Gaspar Nagy

Dissident Hungarian poet

Tuesday 16 January 2007 01:00

Gáspár Nagy, poet and editor: born Bérbaltavár, Hungary 4 May 1949; married 1974 Marta Szabo (one son, two daughters); died Budapest 4 January 2007.

When in 1985 a little-read provincial literary magazine in Hungary published a strange poem where the last three lines ended with the letters "N I" (in Hungarian "-ni" marks the infinitive of a verb) the Communist authorities immediately retaliated, dismissing the poem's young author from his post as Secretary to the Hungarian Writers Union. They realised that this was, indeed, a coded reference to Imre Nagy (in Hungarian "Nagy Imre"), Prime Minister of the Hungarian revolution of 1956, executed for "treason" in 1958.

This was the first time that many people took notice of Gáspár Nagy, a namesake, but no relation, of Imre Nagy. He was, however, not intimidated by the wrath of Communist officialdom and continued to publish, causing the withdrawal from circulation of the June 1986 issue of the Szeged literary magazine Tiszatáj, where in a poem he made a fairly open allusion to the "miserable compromises" on which János Kádár's "goulash Communism" was based. Once again, Nagy was lucky: he escaped arrest with his popularity enhanced.

Nagy was born in 1949 into a family of peasant farmers in south-western Hungary. He studied at the Teachers Training College of Szombathely from 1968 to 1971 and for a while worked as a librarian. After a stint with the Ferenc Móra Publishers of Budapest, in 1981 he became Secretary to the Hungarian Writers Union, a post he held until 1985.

For the following three years he was Secretary to the Gábor Bethlen Foundation and from 1988 edited the cultural review Hitel in Budapest. Hitel in the first few years of its existence was regarded as the mouthpiece of the Hungarian Democratic Forum, the party which won the majority of seats in the 1990 elections; on the editorial board the Catholic Gáspár Nagy acted as a moderating influence against the mostly Protestant populist radicals.

His poetry is the meeting-point of diverse influences: biblical tradition mingles in it with historical commentary and ironic observations on the state of the world and Hungary. While there are traces of Surrealism in his verse, more traditional Hungarian poets such as Attila József and László Nagy - as well as certain East European authors (Zbigniew Herbert, Danilo Kis) - also left an impact on his largely accessible, erudite poetry. Among his dozen collections of verse the most interesting was probably Múlik a jövonk ("Our Future is Passing", 1989) and Szabadrabok ("Free Captives", 1999). In 2006 he wrote a cycle of poems celebrating the memory of the 1956 revolution and its victims.

Gáspár Nagy won most recognition after the change of regime in Hungary. He was awarded, among others, the Attila József Prize in 1990, the Greve Prize (1992), the award of the Getz Corporation (1995) and the Kossuth Prize (2000). Last year he won the Hungarian Heritage Prize. His poems in English translations, mostly by Len Roberts, are in the second volume of the anthology In Quest of the "Miracle Stag" (2003), a representative collection of 20th-century Hungarian poetry.

George Gömöri

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