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Imre Magyari

My Critical Work on Romani Literature in Hungary

Personal connections

I am the descendant of famous Romani musicians – in Hungary, the word cigányzenész (literally: Gypsy musician) is used. In my opinion, the terms cigány and Roma are synonymous as I do not consider the latter to have any pejorative nuances, although anti-Gypsyism is very pronounced in Hungary. My great-grandfather Béla Radics and my grandfather Imre Magyari were among the most popular musicians of their time. I began to examine Romani literature after completing my studies in folklore at the end of the 1970s. The first works of written Romani literature in Hungary were published during this decade.

I wrote my thesis on this theme in 2013 – ‘A magyarországi cigányság irodalmáról’ [Romani Literature in Hungary] – and received my doctorate in 2014. I am currently (2018) working on a book titled ‘The History of Romani Literature in Hungary’.

Defining Romani literature

The most important task is to define what constitutes Romani literature. Another subject for debate is, of course, who we consider to be ‘Roma’. The question of identity is very important and plays a major role in the works of Romani writers (although I will not be exploring this issue here).

According to my definition, Romani literature is the body of works by writers who have a Romani identity or also have a Romani identity (along with other identities), regardless of which language they choose to speak. Naturally, these works are both part of the literature of the chosen language and part of universal literature. Moreover, a literary text written in Romani automatically belongs to Romani literature, in my view. There are bilingual authors (e.g. József Choli Daróczi and Gusztáv Nagy) who write in both Hungarian and Romani and are active as translators.

There are other views than mine of what belongs to Romani literature. Some believe that only texts written in Romani count. Others believe it depends on the respective topic: if a work is about Roma, then it, too, belongs to Romani literature. I do not agree with such views, but they have their merits.

Oral transmission

Roma have been living on territory that belongs or formerly belonged to Hungary since the second half of the fourteenth century. Collecting their songs, ballads and fables did not begin until the nineteenth century, however. There is no question that the rich oral culture of Roma is much older.

The genre of the fairy tale was especially important. Even well into the 1970s, Romani storytellers could be found (e.g. Péter Szuhay [2003], who collected the tales of István Babos) – 70 per cent of Roma were still illiterate at the time.

The most comprehensive collection of fairy tales and other orally transmitted texts is that compiled by Károly Bari: Régi cigány szótárak és folklór szövegek [Old Romani Dictionaries and Texts of Folklore], published in 2013.

There were – and still are – in Hungary a few writers József Holdosi, Menyhért Lakatos and Magda Szécsi, who have written or write fairy tales.

Although I am not a folklorist, I will naturally write a longer chapter on oral transmission in my planned publication.

Mehmet Emir | József Holdosi in the Austrian National Library, 28 April 1994 | photograph | Austria | April 28, 1994 | lit_00667 Rights held by: Mehmet Emir | Licensed by: Department of Folk Music Research and Ethnomusicology – University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna | Licensed under: Rights of Use | Provided by: Department of Folk Music Research and Ethnomusicology – University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna (Austria) | Photographed on: 28.04.1994 (Vienna/Austria)

Written Romani literature

Although there were already a few written texts in the nineteenth century, written Romani literature in Hungary began in earnest in the 1960s: texts by Romani writers were published in various journals and newspapers. There was also a “homemade” Romani journal, Rom Som [I am a Rom], which had a very small print run and was edited by József Choli Daróczi.

Two years of symbolic importance are 1970 and 1975. In 1970 Károly Bari volume of poetry Holtak arca fölé [Above the Faces of the Dead] was published. The year 1975 witnessed the publication of the novel Füstös képek by Menyhért Lakatos – the title is difficult to translate; it means both ‘smoky faces’, in the sense of dark-skinned faces, as well as ‘smoky, dim pictures’. Both books caused a stir.

In 1981 the collection of poems Fekete korall [Black Coral] was published. Edited by József Choli Daróczi, it features poems by seven writers.

For some time now, Tamás Jónás has been the most productive writer of Romani literature. He writes poems and prose and has already published more than ten books of the highest aesthetic quality. In 2014 and 2016 Attila Balogh published two volumes of harrowing poetry. At the end of 2017 Károly Bari published twelve poems written over the last two decades in a volume titled Csönd [Silence].

The most eminent writers

Today we can mention around thirty Romani poets and writers, some of whom (including Tamás Jónás, Béla Osztojkán, Magda Szécsi) write both poems and prose. In my planned publication, the authors I consider most important (János Balázs, Attila Balogh, Károly Bari, József Holdosi, Tamás Jónás, József Kovács, Menyhért Lakatos, Béla Osztojkán, József Szepesi and Magda Szécsi) will be portrayed in detail, and these portraits will be complemented by shorter pieces on other writers.

Works bordering on literature

There are works that do not qualify as literature in the narrower sense, i.e. fiction and poetry, but nevertheless can be considered literary in a broader sense: autobiographies, reminiscences and memoirs, and letters can be included in this group, too. Some works of Hungarian Romani literature belong to this category. I am of the view that these works need to be discussed as well. Here I am thinking of the autobiographies of Hilda Nyári and Sándor Romano Rácz, for example.

The depiction and representation of Roma in European and Hungarian literature

Within the framework of postcolonial studies, research has focused since the 1980s on the complex interrelationship between the coloniser and the colonised, combined with questions of representation and power structures. As early as in the 1950s, Martinique-born Frantz Fanon had critically analysed the ‘white view’. This approach is just as pertinent for how Roma were – and continue to be – seen and represented in Europe and Hungary, not just in literature but in the visual arts as well. Three typical modes of representing Roma are discernible: the romantic image (e.g. Victor Hugo, Prosper Mérimée, Alexander Pushkin), the comical image (János Arany, Géza Gárdonyi) and the realistic image (József Balázs, Szilárd Borbély, Sándor Tar, Krisztina Tóth). These prototype images can assume the widest-ranging nuances. And in this context, it is extremely interesting to see how Romani writers represent non-Roma, the co-existence of the two groups and the conflicts between them.

Personal remarks

I often ask myself: for whom am I writing my book? The situation of the 600,000 to 800,000 Hungarian Roma is tragic. With the exception of a tiny group, they live in precarious circumstances and are confronted each day with discrimination, which, of course, results in backlashes. More than 80 per cent of Roma have completed only primary school, just 13 per cent are in regular employment, 95 per cent die before reaching the age of sixty... The history, the situation, the past and current (!) persecution of Roma are all issues that have been addressed by important documentary, historical, sociographical and sociological works (see, for example, Bársony and Daróczi, 2014; Horváth, 2017; Kóczé, Neményi and Szalai, 2017; Szuhay, 2012; Tódor, 2017; and Vágvölgyi, 2016).

All I can do is quote Bob Dylan: ‘The answer is blowing in the wind.’ Today, the literature of Roma in Hungary is a hidden treasure.