A translator’s personal account
Lázár, widely read for his children’s tales and tales for adults, and Tar, who is read by a smaller circle of admirers for his beautifully told somber stories, seem like an odd couple, indeed, a seemingly haphazard choice of authors.
On a visit to the Basilica of Győr a couple of years ago, as we stood in front of the Weeping Virgin’s beautiful painting that, according to the sign below it, cried blood on several occasions in the 17th and 18th century, my friend asked, “Do you really believe that the Virgin wept?” And I said, “Yes, of course.” “Then why can’t she weep any more?” she asked. “Because,” I said, “we don’t believe in miracles.” God only knows where these words and this simple conviction came from. Being a vulgar materialist, I had certainly never reflected on any such thing before, but there it was. I quickly changed the subject, steering the conversation onto less embarrassing waters.
I mention this meeting with the baroque Madonna set in the ornate baroque frame above its small altar because it may well hold the key to why I translated two works as widely disparate as Ervin Lázár’s The Devil’s Horseshoe and Other Stories and Sándor Tar’s Our Street, why they caught my fancy enough so that I thought nothing of dedicating years of my life rendering them into English and finding them the publishers they deserve.
Lázár, widely read for his children’s tales and tales for adults, and Tar, who is read by a smaller circle of admirers for his beautifully told somber stories, seem like an odd couple, indeed, a seemingly haphazard choice of authors. To say that both Lázár and Tar are among the best contemporary Hungarian writers is to state the obvious; to say that these particular books are worthy of translation is to voice a personal opinion, even if I’m sure that there is nothing subjective about what makes for good literature. These things are given, just as the fact that thanks to their individual voices and points of view, these books test the boundaries of thought and experience, thereby enriching world literature as such.
Still, the question remains – and I have asked myself this on more than one occasion – what is it specifically that The Devil’s Horseshoe and Other Stories and Our Street have in common, why is it that I chose these works and not some other works by Lázár and Tar? And that’s when I remembered the exchange Zsuzsi Valló and I had as we stood in front of the Weeping Virgin in Győr Basilica. Each book is an interconnected wreath of stories that stand on their own and were first published separately, but when presented together like this, their ultimate concern and appeal rests with miracles and the loss of miracles and the loss of innocence.
Ervin Lázár’s The Devil’s Horseshoe and Other Stories (Corvina Books, 2015) is based on the author’s experiences and memories of growing up in a remote Hungarian village where the people were poor in goods, but rich in tales about miracles in their lives that they took very much in stride. Through the telling of fifteen stories, the book brings to life the world of the countryside as people experienced it, which throbs to a different rhythm than the world of city folk. From a naked angel boy who sneaks into a kitchen to pilfer kitchen utensils at night (“The Sneak Thief”), through the village blacksmith who shoes the Devil’s horse (“The Devil’s Horseshoe”), and the tale of a Party functionary who comes to portion out the land among the peasants but dazed by his power over them leaves with a promise to resurrect the dead (“The China Doll”), each story takes on the quality of a hallucinatory exploration into that part of the soul where beauty, hope, and yearning live in close proximity, and where miracles are a way of life – until the loss of innocence, that is. In “The Box” a mysterious stranger appears with a box that he plugs in in someone’s home, and as it begins to flicker and show images, it draws the locals to the house, who sit riveted to it, throbbing to its rhythm. When the stranger leaves, he takes the box with him, and inside it, the people of the village, with nothing remaining but the silence and one old woman who refuses to leave (“The Well”), because her husband, who had fallen into the well, plays the zither for her at night. Unlike her son, who comes from the corrupted, deaf and blind world of the nearby town in a vain effort to take her away, she can still hear the music of the spheres. Lázár’s special brand of folk surrealism is the Central European counterpart of the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende.
Sándor Tar’s Our Street (Contra Mundum Press, 2015) seems to be the polar opposite of Lázár’s book in every way. Its thirty-one stories zoom in on the inhabitants of Crooked Street, the tail end of a village in southern Hungary bounded at one end by a down-and-out bar where most of the characters find their consolation in alcohol, banter, sex, yearning for love, and recounting far-flung tales. Each story reflects on and extends the next, whereby a gallery of memorable characters emerge to reveal an incisive portrait of a society in disintegration.
Honing in on each character’s struggle to salvage their self-respect after the demise of communism and the 1989 regime change, Tar dramatizes the difficulties of survival as the people of Crooked Street face the loss of their jobs, the soil from under their feet, and any hope for a better future. This gallery of distinctive characters includes Uncle Vida, an old man who grows vegetables he cannot sell, the always proud Mancika, who is found lying on the tracks waiting for the speeding train, and the reverend Márton Végső, who tends to the needs of the villagers with an equanimity that springs from resignation rather than moral or spiritual resolve. Through these and other figures, one is drawn into a world both captivating and harrowing. And yet – and this is where Tar and Lázár have produced parallel universes – the stories reaffirm the characters’ humanity and endows them with dignity. Though there is an end to innocence in Our Street, undaunted, the characters who populate it continue living and loving, playing the game of survival in ways we may not approve of despite all odds, playing it because they’re human, and this game of survival, which is inseparable from being human, is ultimately presented, though never in so many words – and I very much suspect against the author’s intention – as the greatest miracle of all.
Tags: Sándor Tar