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Sympathy for the Underdog: An Interview with Peter Zilahy

By Buzz Poole

Image: Peter Zilahy, photographed by Eftihia Stefanidi.

Peter Zilahys The Last Window-Giraffe is a genre-defying book originally written in Hungarian; it has been translated into twenty-two languages and is often cited as one of the inspirations for the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine. The book takes its title from the fact that the first and last letters of the Hungarian alphabet match the first letters for the words window and giraffe. On the surface, this autobiographical fiction rendered by Zilahys incisive x-ray visiona heady mix of history, memoir, and farce of the highest orderis about the protests in Belgrade in 1996. But viewed through a wider lens it serves up the absurdity of all manner of authoritarianism that resonates as much today as it first did upon publication in 1999.

Zilahy, the author of four books, has written for numerous international media outlets, including The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Financial Times. He has been awarded countless fellowships and residencies all over the world, and has most recently been a BMI-Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress. In 2015, Zilahy joined Anthony Bourdain in Budapest for an episode of CNNs Parts Unknown.

The following is an edited and condensed exchange that took place over several months, in New York City and via phone and email. 

Buzz Poole (BP): What prompted you to travel to Belgrade in 1996 and how did that trip inspire you to write this book?

Peter Zilahy (PZ): I was curious to see what happens when a lot of people at the same time believe that they can take their future into their own hands. In the late 1980s in Central Europe, the same as in 1996 in Yugoslavia, hundreds of thousands protested in a series of carnival-like events to change the political system imposed on them by the Cold War. I had been to the protests in Central Europe in the 80s and when I saw the euphoria on the streets of Belgrade on TV, I went to the station and took the first train. I arrived in the morning and I joined the crowd. I had twenty new friends in two hours and I kept going back and forth during the next four months.

BP: Did you go there with the intention of writing a book?

PZ: Absolutely not. I wasn’t looking for material.

BP: When did it start turning into a book?

PZ: It all started with an image. One afternoon I took a break from the demonstrations and had my lunch on the battlements of Belgrade Castle. As I was sitting there, watching the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, the first image popped into my mind, which also made it clear that this would be a picture book.

BP: Childhood—the act of growing up and learning in school—relates directly to your choice of telling this story in the form of a primary school textbook, a book that juxtaposes words based on alphabetical order.

PZ: The basic idea for the form was that we were all treated as children by the regime, not just me the actual child, but my parents and teachers, the doctor, the bus drivers, and the policemen, all of whom seemed to be very powerful at the time. So I figured the best way to write about the dictatorship would be in the manner of a children’s dictionary. The dictionary form is also helpful to explain details you would not be able to in a traditional narrative.

BP: You draw so much from your childhood, how do you think back on those years now?

PZ: I have no nostalgia, but I don’t complain either. I often have to explain, especially to Americans, that in spite of the Iron Curtain, communism, the Cold War, and the Warsaw Pact, I grew up in a very safe environment, in a fairytale-looking imperial capital with free education and very good food. Besides that, you were often surrounded by strikingly good-looking people. We could even travel to the West. So, when as a teenager in the 80s I had the option to remain in London after a trip and skip going back to my godforsaken little communist country, it was no question for me what to do. I would have walked home if I had to.

BP: You are a true citizen of the world, but first and foremost you are Hungarian. What does it mean, to you, to be Hungarian?

PZ: To be Hungarian is not difficult at all but to explain it is another thing. There is a lot to unpack. Even to answer simple questions requires so much background information that you’d rather not start at all. There is a unique language, history, cuisine, and a lot of baggage. It’s a full identity, but as a result of two devastating wars it has been marginalized, to the point that it now sounds like some sort of secret organization to tell jokes about. The joke is perhaps a good analogue—If you ask a Frenchman about identity he will tell you a joke and everybody gets it, the same with Germans. I, on the other hand, always have to start from scratch.

Image: Peter Zilahy, photographed by Graham Hains.

BP: You use humor to great success in the book, particularly black humor. You both make jokes and render scenes that, no matter how bleak, include laughter. Like when you describe a movie theater in Belgrade erupting with applause when the White House is destroyed in Independence Day. Can you cite some sources for your sense of humor?

PZ: The Cold War was a great inspiration. In a dictatorship you cannot speak your mind directly, so we told the truth in jokes. Everything that was serious was told as a joke. On the other hand, people on TV were totally uptight and dead serious and we knew they were lying. I still do not trust anyone who is taking himself too seriously. People who have no sense of humor are not only boring, they are often dangerous as well. Humor is code. It is based on your way of living and your communication with the others around you who have similar problems. If you don’t know the code you don’t get the joke.

BP: With all of the time you’ve spent outside of Hungary since The Last Window-Giraffe was published, has anything about this changed? Has your sense of self changed? 

PZ: Even for the narrow-minded demagogues who think I am a bad Hungarian, I am still a Hungarian. It’s self-evident. I used to say to them “Anyone who is more Hungarian is a cheat.” Ironically, it is when you leave the country that you clearly become Hungarian, as you become more visible. Wherever I travel outside Hungary, I am told I am Hungarian. In Europe, no one calls me European. I know I have left Europe when I suddenly become European. “How European!” they say. My clothes, my look, my language, my style, my gestures. I am self-explanatory. Depends how far you go. If I left the planet I would finally become a human being, I guess.

BP: You do exude a national pride. Would you call yourself a patriot?

PZ: People often confuse loyalty with nationalism. I naturally care for the people I grew up with. Hungary is the football team I root for without any hope of winning and that’s fine with me. If that changes, I may have to review my sympathies but so far, so good. But then again, the problem is we used to be very good in many things, including football. Nationalism starts when your past becomes your present. When you cannot joke about the past, you become a joke. You need the right amount of irony to be Hungarian. I think my cultural baggage would be heavier if I were from a former colonial power like France or the UK. It’s easier to have sympathy for the underdog.

BP: Let’s follow that thought and circle back to the book. There really is so much going on that it’s hard to know where to begin. But for me a really good distillation of a core idea you explore is that the people protesting in Belgrade in 1996 were “at the bier of the non-aligned world.” How was the world “aligned” prior to 1996? What were the ramifications of this realignment?

PZ: The so call non-aligned world was a dream. It was Sophia Loren hanging out with Tito on his private island. Most Yugoslavians believed they did it, and he was the father of Yugoslavia, so in a way it was all in the family. It was also Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, who traced his family line back to the Queen of Sheba in the Bible, parading across the Danube Bridge in Belgrade with some of my future friends waving little flags on the side of the road as official greeters. The non-aligned world looked like a big party outside the Cold War, but in fact the military was key to it, and part of the tragedy of Yugoslavia comes from the army Tito built up that was not a Cold War army but was still living in the realm of World War II. The Austro- Hungarian Empire failed because the reforms to modernize came too late, and the same happened to Yugoslavia.

Belgrade used to be a key fortress of the Hungarian Kingdom for centuries, and the northern part of Belgrade was still a part of Hungary until World War I. My intention was not so much to capture Yugoslavia or the non-aligned world—they were points of entry for writing about Central Europe, history, dictatorship, and my own country and city. And Tito, one of my main characters, was perfect for connecting the two worlds as he was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and later he created his own version of it.

BP: Considering the world today, twenty years after the events in the book, how do you understand the legacy of those changes, politically, culturally, and personally?

PZ: Politically, culturally, and personally I think it’s pretty fucked up but it’s not hopeless. Democracy was introduced with great expectations, but many foreign companies came and bought up Hungarian companies just to close them down and get rid of their competitors. Unemployment triggered resentment. The parties turned out to be corrupt on each side so a lot of people simply lost interest in elections. In many ways Hungary entered what was the equivalent of the 50s in Europe, but without the Marshall Plan and all the therapy that West Germany received. After the Cold War, we thought we are going to become a Swedish-type welfare state and the disappointment made a lot of young people leave the country and a lot of old people turn more conservative, which is one of the reasons we have the present regime.

BP: The Last Window-Giraffe has been translated into more than twenty languages, including a UK edition that got great reviews, but it’s practically unknown in North America outside niche literary circles. Why do you think that is?

PZ: Most reviewers start their pieces stating it is an uncategorizable work of art. No wonder marketing managers have a problem with it. In fact, as far as I can tell, there are not many people working in the publishing business that can actually read. A few can read something they have seen before, that’s already considered a big thing, but they are unable to read anything new. My German publisher is one of the few good readers in the business. He is amazing but there are far and few like him. Even publishers who are considered revolutionary are quite conservative and there are exceptionally few who take real risks. This book has been declined by the great American publishers, large and small. One of them wrote a letter I still have, saying this was the best book he ever had to refuse, but he was afraid that the work is too complex for the American audience. No one believes in the reader.

BP: The Last Window-Giraffe is an A to Z of dictatorship. If yours is the “last” such book, what then is the new vocabulary?

PZ: Suppose you grow up in hell, which I didn’t. But if you did, your first love would still be your first love regardless of petty circumstances such as the regime. The main protagonist of my novel is innocence. When I was a kid, most people were uniformed just like me, but most of them believed it was somehow better for them because at least they had ideals, and that optimism is all over the book. Now that has disappeared completely. Today only fundamentalists and nationalists are optimistic and some of the very rich and very poor people, as it has always been. 

Published Jun 13, 2016   Copyright 2016 Buzz Poole

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