03. 03. 2014. 08:35

While the Holy Infant is sleeping in our hearts

In memoriam Szilárd Borbély

He knew a lot about death and birth, and was familiar with the extreme, radical experiences of the body; it was somehow the in-between of being here in this world that was enormously alien to him.

He called us, standing right in front of our door, asking if we had time. He was right here, could we please let him in. He brought some small gifts for my infant son whom he saw for the first time, welcoming him in the world of the living with caring, anxious love. He knew a lot about death and birth, and was familiar with the extreme, radical experiences of the body; it was somehow the in-between of being here in this world that was enormously alien to him. How he arrived to where he happened to be was always kind of odd, even for himself. Like how he happened to be there in front of our door almost a year ago. He was an extremely gentle person, harsh only with himself, but his poems are among the most ruthless and the greatest in Hungarian literature.

These texts linked birth and death, ever since she who gave birth to him was murdered in a holdup on Christmas Eve, the eve celebrating the birth of the Infant Saviour. Since that day motifs of Christmas and Easter, Holy Thursday and Advent were always interconnected in his writings, linking the abandonment by God and the waiting for the Messiah. He was the most sensitive adept of the dark night of the body and the soul since János Pilinszky's Catholic asceticism. Whenever he dived into this darkness he returned burdened with treasures. ’Tünde arrived not from the realm of Light, but from that of Darkness. She rescued the light from there by absorbing it into herself’ – he wrote about the heroine of a 19th century fairy-tale play Csongor and Tünde by Mihály Vörösmarty, the poet who was one of his closest kinsmen in his knowledge of this darkness; the other being Imre Kertész with Kaddish for an Unborn Child.

The line refers to a Kabbalistic myth, intimately known by Szilárd Borbély. In it, the Messiah’s role is to rescue the light that got trapped here in this world in a Creation that went wrong. He was trying to assist the Messiah – the Messiah he was waiting for, even though he believed him to be long gone; about whom he never ceased to speak and think. Borbély too was a collector of the light glimmering here and there in the despairing grimness of creation. And we, who knew and read him, could only hope that the need to express and to engage in discourse would always be stronger for him than the magnetic force of the night. We hoped that ultimately he would never sink into that darkness. As he wrote, again, in the closing lines of his book on Csongor and Tünde: ‘It is midnight and love is awake all alone in the eternal Christmas vigil, in the abyss of the night.’ He could as well have written this about himself.

His work was grounded in the most in-depth knowledge of poetry and literary history, creating a poetical language of utmost purity, which could nevertheless be so simple that it is almost innocuous at times. He was one of the too few Christians who knew his belief to be an absurdum for the rest of the world. His theological sophistication was always conjoined by the somewhat embarrassed honesty of a child both in writing and in person. It was almost scary how they immediately attuned to each other, my son and him – one so close to birth, the other, for more than a decade, to death. Dissecting the theme of birth in his poems was a central concern for him, seeing it as pain and mire, as a mutually dependent and vulnerable ordeal of two bodies. With this, he animated the wonder of Christ’s embodiment, showing that every single birth brings the promise of salvation to the world.

The theme of another night, that of Hungary slowly sinking into despair also became crucial for Borbély in the recent years. He perceived the country as slowly drifting into a dazed isolation, away from the realm of hope and memory, away from time. The Olaszliszka lynching in 2006, which triggered a series of lethal attacks on Roma communities, drove him to write a play depicting the realities of a country sticken by poverty and violence. In this, he wrote about fallback regions: ‘time does not fly here / like a light arrow, but / like a drag, a clog / it is stuck on us, a retracting / burden… Water and earth persist. Mud knows no history, / the Sarmatians walked in that, the Huns /and Avars, Tartars and Soviets. We step into one another’s footprints in timelessness.’ He himself came from a world of eternal mud; that is where he learnt about wordless pain, deprivation and catatonic brutality. That much is clear. But what is almost impossible to grasp, the real miracle, is how he alighted on this language, this Word, through which he could express all that in poetry and narrate in prose. How can one, who set off from such a place, acquire such modes of expression – even if it is language on the edges of silence and stuttering?

No one knows. His first and only novel, The Dispossessed, was his farewell, a chronicle of complete, boundless deprivation. This shows that he was a messenger crying out from the depths whence he came, and that he came to dig down to the roots of all suffering to wake us up from the content of our inauthentic, forgetful lives. He disappeared more and more frequently; he rarely visited anymore. Had I paid ever slightly more attention, I could have sensed that moment approaching when he could never return again. His heart stopped, they say, he just couldn’t take it anymore. He was not even fifty, and it is unthinkable that he is gone, almost as unthinkable as the idea of one single human heart carrying grief so intense that it was not meant for a human heart.

Now we are left with the task of reading him in order to remember that we are only guests and strangers here, endlessly waiting for something that transcends us. Because ‘all who are born under the sun / are sent to death / in tombs they rest’. When I first heard the news, that there is nothing to wait for anymore, I thought: there is nothing but this failed creation; there never was a time other than the eternal vigil of Holy Thursday, and there never will be a time for resurrection. But now, after reopening his books, I am not quite so certain anymore. His greatest masterpiece, a Bethlehem play, is entitled While the Holy Infant is Sleeping in Our Hearts.

He was bereft of illusions, both regarding humans and history, moving in his late plays towards the direction of Bertolt Brecht. Yet he says: ‘while’ the Infant is sleeping. That one day, if nowhere else, he could awaken in the heart of each and every man. Now he fell into eternal sleep, and we are left on the vigil: ‘We beg you to engrave / your sufferings in our hearts’. He did engrave them with his texts, his startled expression and with his sudden departure without farewell. And for me, to whom he taught so much about my own Jewishness, every Christmas Eve will now be an eve of grief over him, just as it was for him over his mother. From now on, that night I will always be mourning him, my friend, one of the greatest Hungarian poets.

György Vári

Translated by: Diána Vonnák

Tags: Szilárd Borbély