The second part of an interview with Hungarian writer György Spiró

The work of György Spiró and his relationship to Central Europe

As the first part of this interview indicated, being a Hungarian who can speak Polish and other Slavic languages has been a tremendously important facet of György Spiró’s scope and identity as a writer. Besides the influences previously mentioned he also cited Serbian poet and writer Đura Jakšić, Serbian novelist Branislav Nušić and Croatian writer Miroslav Krleža, which arose from his study of Serbo-Croatian language. He feels vindicated now in having devoted the time to studying the languages of Hungary’s neighbors and is frustrated that in spite of his attempts at persuading the younger generation to do the same they are much less willing to do so.

Spiró says that his engagement with the writers he has translated and devoted his time to was more of a personal than intellectual choice, in that it didn’t come out of a broader notion of being a Central European writer. “I don’t think anybody took Central Europe seriously as a cultural unit until Kundera and György Konrád wrote something about it in the 80s,” he said.

There are two camps Spiró identifies in Hungary as far as promoting the concept of Central Europe. “There were some Hungarian writers, with the most important representative of them being László Németh, who used this notion between the two wars for political, first of all, narrowly Hungarian purposes. Some Hungarian historians of my generation were interested in East-Central Europe – for them Central Europe is Germany – but mainly ideologically, trying to make a counterweight to the Soviet Union, with a lot of nostalgia for the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy,” he said.

Ultimately, his own aims were much more direct. “I was simply interested in literary works written in my neighborhood and not translated into Hungarian. I tried to make them known in Hungary. I was not too successful in doing so.” After 1990 he says that publishers only look at regional writing that has been translated into German, “which causes a great obstacle to knowing what is really going on in our literatures. It is almost impossible to translate and publish classics of ours in other Eastern European languages nowadays.”

Unfortunately, the same situation holds true for Spiró’s work in English translation. None of his novels or short stories have been translated into English, though his infamous underground play of the 1980’s Chickenhead is available online. Besides being able to leap into 18th and 19th century Polish history his work covers an extraordinary range of times and places without missing seminal moments and issues in Hungarian life.

In 2005 he published Captivity (Fogság) to great acclaim in Hungary. The 770 page novel is set in 1st century Rome and follows the misadventures of a “puny, unprepossessing” Jew named Uri as he stumbles unaware into touch with some of history’s most striking moments, such as when he is jailed by Herod in Jerusalem with two thieves and, presumably, Jesus, just before their crucifixion. His string of adventures provide much more for the reader than for their protagonist, as he ends neglected and penniless, unable to profit from the rich life he has lived.

In 2009 he wrote about Hungary, but set his novel Brideride (Feleségverseny) in a near future dystopia in which the country’s communist king chooses his bride on a reality TV show and the Roma minority form a breakaway state. His most recent novel, Spring Collection (Tavaszi Tárlat), deals with the purges following the 1956 revolt, its protagonist an engineer who misses the protests and street fighting because he was in the hospital having his hemorrhoids operated on.

It’s not a bad idea for a man to get admitted to hospital a couple of days before a revolution breaks out, stay in until it’s been quashed and recuperate quietly at home during the ensuing purge.

These are the novel’s opening lines and a good indicator of what Spiró refers to in an essay on fellow Hungarian writer Imre Kertész as “telling the truth with murderous irony,” an approach he says remains unpopular and politically hard to use. “I try to make people be able to face human nature whatever I write about, also in regard to 1956-57 in Hungary, a period that cannot be told easily and merrily.”

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