Translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie MulzetO
ne spring morning, a woman set out for a walk with her daughter, a year and a half old. She took her bag with her. Wallet, ID, tea thermos? She had everything she needed. The woman wrapped a scarf around her neck because it was still chilly. No trouble could reach them here; trouble was happening somewhere else. The little girl was restless, yet it was strange how she didn’t cry. The little girl couldn’t sleep. The woman fumbled a bit with the door key; somehow she couldn’t seem to get it into the lock. They set off for a nearby park. It was as if the woman were looking at her happiness of half a year ago through inverted binoculars. Fortunately, there were stretches of ten minutes—even half an hour—when she was able to suppress her fears. Nevertheless, she was exhausted. Finally, her daughter fell asleep. Perhaps ten minutes passed. They had almost reached the park; she could already see the wrought iron gate. Suddenly, there was a loud explosion nearby. The little girl startled awake and began to cry. The woman hurried back to her house. Half of the house, through whose gate they had just stepped, had been torn off. The second story was split off precisely above the doorway where the woman had just been fumbling with the key. She stared at it; not a single sound came out of her throat. Everything was gone. All they had left were the clothes on their backs, her bag, the baby carriage. But they were alive! The woman had no idea what to do. She rocked the baby carriage, or rather shook it mechanically, like a machine.
Names of cities on the map: Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol. Newspaper reports on arms shipments, troop movements, prognoses. I see the woman standing before her bombed-out house. The Prime Minister of Hungary refuses all military aid to Ukraine, obstructs measures to sanction the aggressor. It is announced that the country of which I am a citizen will send five hundred liters of sacramental wine to its war-torn neighbor. The level of abject cynicism in this gesture horrifies me. Behind this program of national egotism, founded on longstanding grievances, lies genuine self-hatred. Hungary is inexorably sinking into its own lies, many centuries old. Arrogant ineptitude and feudal archetypes. And now has even become indifferent to its own self-destruction. When a country is governed for so long by corruption operating below the level of reason, the majority sees no other solution than to sink to the ethos of an apathetic, corruption-shaped mass. I am ashamed. I feel anger, helplessness. I am a stranger, and yet my strangeness is a part of this place. Recently I was walking through Cluj, Romania, and on my way to the university, I stopped in front of the old synagogue. Just before, on the tram, I found that I was listening to see if anyone was speaking Hungarian. A cat ran across the courtyard of the synagogue. I had never visited it before, and yet every architectural detail, every window was familiar to me. I suddenly realized that the reason for this familiarity was not only that I had once sat between my grandfather and father, both of whom are no longer alive, on the bench of a similar synagogue. There was another reason as well. No one attends the synagogue in Cluj anymore. It is an artifact from a previous, sunken time; the walls remain, but the bodies and the voices have disappeared from within its walls. There was no explanation for the fact that it was still here, but as I stood before it, it spoke to me about myself. That in every situation I am part of a minority. This is something I made peace with in my childhood: I am incapable of belonging to the majority. I must stand with the defenseless. I rebel, I resist. I draw life force from this resistance, and it makes life difficult for me.
I see the children taking shelter in cellars. Their fear is at once distant and unbearably near. Every sound must be listened to. I personally know this kind of fear only through stories that were passed down to me. My grandmother and my father cowered together like this in a Budapest cellar. They dared not utter a word, or to cry. They were afraid that if anyone heard them, the Arrow Cross men—Hungarian fascists—would take them away and the same thing would happen to the exceptional people who were hiding them. Now I read about how Ukrainian parents are sewing their children’s names and addresses into their clothes. When, at the end of the war, my other grandmother, holding my mother’s hand, went to get water at the Brno train station—their luck lay in having been force-marched there from an Austrian labor camp and not burned alive in a shed like so many others—women approached them, weeping, asking how my grandmother had been able to find her daughter. My grandmother answered that her little girl had remained with her all along, and then she too began to weep. I read how doctors performing autopsies on bodies from Ukrainian mass graves have found flechettes—pointed steel projectiles between three and four centimeters long that become hook-shaped after penetrating the body. One missile can release eight thousand of such projectiles, covering an entire target area.
What is happening now has long since been anticipated by poetry. Poetry is the sensory organ of the future. For a long time, it has been auguring that there would be war. And that this war would break out here in Eastern Europe. On this part of the continent the magnificent rapeseed fields in spring, the wheat fields that gently slope and stun the senses, have never been anything other than a horrific anvil of flesh, mill of blood. Over the past few decades human life had begun to be worth a bit more here, but not by much. And yet poetry only truly becomes poetry, attuned to both the present and future, if it rises above individuality, if it does not merely resist corruption (for this would simply be something like a code of honor); rather, it must be permeated by an impersonal, eternal measure hidden deeply within the self. To oppose corruption does not merely mean turning away from it. To turn toward the present, in a gesture of empathy, so that the prison walls of the current political impasse would collapse in the light of this turning toward, so that every sentence and feeling of our present time would flow from the enclosed into the boundless—this, perhaps, is the path of poetry.
Every day, many thousands perish in this war. Entire cities are razed to the ground. The madness of national identities rages. The battles continue for territorial possession, for hegemonic sovereignities, for the remnants of collapsed economic systems, in which every great power takes part in its own way. Blood and weapons are flowing. Isn’t Eastern Europe an image of the world in microcosm? On the planet, there is hardly any potable water left or air that can be breathed, and yet we are waging twentieth-century wars of spheres of influence and exploitation, so that tomorrow the risk of famine will be even greater, and more people will believe there is no other way to survive than killing.
Years ago, six writers sat together in a Swiss villa. They came from six different countries and had never met before. Things like this can happen only in Switzerland, the country of exceptions. That evening we spent together was exceptional too. Who sat around the table? An older man whose family had emigrated from Lithuania; he himself had been born in South Africa where his father had been imprisoned by the apartheid regime for his involvement in the struggle for Black civil rights, after which he went into exile in England and his son emigrated to Paris. His wife, whom he met there, also sat at the table. She came from a Russian Jewish family that had fled the violence in the 1920s to the United States. However, she could not stand her meddling mother and aunts, and so she ran away to Europe. The other man, older than myself, had been born in Nigeria. He had lived through the civil war as a child. The British school he had attended had been destroyed. Beginning in childhood, his family encouraged him to emigrate from Nigeria, and he did so as a young man, settling in London where he became a renowned writer. The fourth person sitting around the table was a woman from Colombia. Her studies had taken her to Madrid, and it was love that kept her there. Weeping, she spoke of her village, of her mother, the village midwife. Her mother had brought every child there into the world, and in some way she felt everyone in the village that she had left behind to be her sibling. The fifth person was from Australia. His father was Greek, his mother Polish. He had been born in Poland but, after the declaration of martial law in 1981, his family had emigrated to Australia. He spoke Polish as a child, but with the passage of time he’d forgotten it. All of our lives spanned many continents. I was the only one who still lived in the country where I had been born, and where my parents had been born, although like every other central European Jewish family, they had arrived here after a long journey, and those who survived the war were dispersed far and wide. After dinner in the Swiss villa the other guests asked me why I was still living in Hungary. Why, when I was an outsider, a stranger there? I thought the question over. Not because this was the first time I had been asked, but because I had posed it so often to myself, and just this once I wanted to give a precise reply. It was not because of language, although I could never imagine writing in another one. It was not because of how familiar Hungary was to me, because I have spent long stretches in other countries and always felt fine. So why? After a few minutes of thought, the reason I gave was this: I am certain, I said, that my gate is here, my gate stands exactly here. The gate through which I can step into time as a true witness, so that I may write, and where my writing may step into that impersonality hidden in the depths of my character—which, I believe, forms a part of the impersonal, common material of the world.
Here stands the gate I must face—the gate of strangeness, resistance, impersonality. My freedom and my captivity are one and the same. They enable me to speak, not in a prefabricated language, dissolving one back into formlessness, but instead in that language I try to locate, again and again, the language valid for my life here and now. Here, one cannot invoke success or victory. The language of success refers to those who measure a person, a swan, or a rhinoceros using statistics. The truth is that every book consumes its own language, and pushes me back into silence. Silence is our common place, our origin, and it will remain after us, when only the winds will be heard, the sound of nothing’s heartbeat. Perhaps someone has sewn our names and addresses into our souls before releasing us to this war-torn earth, this otherworld of water scarcity where the splendor of spring gives birth to a coffin lid, and yet where desire and curiosity for life remain stronger than anything else.
Gábor Schein is the highly acclaimed author of over nine volumes of poetry and five novels. He has been awarded the Attila József Prize, the Artisjus Prize, and the Prize of the Society of Hungarian Authors, among many other distinctions. His work has been translated into eight European languages. His short novels The Book of Mordechai (translated by Adam Z. Levy) and Lazarus (translated by Ottilie Mulzet) were published in one volume by Seagull Books in 2017. His novel Autobiographies of an Angel, also translated by Ottilie Mulzet, was published in 2022 from the Margellos World Republic of Letters of Yale University Press. (Photo by Máté Gergely Oláh.)
Ottilie Mulzet has translated over twelve volumes of Hungarian poetry and prose. Her translation of László Krasznahorkai’s Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming was awarded the 2019 National Book Award in Translated Literature, and her translation of Szilárd Borbély’s Final Matters: Selected Poems, 2004-2010 was a finalist for the 2020 PEN America Poetry in Translation Prize. Her work has received grants from both English PEN Translates and the PEN/Heim Translation Fund.
“Literature and Democracy,” a quarterly column curated by NER international correspondent Ellen Hinsey, presents writers’ responses to the threats to democracy around the world, beginning with a focus on Eastern Europe.