We wish to thank the editors of the monthly Szombat for giving us permission to reprint an interview here which appeared in their January 2008 issue (and available on their website at www.szombat.org). The interviewer is Paul Varnai, one of our correspondents in Hungary and the person he interviews is András Petőcz, a poet and prose writer, who has just been awarded the Sándor Márai Prize named after the well-known Hungarian writer who finished his years in emigration. The interview is of special interest to us because it explores the significance of “otherness” in Petőcz’s work and in literature generally. In Canada we value difference and much artistic work reflects this aspect of life in our culturally diverse society. It is interesting to see some parallels in the work of a Hungarian writer. For those interested in finding out more about András Petőcz, you can find him at www.petoczandras.eu or at the following two English websites http://en.wikipedia.org:80/wiki/András_Petöcz and Hungarian Literature On-line.
"It is good to be a stranger”
Pál Várnai talks to András Petőcz
Translated from the Hungarian by Esther Ronay. Photos by Gabor Risko.
"It is my belief that everyone is a stranger as an individual and since everyone is a stranger, that is precisely the reason we cannot question someone else’s strangeness or otherness. It is that simple. We ourselves are strangers. Often even to ourselves... And while people have some kind of desperate desire to belong somewhere, as I see it, many people also have a perpetual desire to be outsiders.”
András Petőcz is a poet, fiction writer and artist. 1981-1983: restarted and became editor in chief of the university journal Jelenlét (Presence). Founded the journal and alternative art association Médium Art in 1983. Between 1989 and 1991 he was one of the editors of Magyar Műhely (Hungarian Workshop) which appeared in Paris. In 1988 he restarted Presence again and was editor in chief from 1997. Prizes: Lajos Kassák prize, 1987; Graves prize, 1990; Attila József prize, 1996; János Arany Foundation Writer’s Prize, 2001; Quasimodo prize, 2003; the Sándor Márai prize for the novel Strangers awarded by the Hungarian Ministry of Culture, January, 2008. Most important work: Betűpiramis (Pyramid of letters) (poetry), 1984; A láthatatlan jelenlét (The invisible presence) (poetry), 1990; Európa metaforája (Metaphor for Europe) (poetry), 1991; A tenger dicsérete (In praise of the Sea) (selected poetry), 1994; Idegenként, Európában (As a Stranger in Europe) (essays, short stories), 1997; A napsütötte sávban (In a Row of Sunlight) (poetry), 2001; A születésnap (The Birthday) (novel), 2006; Idegenek (Strangers) (novel), 2007.
- How did you become first an avantgarde poet and then a prose writer?
- My activities in the eighties were shaped by avantgarde poetry which interested me primarily as an opportunity to be different and to think in a different way. In the late seventies and early eighties the literary community in Hungary, as far as tastes in literature were concerned, was very closed. There was a need for the avantgarde in order to open it up. I discovered the journals Hungarian Workshop in Paris and New Symposium in Novisad at that time. I got to know artists such as Miklós Erdély, György Jovánovics and Dóra Maurer and they showed me that it was possible to create art in a different way.
- You have written essays since the beginning of your career, but your last two books are novels.
- Switching over to prose was an exciting process for me. In 1998 I spent three months in America, at a writers’ seminar organised within the framework of the International Writing Program in Iowa. There I met and formed a strong friendship with Igal Sarna, a writer from Tel-Aviv. His personality and his views made a strong impression on me. I started writing ironic poems that ’told a story’ about my experiences in America and through this, almost imperceptibly, my writing became closer to prose. These poems later appeared in a volume entitled In a row of Sunlight and in this book it was the stories themselves that became very important, not so much the poems as the form. Simultaneously with the publication of the book, I started writing short stories for Élet és Irodalom (Life and Literature) under the collective title Former Family Friends. These were stories about my family or an imaginary family. This is how, as a onetime avantgarde poet, I came to be a prose writer.
- Your book of essays entitled As a Stranger in Europe was published in 1997 and already shows a longing for freedom, a European lifestyle and otherness. The seeds of your recently published novel Strangers are clearly visible in these works. You spent several years in France and said of your impressions there that there are two kinds of nationalism: one that excludes and one that is happy to include. Otherness is not enjoying much success as an idea in Hungary today, to say the least. How do you see the difference between the two countries in this respect?
- When talking about French nationalism, it is important to emphasize that what is characteristic of France is an inclusive kind of nationalism. In Eastern Europe, by contrast, a nationalism that excludes appeared a long time ago. Although the majority of the population in Hungary would like to believe that during the course of its history Hungary was basically receptive to outsiders, in fact the twentieth century proves the opposite. The French are proud of the fact that they ’Frenchify’ immigrants and newcomers and all they expect of them is that they learn the language and basic cultural values of the country. However, in keeping with ideas of laicism, they do not expect religious commitment in any form. It says a lot about French inclusive nationalism that this year they chose as their president a person who, as far as his origins are concerned, is half Hungarian and half Greek-Jewish.
- One of the cornerstones of your view of the world has long been the condition of being a stranger, an outsider. A few years ago you ’admitted’ that you came from a ’genetically mixed’ family, one branch of it being Christian gentry and the other Jewish. You also mention that you identify with being a Jew and that we are all Jews if we are different, if we stand out in any way.
- My grandmother on my father’s side was called Róza Czigler. The Cziglers (originally Ziegler) of Somogy county and Tab were members of an old Jewish family and they had converted to Christianity generations earlier, but they kept their Jewish traditions right up to the early twentieth century. My grandmother and her sisters and brothers went to the Jewish school in Tab and took their school leaving exams there. Incidentally the Cziglers were pastry and ginger bread makers by profession. My uncle Dezső Czigler emigrated to America in the twenties and became famous and wealthy as a gingerbread maker in Chicago. Later, with the appearance of the Jewish laws and when the persecution started, the members of the family concealed their Jewish origin and their conversion to Christianity, many generations earlier, was able to protect them. My 85 year old father still does not dare to confront his own Jewishness to this day. The combination of all these factors affected me deeply; this is probably why the concept of otherness or difference is a fundamental theme for me. It is my belief that everyone is a stranger as an individual and since everyone is a stranger, that is precisely the reason we cannot question someone else’s strangeness or otherness. It is that simple. We ourselves are strangers. Often even to ourselves. This is one of the things the novel Strangers is about. Being a ’stranger’ is a value in itself.
- I think Jewishness is a very good example of this and always led the way as a result of its otherness: it tried to bring itself up-to-date and all new ideas, such as socialism and Freudianism, attracted its curiosity and interest.
- Of course. It is precisely the 18th century Englightenment belief in progress, that led to the intolerance vis à vis otherness which is completely anti-European and clearly goes against European traditions. But the development of Europe, and in a wider sense the development of humanity, springs exclusively from the wonderful achievements of individuals representing ’other ways of thinking’. The appearance of mass hysteria, the anxiety caused by the difference of the other, go against European Judeo-Christian traditions, because they are against the individual and question our basic right to be individual, independent, thinking beings. I believe in the beauty and freedom of being an outsider. I personally have always loved being out of step ever since my childhood. I like being an outsider and I think it is a positive thing to be a stranger. I don’t want to mingle with the crowd. And while people have some kind of desperate desire to belong somewhere, as I see it, many people also have a perpetual desire to be outsiders. I believe that in some sense we are all in a minority, we are all strangers.
-Let’s talk about Strangers, published in 2007, which I think stirred interest amongst a wider readership. The subjects the novel deals with are very topical: intimidation, fear, occupation by foreigners or strangers, terrorism, hostage taking. These are all universal. The secondary title is characteristic too: thirty minutes before the war. In many respects the book reminds one of the Swiss Hungarian author Agota Kristóf’s novel, The Big Notebook, which must have inspired Strangers with its language, its style , its subject matter and its mysterious quality.
Besides the works of Camus and Kafka, Agota Kristof’s novel did in fact affect me deeply. But I must also mention Fatelessness by Imre Kertész and Forgiveness by Miklós Mészöly as well as Salinger’s well-known ’family stories’. The world of Strangers is truly a Kafkaesque world, where defencelessness, terrorism and fear prevail. It appears to be an imaginary world, but in reality the story takes place in the present, in a setting which could be Russia, Iraq, perhaps Colombia, Afghanistan or even Georgia. It takes place in a ’marginal country’ where there is oppression and terror. A little girl tells the story of her experiences and all her feelings about the existence of terrorism, otherness, the ’war’. I tried to put myself in the place of a little girl of 8 or 9 and get under the skin of a character who had to face terror and live through terrorist attacks.
At the same time many personal motifs appear in the story. One of the basic motifs for instance is expressed in the sentence ’lying is something my mother taught me’; this is based on something that happened 15 years ago when an 8 year old relative lied constantly as a way of escaping a personal tragedy; she told me that she lied because adults always lie too. I am passionately interested in how children are able to deal with horrific events, how they can face up to them. The novel is about this too. Another basic motif of my book, the frequently repeated sentence ’the school is next to the barracks’, relates to my childhood. We lived in Obuda when I was a child and next to the school in Vörösvári út, there was a Soviet military barracks. This is in the novel too.
- We are already familiar with all this from Dostoevsky, who rejects the harmony based on the suffering of innocent children. Terrible things happen in the novel Strangers: the little girl is raped, her mother is the victim of a terrorist attack and her best friend is brutally murdered. Left completely on her own at the end, she sets out in search of a better world that her mother had told her existed somewhere. She sets out along a tunnel, it is a long way, but we don’t know whether she does in fact find her way out. What does the ending of the novel signify?
- The question remains open. I didn’t want to let the main character ’escape’ from the world of terror, but I started her on her way to some kind of more normal world. We cannot even be sure whether this more ’normal’, more human world exists at all. The fact is that at the beginning of the novel, the little girl, now an adult, tends the graves of her former school mates and that means that the little girl did reach the free world. The only question is what that free world is like. Because thus far the story is a ’simple’ one. Up to that point she has lived in a world dominated by terrorism, where people were oppressed, in the presence of foreign or ’stranger’ powers and ’stranger’ soldiers, where fear prevailed. She herself is a stranger and she is full of an anxiety that defines her life. Will she succeed in getting out and what will the world she is trying to reach be like? This could perhaps be the key question in a subsequent story which I would like to start writing.
- You once said that if you had not lived in France for several years, you would not have been able to write this novel.
- Yes. When I was there, I was confronted with issues I have not faced here at home or I happened to come across them in a different way. In Paris I witnessed the burning of cars and the riots in the suburbs, but that is not the only reason I could not have written Strangers in Hungary. It was in France I discovered the literary language that doesn’t exist in Hungary. Strangers is not a ’post-modern’ work: I am ’out of step’ even from this point of view.