I’m figuring that you probably don’t know much about Hungary so here’s a very brief potted history. It’s a landlocked country in Central Europe bordering Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria – so exposed to lots of ideas and influences. Over the centuries it’s been colonised by Celts, Romans, Huns, Slavs and various other empires and ethnic groups that have passed through. At some points in history it has wielded great influence, such as during Ottoman occupation (1541-1699) or under the Habsburg rule, which would lead to the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918).
So what’s this got to do with the Hungarian poets at the Writers’ Studio? Bear with me. This is a country that needs a little context if we’re to understand the ideas and issues that are currently influencing their literature. Everything more or less went downhill after WWI when the country lost 71% of its territory, 58% of its population, and 32% of ethnic Hungarians. Consequently a vast culture was shrunk in the wash which has left a lot of cultural writing lamenting past glories.
Things didn’t improve in WWII when Hungary fell under the influence of the old Soviet Union which led to a four-decade long communist dictatorship starting in 1947 until the 23 October, 1989 when it finally became a democratic parliamentary republic, the same year that Berlin bashed down its wall and other Eastern Bloc countries such as Poland stood up to authoritarian forms of government.
Such a complex cultural and political history is going to have a profound effect on all forms of literature which was what was debated by George Szirtes (UAE, poet and translator), Anna T Szabó (poet who has worked for the British Council as a co-leader of translators’ workshops and editor of The Hungarian Quarterly) and Anna Menyhert (researcher into trauma and gender studies)
As you would expect there were some polite disagreement with trying to define an authentic Hungarian voice and this to a large extend is determined from whereabouts in Hungary you live (and by this I am including old borders, such as Transylvania and Romania).
Hungary is a country that always has 'a sense of being on the edge'. This has led to a lot of ‘black humour’ which comes from living under various tyrannies and a history which is layered with trauma after trauma. A political divide still exists which means that debates have become heated and emotional as different voices fight to be heard, what was described by Anna T Szabó as the ‘frozen currents’. One burden upon change is the weight of tradition which has helped to reproduce masculinised romantic images and a collective consciousness that is difficult to breakdown, what was described as ‘a cultivation of melancholy’.
When writers have attempted to offer alternative identities or modes of thought they have faced numerous difficulties. The most obvious is funding being pulled from areas such as ‘gender studies’ thereby closing off debate before it has even started. Szirtes summarised this as ‘finance as a form of censorship’, creating a world of haves and have nots. Another form of cultural oppression comes from all systems being centralised, meaning a select few get to determine what does and does not constitute culture. This is best exemplified by the two main academies of the arts, one who receives a lot of funding – presumably because they follow the partyline – and the other which has been starved of funding, because it dares to offer alternative narratives into cultural expression.
As certain expressions and ideas become censored within Hungary, translation has become increasingly important. Although this, too, is a ‘political act’ and fraught with problems. The best way to help Hungarian writers, the three guests agreed, is by creating a thirst for Hungarian literature and putting pressure on publishers to expand and diversify their output to new markets. Which is why the international programming of events at this years Festival of Words has been so important. Not ony has it offered a platform for ideas but it may well be the first step in creating a meaningful dialogue with the potential to tranform lives - or in this case, raise awarenss of writers and influence publishers. This is something that the Nottingham Writers' Studio (of which I'm Chair) will be looking into over the next few weeks. Together, we can create a hunger for Hungary.
Writing Hungary took place on Wednesday 15 October
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