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6 Modern Novels to Sate Your Hungarian Appetite

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Jennifer D Walker found this witty
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Intertwining a glimmer of Habsburg opulence with the stark realism of its Communist past and the horrors of World War II, Hungarian literature offers a curious melange of the country’s heritage and historical events. Located in the heart of Europe and home to a unique Finno-Ugric language that’s unrelated to its Germanic, Slavic and Latin neighbours, Hungary is a crossroads of cultures and a melting pot of history, regimes and empires. Hungarian literature is eclectic, ranging from romantic classics of the 19th century to the realism of the 20th century. The former harks back to the times of the Habsburg rebellion and freedom from 150 years of Ottoman occupation, while the latter acts as a gritty mirror for the human condition in a country that has suffered for years under occupation and regime changes.

The Hungarian literary canon celebrates a diverse range of poets with their passionate political manifestos, like the work of Sándor Petőfi, to its contemporary writers that have since gained international recognition, such as Nobel Prize winning Imre Kertész. Dip your toe into this selection of translated Hungarian works from the 20th century for a portrait of this curious Central European country. 

Fatelessness

Kertész is Hungary’s sole recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, whose work focuses primarily on the devastation wrought by the Holocaust and its aftermath on the Jewish community in Europe. Having survived being deported to Auschwitz at the age of 14 and then on to Buchenwald, his novel Fatelessness feels more like an autobiography that masquerades as fiction.

When 14 year old Georg Koves is placed on a train to Auschwitz, he doesn’t understand the reason for his fate. Georg doesn’t identify with being a Jew, and considered an outcast even by his fellow Jews, leaving him on the fringes as if he were an outsider, while living through the horrors of the Holocaust.

The novel is unique when it comes to Georg’s point of view, as he tries to make sense of the horrors and events that unfold around him, even normalizing atrocities he witnesses in Auschwitz in his disjointed thinking. Kertész’s ability to capture the fragile existence of the individual, even when thrown into the most horrific barbarism of history, is unique and deserves to be savored – even if it’s uncomfortable.  

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The Door

Magda Szabó is one of Hungary’s most prominent female writers of the 20th century. She was stymied by the Communist authorities under Stalinist rule, refusing to print her work between 1949 and 1956. While Abigél is one of her most popular of her books, the semi-autobiographical novel The Door is perhaps her best work.

The Door intertwines a complex story charting the relationship between a writer and her caretaker, Emerence. The book tells the story of two women from different socioeconomic backgrounds in 1950s Hungary using their curious dynamic to examine the place of creativity in a woman’s life, while also being burdened with society’s expectations of domesticity. But beyond that, it’s a moving tale that goes deep into the characters and their interactions to examine the human condition.

At first glance, Emerence may seem only to be a housekeeper, but as the narrator discovers more about her help, it takes her, and the reader, on a journey into a curious character that lasts 20 years with an ending that will stay with you. 

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Satantango

László Krasznahorkai’s writing style is not for the fainthearted, as the author eschews paragraphs in an endless flow of narrative. This creates a claustrophobic setting, which works to perfect effect in the context of Sátántangó. His novel is set in a remote village in rural Hungary and captures the isolation of its residents, who live under a backdrop of neverending rain, experiencing occasional moments of release in fiery shots of pálinka as a mysterious bell tolls in the distance. When charismatic, but presumed-dead Irmiás and Petrina return to the village, things shake up for the villagers as Irmiás gradually manipulates the inhabitants with the promise of establishing a new Utopian collective, swindling them and becoming a figure more akin to a pied piper than a savior.

Sátántangó is a novel that captures the despair of rural Hungary in the Communist era, and Krasznahorhai’s prose evokes the emotions of its characters from their sheer inertia and purposeless even to frustrated feelings of powerlessness and despair. Sátántangó offers a modern, cynical take that’s fractured and moves along the disjointed lines of a cubist painting, creating a hyper realism that disintegrates into a world that blurs fantasy with reality. Dancing to music under the influence of pálinka somewhere between a csardás and a tango, this dance with the devil, or even with death, falls into the comic and tragic in their insignificant little village.  

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Skylark

Set in 1900, Kosztolányi’s story focuses on the Vajkay family, who live in a quiet village in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The story takes two trajectories, one following a mother and father and the other their unattractive, unintelligent and unmarried daughter, Skylark. When Skylark goes on holiday for a week to her relatives, her parents realize just how dependent they are on their daughter, and slowly begin to rediscover their youth, eating in restaurants, reconnect with old friends and hang out with the bohemian crowd from the theater. Skylark is a book about family love and sacrifice that’s both brutal and refreshing in its honesty, evoking a world that lies behind the ordinary daily grind with beauty and bravery. 

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Embers

Exiled in 1948 due to his criticism of Hungary’s political powers at the time, the exiled writer struggled to earn his name and committed suicide in San Diego a year later. Just like many tragic cases, Marai made his name posthumously, earning his name as a great European writer whose works were translated into a variety of languages. His most famous work is Embers, the story of two men who come into contact after ceasing to speak to one another for 40 years. Set in an appropriately gothic mansion in the foothills of the Carpathian mountains, the novel takes the reader on a journey over time through a declining Central Europe, the friendship they once had and the poignant memories that pulled them apart. 

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Journey by Moonlight

Antal Szerb was born in 1901 and was not only a writer, but also a scholar, however that does not mean you should expect dense and academic prose. In fact, Szerb’s romantic and extravagant stories make for easy reading, especially Journey by Moonlight. A modernist tale charting a man named Mihály’s curious adventure through Italy, after he loses his wife Erzsi at a train station on the way to Rome while on their honeymoon. The story unfolds as Mihály recalls his teenage years, charting his memories with enigmatic brother and sister, Éva and Tamás. As the mystery unravels in the Umbrian countryside and the hidden alleys in Venice and Rome, Journey by Moonlight manages to be an easy, entertaining read with dark comedy, but also examines the social constructs and seuxal claustrophobia that can hone in on one man. 

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Jennifer Walker is an Anglo-Hungarian writer Budapest, Hungary. After a sordid past involving a career in Nuclear Physics, and after completing her PhD, Jennifer threw caution - and physics - to ... Show More

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