Skip to content
from the March 2018 issue

Open to Disagreement: Six Contemporary Hungarian Women Writers

“[T]o be humanly would be to be charged with humanity comma, with humanity humans and animals, proliferating oneself while exceeding one’s limits, moving out in front and anticipating us. It would be or It will be? […] For me, to find oneself human in Humanity has been forever, before any knowledge and any reading, to find oneself a rather lame dog, mole, shrew, eagle, girl, brother, lover, simultaneously, born at the same time, born several and several times. I had already died and been born more than once when I discovered, while making my way, other strollers, naturally poetic ones who had already signed, countersigned, the books of the Humanities of Humanity.”

The voice above is of a reader honoring a debt to writers by writing across their works, volleying words toward them on a sheet of paper coincidentally placed between two cats, working toward a literature that will be comparable to a work of justice — a literature of, and for, humanimal beings. This writer/reader happens to be female; the spectral presences whom she engages in conversation in, and by, writing herself into literature and into volleys of beings, happen to be mostly men—Rimbaud, Derrida, Jaurès, Joyce, Primo Levi; no mention is made of the two cats’ gender. The arcs of Hélène Cixous’s 2009 Volleys of Humanity (trans. Peggy Kamuf) stretch not only toward the absent writers she addresses, but also toward players volleying the words of their language—always in the plural, as Cixous reminds us—towards a different set of literary predecessors and from different positions and spaces, including the ever more shadowy regions of Eastern and Central Europe. These fellow players have also found themselves brothers, girls, tramps, witnesses of disasters, laboratory or zoo animals, different figures of death before and in order to find themselves human; similarly to Cixous, they have remained faithful to this debt by remaining open to indecision and to the possibility of disagreement.   

Coming in the wake of the so-called postmodern prose turn, an important slice of recent Hungarian writing is indebted, in the sense spoken of by Cixous, to the literature of the 1980s and ’90s that subverts, with jocoserious thoroughness, the ideological remainders entrenched in language (best illustrated by the opening sentence of Péter Esterházy’s Harmonia Caelestis, "It is deucedly difficult to tell a lie when you don’t know the truth,” trans. Judith Sollosy), and has the invisible, silenced, and unacknowledged part of history as its watermark. Honoring this debt, Hungarian literature has continued since the turn of the millennum to seek out the invisible and unsayable in the recent past, showing how private and public pathologies are interlocked; the history that oozes into it is singular, sensorial, unexpected, often suppressed, and derails self-knowledge almost by default. Or, to quote one of the writers selected here, Zsófia Bán, all the “nohoo” that schoolbook history, geography, and physical education impart is the endless recycling of nationalist and masculinist clichés, beneath which lurks the violence of a shared past and present.

In questioning the foundation of so-called reality, the dominant literary discourse of the recent past seems to have given up all aspiration to engage referential reality "out there,” let alone act upon it. What in the 1990s seemed a valiant and jocose reflection on the nature of language with its bricolage of received ideas and tropes, and its inbuilt biases and blindness to certain types of experience, in today’s context, when so-called "reality” is washed out and supplanted by layers of virtuality from the most banal everyday situations to media mongering "alternative facts,” the framing techniques of postmodern extraction seem a surrender, no longer suitable to contest the forms of representation assimilated by the global entertainment industry.

It is in this context that recent Hungarian literature has turned increasingly toward the previously unacknowledged, or downright uncharted territories of the domain of the sensible—first and foremost, in an attempt to address the egregious gaps, ideological silencings and amnesia in the fabric of cultural memory, that form the underpinnings of endlessly recycled historical mythologems. At least as emphatically, it is concerned with the creation of a space for the un- and underrepresented: for the vulnerable, the socially marginal, those short of world and of words for the abject, ill, or traumatized body; for a more empathetic voicing of the experience of women, of sexual minorities, and lastly, the nonhuman. Among the writers Ágnes Orzóy and I have selected here, two have created a space in their earlier writing for the voices of the ultimately unacknowledged, the animal other—laboratory animal, pet, game: Bán rewrites tongue-in-cheek, in the style of a school reader, the experiment of sending up the dog Laika into space, while Zsuzsa Selyem has some of the bleakest episodes of Communist-era history retold by a host of detached, wry animal narrators. The most pervasive questions their fiction asks are: who wields language, from what position, to what end, claiming what prerogatives, and what voices are suppressed by their voiceover. This increased concern with ethical questions in writing is inevitably accompanied by a pervasive sense of unease and of darkening, behind which it is not difficult to see a response to the country’s slide into far-right authoritarianism, the hijacking of the institutions of democracy, and the quick evaporation of whatever hopes were built up in the nearly three decades since the regime change.

The (inevitably incomplete) selection of writers presented here can be framed in many ways—the most obvious would be that in a literary field still overwhelmingly dominated by a male canon, they are routinely hedged in as women writers, at a time when such distinctions ought to have been long superseded. Three of the six started writing in the 1990s, three in the 2010s; today they rank among the most critically acclaimed of the younger and midcareer generations of Hungarian writers. Two of them (Krisztina Tóth and Kinga Tóth) are primarily poets; two (Bán and Selyem) are academics and critics by profession; two come from a background in some other field of art (visual arts in the case of Krisztina Tóth, music in that of Edina Szvoren), while two also work with other media (Bán in film, whereas Kinga Tóth is a multimedia artist); two (Selyem and Krisztina Tóth) are also distinguished literary translators. Traffic between languages is a constitutive experience for nearly all of them: Bán was brought up between Brazil and Hungary; Selyem and Mán-Várhegyi come from multiethnic Transylvania, Romania; Krisztina Tóth spent a formative period of her life in Paris; Kinga Tóth writes and performs in both Hungarian and German. To differing degrees and in divergent forms, the writing of all of them reflects an interface between fiction and literary or cultural theories, between the language of literature and that of the other arts, a critical probing into various discourses, including that of the literary tradition, as well as a self-conscious harnessing of the ethical potential of literature. Finally, the preferred prose form of all six is short fiction, a compact form that still comes second in the symbolic hierarchy of genres.

Two of the stories presented here rewrite narratives or texts of cognitive and artistic mastery over women’s bodies. Zsófia Bán’s “Frau Röntgen’s Hand” scrutinizes the first X-ray image, of the hand of Röntgen’s wife, and writes around it a ghostly domestic narrative, showing an intimate codependence of the language of science and the absence of a language that could do justice to its object. Bán’s stories, located between essay, cultural theory, and prose narrative, stray far abroad in space and time and tend to revolve around still or moving images, performing on them a veritable archeology of knowledge and amnesia, showing how their ellipses speak about the silencings at work in cultural memory. Her approach is predominantly ironic and invariably undermines the authority of learning.

Zsuzsa Selyem’s “That Little Strip of Sunshine” rewrites one of the iconic poems of the recent past, by György Petri (first published in 1990, reproduced here in Owen Good’s translation), which, with its unflinching depiction of sexual abjection and liminal poverty, flew in the face of the aestheticized rhetoric and confessional mode of the Hungarian poetic tradition, while also holding up the cracked looking glass to the alleged humanism of Communist-era culture. Selyem’s story gives voice to the poem’s object, a decrepit homeless prostitute, exposing the limits and gaps of the dissident poet’s male-gendered, de-romanticizing poetics of cruelty. One of the leading experimental writers and critics of her generation, Selyem writes a taut, dialogic short prose that moves among various voices to shed painful light on the continuity and complicity of dominant discourses, including that of literary traditions, with the ongoing violence at the basis of putatively universalist humanism and anthropocentrism, whose ethics she recently summed up in an essay as "the cold indifference toward the other and inside me, smarmy self-pity.” Importantly, the story’s topography is suggestive of some of the most traumatic sites of Hungarian history: the town of Nagykálló was among the region’s prewar centers of Hasidic culture, while Városmajor Street housed the headquarters of the Arrow Cross militia.

Krisztina Tóth ranks among the best-known contemporary Hungarian writers, who works in both prose and poetry, including children’s books. The present story is taken from Pixel, a collection of loosely interconnected short stories corresponding to various bodily parts, which together amount to a necessarily incomplete, pixelated tableau, as well as a diagnosis of mentalities prevalent in Hungarian society. “The Tongue’s Story,” having at its core the organ of speech and of taste, recounts a failed encounter between people from different cultures—a group of refugees from the Greek civil war around 1950, and the inhabitants of a rural Hungarian area where these are taken for shelter. Tóth’s sparse, economic prose presents small vignettes of banality, beneath which lurks the symptomatology of a history never fully confronted, a choice bound to reproduce old biases at every step. Her mapping of contemporary Hungarian paralysis shows the inevitable interconnectedness of private and public self-delusions.

Edina Szvoren burst onto the Hungarian literary scene with a volume of short stories in which everyday banality, presented in a detached, bare prose, reveals an uncanny underside, the absurd and monstrous growing into banality itself: In one of her stories, living next door to the country’s best executioner is narrated with a Kafkaesque matter-of-factness. The texts reveal only gradually and at the cost of the reader’s painstaking detective work the past events and traumas that have produced the present situation’s derailment. The laconic story presented here, balancing uneasily between fiction and reality, shows a warped family encounter with a well-rehearsed set of silencings.

The last two authors of this selection are millenials whose writing practice reflects different sensibilities. Réka Mán-Várhegyi’s buoyant new realism tends to take up stereotypes that might have been cut out from lifestyle magazines and psychological counseling books, giving them an unexpected twist, as happens in the short story reproduced here, in which a grotesque dream becomes the basis of a married woman’s metamorphosis into the world’s greatest football player. Written with a wry gaze, these stories encapsulate whole life histories of an indomitable, clichéd search for happiness.

To complete the selection is a sample of Kinga Tóth’s short prose. A crossover artist and performer working in the medium of sound and visual poetry, illustration, and music, Tóth writes in both Hungarian and German. The texts from her first prose volume, Moonlight Faces (2017), accompanied by the artist’s illustrations, write the imprints of illness on bodies: the premise of these brief descriptions of the intimate experience of illness is that the human body is a machine, so that the incurable illnesses that populate these texts become part of the bodies’ clockwork routine. 

These dissimilar, divergent texts can perhaps give a sense to an international audience of ongoing explorings, side alleys, tentative re-beginnings: of writing on the lookout for a literature that is wry, irreverent; vulnerable like the hedgehog crossing a highway in Derrida’s metaphor, and yet capable of withstanding the subjection of language; undisciplined, curious, multiple, playful, thorough; You before it is I. 

© 2018 by Erika Mihálycsa. All rights reserved.

Read more from the March 2018 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.