Remembering Robert Zend
December 27th 2014
There is a voluminous and generous website dedicated to the hard-to-categorize Hungarian-Canadian creative force that was Robert Zend (1925-1985). Zend is one of the many thousands of Hungarian-born refugees who fled that country in 1956 and eventually made Canada his new – and permanent – home.
Although Robert Zend became well known as a Canadian poet, novelist, and a visual artist, he was also one of Canada’s foremost producers of radio. Bernie Lucht is the recently retired Executive producer of CBC Radio’s highly acclaimed documentary series, Ideas. “I came to Ideas in the fall of 1971 as a production assistant,” explains Lucht. “Zend was there as a producer. He was an extremely talented radio producer, imaginative and inventive. He also had a great sense of the absurd, which was reflected in his radio work and his poetry.”
It’s very typical for people working in radio to pick up their craft by learning from their more experienced colleagues in a form of informal apprenticeship. Robert Zend played a role something close that for the young Bernie Lucht. “Zend became a sort of mentor to me, over a period of about two years. We talked a lot about work and life, and spent many afternoons drinking coffees and eating pastries at the Coffee Mill in Yorkville. I tried to imitate his production style, not very successfully.”
Tim Wilson is another radio producer who worked with Robert Zend early in his career at CBC Radio. “I met Robert while we were both freelance producers for CBC Radio’s Ideas in the mid-1970s, and he almost instantly became a mentor. Zend taught me more about the caprices and delights, the obstacles, and traps of language than almost any other writer. And his interviews, with luminaries such as Jorge Luis Borges, with whom he became friends − in fact Zend’s Friends were legion − are pure gold.”
Young professionals seek the affirmation of their more experienced colleagues and during his first few years at the CBC Bernie Lucht was no exception. He recalls: “I remember asking his opinion of a program I was particularly proud of, it was full of music and sound and action, and I thought it was terrific. When I asked him what he thought of it, he told me it was ‘a plateau of peaks,’ a diplomatic way of saying there wasn't enough variation in tone, rhythm, mood and intensity. He patiently explained that a program needed peaks and valleys.” An unforgettable lesson, says Lucht.
Always swimming upstream rather than going with the flow, Zend was a creative force who stood apart from the established cultural communities engaged in writing, visual art, and broadcasting. His was a decidedly independent vision. Lucht remembers the time in the early 1970s “when the CBC kept emphasizing to producers that our programs had to be ‘relevant.’ Where have we heard that word before? When I mentioned to Zend at one point that the CBC wanted programs that were ‘relevant,’ he quietly added, ‘… or irrelevant.’”
At the funeral service for Robert Zend in 1985, his friend Tom Gallant addressed those in attendance and gave them this image to remember Zend: “If Robert Zend had God and the Devil for dinner, they would both have a wonderful time, become friends and leave wondering if either of them really existed.” Robert Zend was an unforgettable and enigmatic force and certainly leaves no doubt about his existence, as this comprehensive website dedicated to his life work attests: http://www.robertzend.ca/