12. 11. 2008. 10:23

Rescuing the ruins

Szilárd Borbély: Berlin-Hamlet

The first volume of poet Szilárd Borbély to appear in English, Berlin-Hamlet, has just been issued by the Prague publishing house Agite-Fra, in the translation of Ottilie Mulzet, who also contributed an essay that we reproduce here in a shortened form.

                                       The street conducts the flaneur into a vanished world.
                                                                                                    – Walter Benjamin
First published in Hungarian in 2003, Berlin-Hamlet is the sixth volume of poetry by Szilárd Borbély (b. 1964), universally regarded by the Hungarian literary world as one of the leading figures in the first generation of authors to emerge following the end of Communist rule. 
Borbély’s poetry is far from monothematic; yet the common strands linking all of his collections more than adequately reveal the exceptional consistency of ethical and artistic vision animating Borbély’s creative work. One particular tendency evident within post-1989 Hungarian poetry has been the prevalence of stylistic experiment (or conversely, the return to markedly traditional verse-forms as yet another form of post-modernist technical virtuosity) over the claims of the poem towards the exercising of moral authority. In many respects, such a development is a natural reaction both to the end of external political pressures, as well as to the passing of the generation of Hungarian poets (Ágnes Nemes Nagy, Sándor Weöres, and particularly János Pilinszky) who survived war and persecution to create exceptional works of verbal art under the complex circumstances of János Kádár’s “soft dictatorship” from the mid-Sixties onwards. Borbély’s own response, however, is less a rejection of the stance of the poet as an ethical arbiter than a shift to the position of the poet as witness: as a Hungarian writer whose own extended family was not spared the brutalities of World War II, as a European thinker closely attuned to his continent’s horrors in the past century, as a Hamlet who nonetheless remains standing at the very end of the performance.

To read Berlin-Hamlet is an experience akin to strolling through one of the phantasmagoric shopping arcades described in Walter Benjamin’s Passagenwerk – yet instead of window displays boasting the remnants of 19th-century European optimism, we pass by disembodied scraps of written text from the far more ghostly realm of early 20th-century modernity: primarily Franz Kafka, yet also including Benjamin himself, or such Hungarian authors as Attila József or Erno Szép. Paraphrases and reworked quotations from the vanished worlds of Europe in the last years before the cataclysm, particularly the German-Jewish intellectual sphere, appear in sharp juxtaposition with images of post-1989 Berlin frantically rebuilding itself in the wake of German unification.
Structurally speaking, the individual free-verse poems are grouped into five interwoven cycles, with each poem indicated by number. The cycle “Letter” is based directly upon a series of quotations taken from the Hungarian edition (published by Európa Kiadó in 1981) of the diaries and letters of Franz Kafka. Whether addressed to Kafka’s fiancée Felice Bauer (most frequently), Max Brod, Grete Bloch or simply the diary page, these extracted citations are quite frequently subjected to a visible process of re-writing. Unexpected gaps are inserted, or divergent fragments placed next to each other in a process of textual montage; in other instances, where Kafka’s own letters remain only as fragments, Borbély completes the text with haunting innuendo:
…Then as I looked at her for the first time more completely,
as I sat down. And when I was already seated, all
was resolved. As I gazed into her face, 
I saw my fate enfolded in a mute smile
As in this description of Kafka’s first meeting with Felice, the disjunctions between the assembled text-scraps and quotations abruptly stimulate new meanings and inferences on the part of the reader, like the disparate elements brought together in a visual collage. Empirically, of course, Kafka did have a personal link with Berlin in his visits to the city to see Felice. In another sense, though, the very presence of Kafka himself in a volume so closely plotted onto the topography of Berlin is a kind of “quotation”, extracting the author from his oft-invoked associations with Prague to paste him – shorn of the accretions of myth and conventional attribution – in a framework that stresses his indecisiveness and ambivalence, his “Hamlet-like” inability to take action during the period of his engagement.
Forming an integral part of this framework is the second series of poems, in which each one bears the name of a specific Berlin location or district and immediately describing Borbély’s sojourn in Berlin during the mid-1990s. Unlike the highly allegorical visions or even the abstract reflections in other series, these poems offer a vivid, almost physical evocation of “unification-era” Berlin, haunted equally by its tragic past as by its present frenzy to rebuild. From the evocatively romantic undergrowth of the Tiergarten to the flickering television sets in the windows of concrete tower-blocks in the grim eastern suburbs, the cranes above Potsdamer Platz to the homeless beggars and migrant construction workers at the refreshment stands, the Berlin of the Nineties is mapped with marvelous verisimilitude. Hardly do these descriptions match the then-prevalent triumphal narratives of Europe’s unification and history’s end: Vietnamese street vendors stand uncomfortably alongside Belorussian opera singers reduced to busking on the pavements of the Alexanderplatz; in a corner of the S-Bahn station we see
…an overcoat, a leg protruding, and people
stepping on it. From between the creases of fabric gapes
a face, like the countenance of Europe scorned.
Like Benjamin’s emblematic figure of the flaneur for 19th-century Paris, the poet wanders fluidly through the actual city, as well as through the mental landscape that he brings to them – itself a radically non-hierarchical assemblage with room for U2 videos and Peter Greenaway films alongside classical myth and personal memories or preoccupations. Most often, these personal “landmarks” are themselves  tragic – for instance, in the conclusion to the group of poems entitled “Schöneweide”:
And I thought of my relatives,
the ones I could never meet. Who hovered
for a while above the German-Polish lowlands, as
dust and ashes. Perhaps that is why I wanted to look, simply
to observe, for months on end, what the sky was like over Berlin.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with his fatal inability to act, long served as a totem-figure for the intellectual of central Europe in the years between the inferno of World War II and the dissolution of Communist rule in 1989. No doubt the most widely cited variant of the ‘Hamlet of Mitteleuropa’ is the one put forward in the writings of Czeslaw Milosz and repeatedly cited within Polish literature and essayistic discussion: Hamlet’s introspective soul-searching versus the temptations of taking action on the side of power. Milosz, of course, validated Hamlet’s reflectiveness over the victorious survival of Fortinbras; one illustration of the opposing stance is a satirical sketch by the talented poet Konstanty Ildefons Galczynski (written on the verge of his own submission to the dictates of Stalinist cultural policy): Hamlet enters a café, and unable to choose between coffee or tea, “immediately dies of indecision”.
Nonetheless, Milosz’s agonistic moral schema offers at best only a very imprecise key for deciphering the position that the trope of Hamlet has held in Hungarian writing, or for that matter, for understanding Hungarian writing in general. One crucial text in this regard is a volume of poetry dating from 1968, Töredék Hamletnek (Fragments for Hamlet) by Dezso Tandori – incidentally, one of the translators to work on the Hungarian edition of Kafka’s diaries and letters mentioned earlier. Tandori’s “fragments” – terse, strongly anti-lyrical, frequently balanced on the edge between sense and unintelligibility – are now considered a major turning point for the Hungarian poetic imagination. The deliberate embrace of a “ruined language” (rontott nyelv), which Hungarian critics have discerned in many authors of the past four decades, should not necessarily be seen as a protest against the malevolent effects of totalitarian ideology on human language (though of course it can and does include this phenomenon in its scope). Rather, as critic László Bedecs has noted, Tandori’s choice of programmatic incompleteness is more often viewed as a philosophical response to the crisis of both language and ideology in the second half of the 20th century, to the inability to escape from rigid Aristotelian logic and embrace the paradox in full.
For Tandori, a possible escape from this impasse is offered by Asian philosophy, in particular the literary form of the koan of Zen Buddhism – or perhaps more accurately, as in his sequence “Koan Bel Canto”, to remain poised, in Hamlet-like indecision, between the European and Asian philosophical traditions. Berlin-Hamlet does not outwardly look to Asia for inspiration; all its figures are firmly positioned in the single mental locality of a Germanic Central Europe; yet the poetics of the incomplete are no less strong for all that. In Bedecs’s formulation, stated with respect to Tandori but equally applicable to his successors, the language-ruins of Töredék Hamletnek should not be confused with Europe’s longstanding Romantic fetishisation of the ruin as synechdoche, of the evocation of a bygone whole. Rather, the fragments make fully clear the impossibility of resurrecting, or even conceiving, any form of wholeness: “the fundamental element of fragmentation is absence”.
Fragments are inherently ambiguous, and it is the tolerance of irresolved ambiguity that finally brings together the various metaphor-Hamlets: Milosz’s detached intellectual, Tandori’s first Western adept of Zen, and the several Berlin-Hamlets of the present volume (Kafka, Benjamin, the unnamed narrative voice…) Indeed, the multi-focality of these last figures underscores Borbély’s deeply ambiguous stance towards the very linguistic medium of his poetry. Hamlet’s garbled speech and mystifying paradoxes offer him protection from his pursuers; the unnamed narrator proclaims that he “can no longer bear the aggressiveness of poetry” and positions himself in the position of both executioner and victim. Wielding poetic language corresponds equally to the murderer and the murdered; between Henriette Vogel's death on the banks of the Wannsee, shot in her suicide pact with the great Romantic dramatist Heinrich von Kleist, and the millions of deaths arranged in a suburban villa beside the same lake just over a century later lies only the most ambivalent of lines.
In response, Berlin-Hamlet places especial stress on two closely interrelated tactics of composition: the copy and the quotation. Both are, after all, a method of fragmentation, the copy removing the original from its immediate network of connotations and associations, the quotation even more radically stressing the absence of the surrounding linguistic “tissue”. The post-modern aesthetic that arose in the Western world during the final years of the Cold War placed great stress on an aesthetic of reproduction, from Borges’s tale of Pierre Menard and his replication of two chapters from Don Quixote through Cindy Sherman’s re-photographing of iconic photographs. Yet despite the obvious similarities, even despite the shared intellectual background (Benjamin’s reflection on mechanical reproduction, the modernism of Weimar Germany), Berlin-Hamlet is definitively the product of a radically different attitude towards the process of artistic reproduction, of radically different historical circumstances. Nothing could be farther from this volume than the would-be “revolutionary” gestures of casting doubt on creative originality. “Allegory V” opens with a thoroughly mundane image, one familiar to all museum-goers: amateur painters “like hunters or fishermen” at work on their copies of well-known old masters. At the heart of the scene, though, is the evocation of a deep-lying horror: the painting being copied depicts a Jewish wedding ceremony (explained only in an authorial footnote), terrifying not for its actual subject but for the retroactive knowledge that we, the viewers of the post-Holocaust age – necessarily impose upon it.
The vision of the celebratory throng is terrifying. The blessing
 hardly blunts the disaster to come…
…They stand
beneath the tent. One of them, who no longer exists,
already wears funereal robes.
Copying the painting, an action repeated “seven times in one life” by the unnamed figures at their easels, is itself an enactment of the horror, a repetition of the inexpressible catastrophe within the purportedly innocent existence of the artwork.
As with the visual copy, the literary quotation, whether an exact reproduction or a paraphrase, has its own association in the Western world with certain strategies of postmodern writing, in particular the practice of a “paraliterature” that itself questions the authorial voice and authorial creation. Unquestionably, Hungarian literature since 1989 has taken up the quotation-palimpsest with great fervour. There is hardly any significant Hungarian writer of the present who altogether refrains from explicit quotation; perhaps one of the most extreme instances is Péter Esterházy’s A szív segédigéi, in which quotations from an incredible variety of sources are woven seamlessly into the text. At the same time, the Hungarian practice of quotation and re-quotation differs from the version set forth by post-structuralist theoreticians, even on the level of the term used for it: vendégszöveg, literally “guest text”. Rather than striking a pose of radical questioning, it draws upon the presumption of its readers’ intimate knowledge of a specific group of canonical Hungarian literary works, primarily those of the first half of the twentieth century. Alongside the “guest-texts” originating in the German-speaking world, Berlin-Hamlet also invokes another lost realm: that of Hungary before the scourges of Hitler, Stalin and their Hungarian collaborators. In particular, the ghostly presences behind several of the poems are Attila József (1906-1937), the brilliant poet dead by his own hand on the very eve of the cataclysm of World War II, and Erno Szép (1884-1953), a poet of Jewish origin consigned to slave labour under Fascist rule, who survived yet allegedly introduced himself, throughout the postwar years, in the past tense.
“Rettet die Ruinen” – rescue the ruins, ran a widespread shibboleth of Berlin’s counterculture during the 1990s. Berlin-Hamlet makes no such strident appeal, nor does it offer any vain illusion of rescue or resuscitation for the destroyed Mitteleuropa of Kafka or Szép. Yet through the fragments, and through the knowledge of what agency brought about the shattering, this volume does lead us into the vanished world.
Ottilie Mulzet
Szilárd Borbély: Berlin-Hamlet
Translated by Ottilie Mulzet
Prague: Agite/Fra, 2008

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