to tell that they are Hungarian. And there is a restaurant called Paco where they sell ‘the famous Hungarian hot dog’.
It used to be an industrial area, by the way, where nobody in their right mind would have settled at the time. There is a port, a dockyard, foundries, etc., and it stinks terribly, the air is absolutely horrible – locals called the place Little Birmingham. That’s where the Hungarian neighbourhood used to be, with almost ten thousand people. It was established at the end of the 19th century by the company which built a huge foundry here, where my protagonist and my grandfather also worked. They settled one hundred Hungarian workers here from Cleveland. Then more Hungarians came, and finally there were so many of them that they were practically able to shut out the rest of the world. They could survive here without speaking English, and anyway, they thought they would be going home soon so it made no sense to learn English. Later on they established a Hungarian church and a Hungarian school. No Hungarian post office though – their postal matter was managed by a Hungarian lawyer whom they also commissioned to send money to relatives in Hungary.
In your novel, it is a big dilemma for the Árvai family whether they should stay or go back home.
No, this was not a dilemma. For a long time it didn’t even occur to them to stay in America – the only question was when to go home. Money was hard to scrape together, because there were economic crises in the US even before the Great Depression, and unemployment was always a problem. They always meant to come home, even if it was not on the agenda all the time.
Yet eventually, they stayed. Was this a success or a failure?
It depends on how you look at it. It was a failure in the sense that they left Hungary with the aim to come back one day. This was the case with many families. Nowadays people tend to think that they all came back, and that they were all successful, but this is not true at all.
You said that there will be no sequel to the story. Why?
Because I was interested in the parents’ generation. The second generation related differently to everything – it is not obvious whether they considered themselves Hungarians at all. There were lots of conflicts between parents and children, and they decided to stay partly because the children did not want to be Hungarians.
You left Hungary several times in the 1970s and 80s yourself, and always ended up in the States. Didn’t you ever seriously consider leaving Hungary forever?
Of course I did.
What brought you back then?
One could say so many things. For example, that I was stupid. Or that I probably had to write this book, and Fishing Man. But it was basically what they call ’homeland’ that brought me back – there is no better word for that. This takes a long time to understand. Of course, to leave your homeland for another country, to live there alone in a completely foreign environment is a horrible trauma. This trauma never ends for the first generation, and it is there in the relationship of the parents and the children. The first time I left Hungary I meant to come back. I travelled through Paris to London where I got a scholarship to Iowa. This was forty years ago. Then I ‘defected’, as they called it in Communist times, but I returned because I missed my dog. You always find some reason you were not aware of before. Also, it was too hard for me. It was not as those who left Hungary in 1956 say – that Hungarian immigrants were greeted with open arms. Everyone was left to their own devices, and sometimes we weren't able to judge our own situation correctly. For example, I asked for political asylum, and I thought I would never get it. So I came back home, and then it turned out that I got it.
Didn’t this cause you any problems back in Hungary?
Of course it did. I always had problems, even when I didn’t defect. I was always considered a defector. When I was in London, my right of abode was legally extended at the embassy, and when I came back I kept telling people: ‘You can see, I am here!’, and editors kept telling me, ‘But we cannot publish anything by you, it is prohibited, you are a defector!’ The second time I lost my job, and I couldn’t find another teaching post. The third time, in 1989, I really left – it seemed like an absolute resolution at the time. It was because of my son; I didn’t want him to grow up here. Why I came back is a complex question, but to put it simply, it was because I belong here.
Not only you have come back, but a few years ago you moved back to your native village, Szajla, that your ancestors left for America. What attracted you to this place?
I was fed up with the city. I wanted to be at home when I stepped out of the house, to have a garden outside with dogs and cats. And silence. I was not alone, I had a companion then. If I had been alone, I may have not dared to make this move. I didn’t plan this, it just happened. There is no ideology behind it except that I know the valleys and the hills around here. Not the village though; this is not the village that I had left, it is in a horrible state as most villages in Hungary.
The wave of emigration that you write about in your novels is different from the later waves – the one before World War II or after 1956 – because it was motivated by economic needs. The outflow of workforce that we are witnessing right now in Hungary is also economically motivated. Are there any similarities between the two?
Of course. Those who leave nowadays do so because they cannot make a living here or not in a way they want to. You could ask why my son, who is a medical doctor, lives in London. He said he would come back in a year or two… He had studied traditional medicine in China, and it is more accepted in England. But those who left in the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century belonged to a different layer of society: they were mostly peasants. Most of them thought that everything would be fine there, and I guess it is the same with those people who are leaving nowadays. But many people came back because they didn’t manage. It is very hard to be skimping in a relatively hostile environment. Most of them came back, but more than half of those who came back were disappointed, either because the money they had made was not enough to buy what they wanted, or if it was, what they bought was confiscated by the Soviet regime.
The protagonist of your novel has a quite contradictory relationship with his parents. What did your parents say when they learnt that their son has decided to become a writer?0
My parents were not real peasants: my father was raised in Canada, and when he came back at the end of the 30s, he obtained a driving licence, which was a big thing at the time, and worked as a driver until he became a pensioner. My mother worked as a peasant, but in fact she came down in society, because my maternal grandfather was a forester – a prestigious job at the time. But they lived in a village environment, so they didn’t quite understand my decision for quite a long time. Yet I think my mother was proud of me towards the end of her life, though we never talked about this. They didn’t live to see my success with Fishing Man though, if success it can be called. My parents were typical village people in the sense that they did not express their emotions, even if they liked something. In that system of values there were simply no writers. I always smile when people talk about folk poetry and folk art, because peasants usually didn’t give a damn about it. My mother was quite upset when I read stories to my son Mark, she used to say: ‘But this is not true, you are fooling him!’
Do you speak English with your son?
Yes, only English.
How did this start?
When I divorced I got custody of my son, and I took him to the States. I was a guest lecturer in Santa Barbara. He started school, and I wanted to help him, so I started to speak to him in English. I had been helping him for weeks when we set out on a trip to the Death Valley, and before we got there I noticed that we didn’t speak Hungarian any more. So from then on we talked in English. I never forced it upon him, and he never proposed to go back to Hungarian.
This is a shortened version of an interview conducted in Hungarian at konyves.blog.hu.
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