"I think everything around us is made up of fragments of narrative, all our experience. At best, we hang these fragments on a thread of cause and effect, or subsume them in some kind of universal whole and try and turn them into the story of a secret that’s revealed to us." – Enikő Fülöp talks to the winner of the Margó Prize about his first collection of prose, The Virgin Mary’s Fiancé.
„…has been a postman, has harvested medicinal herbs, has done forestry work; at the moment, he’s a literary historian teaching at the University of Pécs,” runs your bio on the flap of The Virgin Mary’s Fiancé. How was it that you finally chose to pursue teaching?
Those jobs were only casual, and what I wanted to communicate by listing them was that I know first-hand the world I’m writing about. I’ve always been interested in diversity, in the diversity of the self: how you can bring together the various states of being that determine who we are, even if they appear to concern very distant things. In a certain sense, teaching is also a form of ‘bringing together’: a lot of very different people, very different convictions meet in the process of teaching, for example in the process of discussing a particular text.
(Photos: Gábor Valuska)
I’d like to turn my next question on its head, and ask you not why you’ve chosen to publish under your own name at last, but rather why you’ve written under the name Róbert Szászpataki until now?
That pseudonym was a precaution on my part – I wasn’t sure quite how things would turn out. Also, it’s terribly exciting to assume an alternative identity and then immerse yourself in its reality.
In the foreword, you almost – if you’ll permit me to use a quasi-religious term, given the context – make an oath of laying down the purity of your intentions in putting these stories to paper, and emphasise that you’re writing nothing but the truth. Why did you feel it important to ‘wash your hands’ in such a direct fashion?
The foreword is not from the author’s perspective, but the narrator’s; which is to say that it isn’t me talking about myself, but rather the narrator trying to set out why exactly he’s writing. The goal was, on the one hand, to take the traditional narrative legitimations of literary storytelling in turn (from Horace’s “exegi monumentum” through Biblical Providence to the models of represented speech) and to present a sort of pared-down version of them as they’ve managed to stick in the narrator’s memory. On the other hand, I wanted to communicate the extent to which the narrator wants to write a novel, which is to say how strong an organisational principle the desire for a novel is, whereas his great hoped-for narrative arc never quite comes together.
In an interview published recently, you mentioned that your lectures at the University include the difference between a novel and a collection of short stories, and the fact that this book is the latter. If we take a slightly looser approach to the borders of these genres, couldn’t we take each short story as a chapter from a novel? I can really see a development running through them, a continuity, a real arc. I’m particularly thinking here of the progress of the Dean’s work, the tiny changes in the ways the Gypsies are viewed thanks to Kockás, and the final episode, where Józsika Bizdó goes mad.
The point is precisely that in a novel, the individual chapters of stories are parts of the whole, serving to develop something larger than the sum of its parts. I don’t believe in this larger unit, which is to say a greater narrative. I think everything around us is made up of fragments of narrative, all our experience. At best, we hang these fragments on a thread of cause and effect, or subsume them in some kind of universal whole and try and turn them into the story of a secret that’s revealed to us. The point of a collection of short stories is that it renounces meta-narratives: there are only stories that seek to understand, destroy, and construct the self.
One element of the book that is characteristic of a collection of short stories is that the religious tensions are not developed, unlike the question of the Gypsies, which is present all the way through the book.
The book also seeks to break with the ‘big questions’, or rather with their obligatory phrasing, and wants to demonstrate that on the local level, in a community this size, the chances are that all sorts of alternative narratives and attitudes spring up towards otherness. The best way to think about it is along the lines of oral history, which can really give shades of nuance, and can even alter the greater discourse of remembrance.
Since I mentioned Kockás before, let me ask you about your intentions in introducing this character. Is this a sort of conscious softening of the ethnic tensions presented in the book, or is it rather a sense of thoroughness, of wanting to look at all the aspects of the theme?
So-called “ethnic tensions” that develop on the local level would find their solutions on the local level as well if it wasn’t in the interests of bigger political players to use them and exploit them for their own oppressive ideological ends. Even the phrase “ethnic tensions” isn’t really right, either, because we’re talking about people in the first instance, people with faces, and not dehumanised, faceless groups; ethnic belonging only comes into it later. Which is to say that only the character of Titi wants to make a big deal of the possible tensions between Gypsies and Hungarians, while the rest of the residents of the village take a pragmatic view. Clearly Kockás is one of the incarnations of, and also an ironic reflection on, the salvation narrative represented by, say Irimiás in Satantango.
The title of the collection, strictly speaking, refers to Józska, who “following confesion would spend a long time kneeling before the smiling statue of the Virgin with his eyes closed, very devout.” You leave it to the reader to decide whether they settle for that interpretation or if they extend the metaphor to the whole of the ‘devout’ village.
Religiosity is an important aspect of this book, or rather the various different expressions of it. The desire for the transcendental is an important basic anthropological tenet. The question in my book is to what extent the linguistic and cultural manifestations of religiosity (specifically in this case the symbolism and rituals of the Catholic church) are able to satisfy this need. And I really do leave it to the reader to decide that, each according to their beliefs.
I’m curious as to which of the discriminatory acts, and the “responsibilities” of the characters the residents of the village hold in superstitious regard, are ones that you really experienced either in the past, or in researching the book.
Needless to say every writer works with what they see around them, and experience – this was my experience. At the same time, what you write down is never the same as reality, which is to say that my book is not intended in any way as a work of sociology or documentary. I’m more interested in the universal nature of the potential within people. That also means that I don’t think the things I observed are valid only in the local environment I depict, but for all of us.
One reviewer thinks your books is genius, and yet says nothing new at all. I don’t agree, but I’d be interested to know what you think.
I don’t agree with the use of ‘genius’, as I don’t know what to make of it. I do, however, agree with the statement that there’s nothing really new in it, because we really have written about everything. Hungarian literature has a substantial tradition of this sort of representation of the world, and what’s more in the last few years, the so-called “literature of poverty” has also apparently become fashionable. What may make my book interesting is the playful dialogue it undertakes with that tradition.
"There’s a good reason not just anyone can be a teacher. You need to have something special so your brain won’t go soft from all that learning,” your narrator reflects, thinking about The Teacher. Have you thought about writing about teaching? I could really see the humorous but realistic style of The Virgin’s Fiancé working well in that kind of book, studded with the occasional biting comment on contemporary social life.
It’s very good of you to ask, but I hadn’t the slightest notion, no. Or to put it another way, no, I have absolutely no plans to do so.
Was born in Kaposvár in 1971. He then lived not far away, in a village called Nagybajom. He studied History and Hungarian from 1989 to 1994 at what is now the University of Szeged. In 1999, he completed his PhD in 19th-century Hungarian literature, also at Szeged, and has been researching the period ever since. He has published four books on the subject, including on the issues of the acculturation of folk themes in literature and János Arany as cultural construct. His most recent collection of studies (In Babel’s Forum) is a reinterpretations of the major works of nation-centred literature. He has published a number of reviews of contemporary cultural and literary works. He currently teaches at the University of Pécs and lives in a village near the city.
The Virgin Mary’s Fiancé is his first collection of prose.
Translated by: Mark Baczoni