A Week in Books: Hungary's purse is bursting with riches

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The Independent Culture

Tomorrow (if you credit our hard-of-thinking press), the invasion begins. The entry of Slavs and Balts into the European Union will swamp Britain with colour-blind Latvian taxi-drivers and knock-kneed Slovak roofers.

Tomorrow (if you credit our hard-of-thinking press), the invasion begins. The entry of Slavs and Balts into the European Union will swamp Britain with colour-blind Latvian taxi-drivers and knock-kneed Slovak roofers. Marauding Magyars will pinch your job and abduct your grandmother. Czechs will bounce around our streets and Poles descend in shoals on hospitals. Surely only one living writer can do justice to the delirious visions peddled by the red-top rabble-rousers and their stooges at Westminster: Tomas Straussler, born in Zlin, Czechoslovakia, and better known now as Sir Tom Stoppard.

In one way, it seems apt that the arrival in the EU of peoples famed for their absurd sense of humour should trigger a feast of media fools. In another, the panic represents - as bigotry often does - a precise inversion of the truth. Above all, the new Europeans (or restored Europeans) are trying to escape their long history of real invasion and occupation, at the hands of one big bullying neighbour or another. For these states, the freedom from coercion underlies the freedom to vote, move or trade - to use a distinction honed by that uppity Latvian immigrant, Isaiah Berlin.

So forget the scare stories, and read some proper literature instead. Given that most British publishers ignore East and Central Europe, that's more easily said than done. However, the cupboard of welcome gifts isn't entirely bare. Celestial Harmonies, Péter Esterházy's playful epic of Hungarian history and his dynasty's role in it, has just appeared.

Esterházy also features in by the far the best, and boldest, literary calling-card presented by any of the EU accession states. An Island of Sound (£14.99) is published under the banner of Harvill's occasional series of anthologies, Leopard. Edited by the poet George Szirtes (who came here as a child refugee from Budapest in 1956) and Miklos Vajda (who runs the influential English-language Hungarian Quarterly), it offers a superbly rich and varied 400-page collection of Hungarian fiction and poetry from the 1940s to the present day. A preface by Szirtes points to all the major landmarks in Hungary's recent literary landscape, as survivors of the prewar generation gave way to the writers who fought for self-expression during the grim Stalinist years and, finally, to the hopes and fears of the period since 1989, when Kádár's indulgently corrupt "goulash communism" slipped from the stage of history.

The phrase "an island of sound" refers, above all, to the unique Hungarian language. The whole anthology seems to swing between a mysterious - and often melancholy - self-sufficiency, and the urge to embrace the wider world that tyranny or isolation kept out of reach. It begins with Sándor Márai, posthumously famous author of Embers, exploring his "difference" from Russian soldiers of the victorious Red Army - and Márai, who died in an isolated exile, is now an improbably hot international property as Milos Forman directs Winona Ryder in a film of Embers. The book ends with the poet Ottó Orbán, lamenting the "law of the usurper and the interloper" that afflicts "the bloody vortex of Mitteleuropa". In between, fine poets such as György Petri, Sándor Weöres and Zsuzsa Rakovszky both rejoice in their "island" and try to flee its limitations. Their work joins extracts from novelists of the stature of György Konrád, Imre Kertész and Péter Nádas.

"We keep open/ the purse of possibility," says a late poem by György Petri. In literary terms, Hungary's purse is bursting with riches. Harvill's anthology lets British readers dip in at will. Do so, and you'll also be helping to resist our home-grown form of mind-control - by means of the screaming headline and the squirming soundbite.

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