Szilárd Borbély was one of Hungary’s leading contemporary poets, as well as a noted translator, literary historian and dramatist. A recipient of many of his country’s most prestigious literary prizes, his oeuvre was largely unknown in the West at the time he took his own life in 2014. To the good fortune of English-language readers, two of his most notable works became available this past November, each in a masterful translation by Ottilie Mulzet: the poetry collection Berlin-Hamlet, first published in 2003, and his only novel, The Dispossessed, a sensation among the Hungarian reading public upon its original publication in 2013.
The Dispossessed is a fictionalized memoir of Borbély’s impoverished 1960s childhood in a northeast Hungarian village, a short distance from the Romanian border. The author’s father made him promise that he would never write about this experience, but when he died in 2006, Borbély felt obligated to break his silence. Rural poverty at the time was a marginalized topic in the nation’s literature and socio-political discourse, and its continuous neglect by the government deeply troubled him. He considered the conditions of post-communist Hungary to be even more prohibitive of social mobility, in spite of the more than 30 years that had passed since his escape from this milieu. In The Dispossessed, the unnamed child narrator illustrates that it is a moral as well as material poverty in which this pain has its origins.
For there is a prevailing “culture of brutality” within the village, as Mulzet mentions in her introduction, a disrespect towards anyone deemed an outsider. It’s most glaring form is a widespread, all-consuming anti-Semitism, one that long predates the national government’s complicity in the Holocaust two decades earlier. Another is the grave mistreatment of the Roma, perennial scapegoats within this society, forced to beg or take on degrading work, such as cleaning outhouses, to survive. In the mold of the self-serving and distrustful characters who populate his compatriot László Krasznahorkai’s novels, behavior in this village seemingly withdrawn from contemporary historical events is actually rooted in the “ancient world” of the peasants; a past the latter claim to erase through silence. Yet Borbély does not shy away from exposing the thinly-veiled legacy of the regent and Nazi ally Miklós Horthy, nor from underlining the divisive and duplicitous rule of the Soviet-influenced communist party.
These historical factors are behind the communal terror wrought on the narrator’s family. The father, rumored to have Jewish heritage, and a class enemy as the son of former landowners, is over time denied even the most menial labor by the local party officials. His drinking habits and meager income drive his wife to despair, and she, like her husband, takes out her frustrations on the children. At times she threatens suicide. With the mother overwhelmed by her housework, the narrator and his older sister spend more hours performing chores than at play. Other village children adopt their parents’ bigoted stance towards the siblings, which results in the boy being assaulted in the street. Under these circumstances, the life of an individual family member— “a solitude born as one”—is often burdensome to the others, and Borbély deftly employs shifts in chronological sequencing to emphasize the stark revelations of an absence: a death in the family in one case; expulsion from the village in another.
These hardships, and the daily life of the community, are related in an arresting, incisive language; rhythmic, frequently shortened sentences that attempt to assemble meaning as understood from a child’s perspective. Characteristic of this prose are instances where the narrator names or describes an object or action, then provides the more colloquial expression used by himself and other children—an indeterminate “we”:
We walk across the turned-up earth. We call it sodground. Ogmand’s sodground. When we go into the forest to gather wood, we pass this way. Sometimes we go in the direction of the Szomoga family fields so that we can walk along Kaboló Road. Because it isn’t so muddy. We call that puddle slick.
Yet it is not in words where he finds solace. It is numbers, specifically, primary numbers—those that “cannot be divided”—that are his preferred method for the introduction of order and meaning into the adult world; through disparities in age (“between us there are twenty-three years. Twenty-three cannot be divided”), or the passage of time between events (“he waited for another thirty-seven years, but the Messiah didn’t come”). He also identifies with them, for they are “like us in the village. The ones that stick out from the others.”
Borbély’s aesthetic is shaped by his personal concerns; most are theological in nature, but a great number are epistemological as well; his view is that modern language is often ill-suited to address the tribulations of human experience. In a 2013 interview with Asymptote where he discusses the origins of the poetic language utilized in his final collection, The Splendour of Death, Borbély declares: “if we think about it, the human world is basically a strange web of customs, fears, desires, memories, and hopes. And as such it is essentially built on words, and by no means on so-called ‘reality’—a fiction in its own right.” This underlying philosophy—that only words form the basis of “reality”—cuts to the heart of Borbély’s narrative presentation in The Dispossessed. What confronts the reader as “real”—the jarring imagery of squalor, the drudgery of the everyday—cannot be accepted at face value. For the material reality of the villagers is enveloped in various degrees with the mythical, legendary and biblical. Voices integrated within the text situate the village within these ontological frameworks: the boy envisions an angel’s arrival in time for the plum harvest—a harbinger of a death; a grandfather’s folkloric tale of Romanian ancestors, a migratory religious community forced to convert by a Hapsburg envoy (a character reminiscent of Kafka’s authority figures); a rabbi’s story from before the war, about how the current world, where the “ground is always watery . . . . [and] will be swallowed by the mud of the earth.” As with other instances, none of these examples detract from Borbély’s visceral, realist depiction of his subjects, but rather lend an added dimension to the worries that occupy their emotional life: a justification for the existence of death (in the case of the angel), belonging (how does the boy’s ancestry factor into his identity as a Hungarian?) and fear (of the river that threatens to flood the crop fields).
Language, however, in spite of the grandiose themes it can convey, also conditions fear in the village’s oppressed population. The boy’s father, a character reduced to submission by years of harassment and ostracization, “pronounces people’s names only rarely” and is reticent to use the word “Jew” in conversation. The same applies to his son, who feels like he’s “suffocating” when he hears the word and is even unsettled by the letter “j” at school. It is as though the act of naming alone possesses its own abstract terror.
Conversely, their persecutors are unrestrained in their use of anti-Semitic vernacular (e.g. to “pay the Jew” means to defecate), but at the same time, this language also reinforces their dependence on feelings of inferiority. For the specter that haunts the collective memory is that of the Jewish Mózsi family—who all save one perished following their deportation—ambitious, and superior to the villagers in worldly success and dignity:
Everyone is always mentioning the Jew. The Jew is the one who is nowhere. The Jew is the one who conjectures. Who isn’t happy with what he has. All the things that we have gotten used to already. The way we do things isn’t good enough for him. He always wants something else. The old people know, and my father’s people, too, that the Jew is the one who cannot be understood. The Jew is a bad conscience, and the Jew is remorse that can only be alleviated by contempt.
The above passage suggests that there is more behind the community’s behavior towards the figure of the Jew than unbridled hatred. It is also motivated by the persistence of their guilt over their passivity, and in some cases, proactive role in his demise. But there is another crucial aspect. Disdain for the one “who isn’t happy with what he has,” suggests that the villagers also have desires and dreams, beyond “the eternal yearning of the poor.” Yet without the material and institutional resources needed to fulfill them, they languish in resentment.
This can be difficult to acknowledge in the face of the villagers’ vulgarity and malice. In a society where a bearded Gypsy is mockingly named “Messiyah” (instead of “Messiah”) and spat upon, the notion that the villagers would harbor any hope of redemption or transcendence seems improbable. Yet Borbély does provide reason for such hope. The most notable is the mother, who, in spite of her flaws, does love her family, and is fully conscious of the their need to leave the village. She despises the peasants who “die in the same place they were born” and “know nothing of truth and comfort.” Throughout the novel, she reiterates their superior status (“we are not peasants”) and recognizes that a different life in a different place is possible. The narrator echoes these sentiments:
No one ever thinks it possible to live somewhere else. To raise a family somewhere else. To build a house somewhere else. Far away from the river, where you wouldn’t have to be afraid of the floods every spring. That’s how the peasants think. But we’re not peasants.
The mother often turns to religion for comfort when her hopes are deferred, and in one of the novels most symbolic scenes, has the children, as if they were practicing Jews, pretend they are waiting for the Messiah. This moment of acquiescence to accusations of Judaism, a major cause of their plight, is in a sense subversive, as it enables her children to believe in a better world, even for just a short time .
Perhaps the most poignant moment in The Dispossessed occurs when the narrator asks his mother for a violin. It is a request prompted by the gypsy Aladár, who on Christmas Eve plays his instrument as he “goes from house to house.” The boy notices that “Aladár is afraid of everyone,” yet “when he plays his violin, he isn’t afraid.” He concludes: “I would also like to not be afraid. It’s not that I want to learn how to play the violin but that I want to not be afraid.” The beautiful, by means of artistic expression, is an escape from worry, however brief its duration.
This is one of the most powerful themes in The Dispossessed, and perhaps the one that Borbély wished to resonate above all others. The poor, though largely neglected by the ruling body of their society, are not incapable of an appreciation of, and need for, the beautiful. Borbély encourages us to scrutinize their failures as human beings, but also subtly proposes that many of these lives, at some level of consciousness, long for a more dignified existence.
By the novel’s end, the family manages to move away from the town. Their departure, however, is only true in the physical sense, as the narrator asserts that the experiences of their previous life will remain with them for the rest of their days. They will be marked by a privation of spirit, a “transience that could never be familiar.”
The theme of unfamiliar transience is every bit as evident in the urban setting of Berlin-Hamlet, a work imbued with the incurable desire to be elsewhere, often in the presence of another. Within its stanzas, the poetic persona, embodied by a roaming consciousness, alights on Berlin scenes past and present, composes letters to a person he’d like to meet, and, within the schema of the eponymous Hamlet’s famed soliloquy, recasts the dilemma of “to be or not to be.” It seeks meaning in the internal and external; in the acts of self-negation, contemplation, bodily gesture, recollection, written and verbal expression. The poem titled Fragment II, where the entire human race is referred to as “stumbling amateur actors” on the “theatre of speech” is perhaps most representative of these ruminations:
Every word futile, which does not sever
that thread woven by the Fates, the reticent midwives
of thought. For reflection is
boundless, while in place of
resolve and deeds, words
As the above lines imply, there is a common discord between the divine (e.g. “the Fates, the reticent midwives / of thought”) and human expression (“every word futile”) throughout these poems. In their incompatible semantics, the persona cannot arrive at any guiding principles or surroundings that align with his conception (if one exists) of home or the “familiar.” In a more demonstrative manner than in The Dispossessed’s closing lines, Borbély’s stanzas (most notably, those that allude to the destruction of European Jewry) dismiss the possibility of a future messiah, or any analogous form of deliverance.
While a despondency anchored in the past defines the existence of each protagonist by the conclusion of Berlin-Hamlet and The Dispossessed, the grim beauty of Borbély’s artistry nonetheless manages to attain its own form of transcendence. It is the outcome of an inherent paradox in his creative approach: the exploration of language’s fallibility nonetheless yields singular modes of expression, capable of reflecting an isolated interiority and the shared experiences of the many. Nor does the reader’s worldview remain unaltered in its engagement with these works. Borbély’s “labyrinth of voices”—the destitute, the spiritually adrift—call out beyond their spheres of loneliness, rendering once distant and unknown sufferings in a sympathetic yet unembellished light.
Tyler Langendorfer is a writer and translator. A former editorial assistant with the London-based New Books in German, he now lives in Brooklyn.