Jenő Rejtő is the only Hungarian pulp fiction writer appreciated by literary historians. He died seventy years ago today.
Jenő Rejtő, aka P. Howard, a great favourite of Hungarian readers, died seventy years ago, on 1 January 1943 in Yevdokovo, Ukraine, where he froze to death while on labour service during World War II.
Jenő Rejtő (Reich) was born in Budapest in 1905, and lived a very short, but extremely adventurous life. He studied to be an actor in Berlin, then travelled around Europe, working as a longshoreman in Hamburg, a fisherman in Sweden, a construction worker in Genova, and a step dancer in France, among others. He also joined a travelling circus for a time, and visited Africa – it is subject to debate whether he had actually joined the Foreign Legion, which is the scene of many of his novels.
He returned to Hungary in 1930, completely broke. Initially he earned his living teaching languages, but then he started to write, and soon became a popular playwright and novelist, the latter under the pen name P. Howard. When World War II broke out, Rejtő had to face constant attacks because of his Jewish origin. While he wrote novels that provided light entertainment for thousands of readers, he himself was suffering from a severe anxiety – from overwork and because of the constantly worsening political situation – and was treated at a psychiatric hospital. It was an article in a Nazi paper which sealed his fate: the author of the article denounced Rejtő as still loitering around Budapest cafés when all the other Jewish men had been taken on labour service. In November 1942 Rejtő was taken to Ukraine in a labour battalion where he froze to death on 1 January 1943. He was merely 38 years old.
Rejtő’s novels are variations on adventure or detective novels and parodies of these genres, and are characterized by a unique sense of grotesque, absurd humour. His characters are awkward, often loveable people who happen to be penniless wanderers, fraudsters or soldiers in the Foreign Legion. Jenő Rejtő himself was a figure straight out of Rejtő novels. There are many anecdotes and urban legends about his life, e.g. that he paid his coffees at the Café Japán by scribbling down a few lines that the waiter then took to his publisher just across the street, where he duly got his payment, tip included.
After the war, his novels were only available on the black market, but from the 1960s, they were republished, and gained instant popularity again. Generations of Hungarian readers are able to quote entire sentences or even paragraphs from his novels. Some of these are memorable beginnings, like that of Dirty Fred, the Captain:
‘Sir, I came to fetch my knife.’ ‘Where did you leave it?’ ‘In some sailor.’ ‘What was it like?’ ‘Steel. Narrow blade, somewhat curved. Have you seen it?’ … ‘Yes. It’s in my back.’ ‘Thank you.’
Or The 14 Carat Roadster:
Ivan Gorchev, sailor on the freight ship Rangoon, was not yet twenty-one when he won the Nobel Prize in physics. To win a scientific award at such a romantically young age is unprecedented, though some people might consider the means by which it was achieved a flaw. For Ivan Gorchev won the Nobel Prize in physics in a card game, called macao, from a Professor Bertinus, on whom the honour had been bestowed in Stockholm by the King of Sweden a few days earlier. But those who are always finding fault don’t like to face facts, and the fact of the matter is that Ivan Gorchev did win the Nobel Prize at the age of twenty-one. (Trans. Patricia Bozsó)
Rejtő’s books have been published in several languages. His novels translated into English include Quarantine in the Grand Hotel, The Blonde Hurricane and The 14 Carat Roadster.
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