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Zoltán Beck

Hungarian Romani Literature: An Overview

The beginnings of Romani literature in Hungary

Owing to the development of a national narrative, literary movements showing an interest in Romani communities appeared in Hungary in the second half of the nineteenth century. One of the diverse activities of Archduke Joseph, the Palatine of Hungary, was the study of the Romani language. In this endeavour, he found vital support in the person of Ferenc Sztojka Nagyidai (1855–?) to whom the Archduke referred in one of his letters as ‘oslokavégzett czigány’, ‘the educated Gypsy’.

The most outstanding work to emerge from their collaboration was the first systematic Romani grammar published in 1886 in four parts as Ő császári és magyar királyi fensége József Főherceg Magyar és czigány nyelv gyök-szótára (Dictionary of the Word Stems of the Gypsy and Hungarian Languages by His Imperial Highness, the Archduke Joseph). As a Romani poet, Nagyidai published many texts. He translated liturgical texts and works by contemporary Hungarian authors (among them the poems of Sándor Petőfi) and authored the first Romani epic entitled A cigányok vándorlása (Gypsy Wanderings).

Other well-known Romani authors of the nineteenth century include János Balogh Ipolysági (1802–1876) and József Boldizsár (1825–1878), both of whom were musicians. Ipolysági played an important role in laying the foundations for a systematic Romani grammar, and his translations were published in the Összehasonlító Irodalmi Lapok (Comparative Literary Journal) in Kolozsvár as well.

Hungarian Romani literature in the 1970s

The most important turn in Romani literature took place in the first half of the 1970s. Károly Bari’s first volume of poetry Holtak arca fölé (Over the Face of the Dead, 1952) was published in a larger edition in 1970. These poems were written in Hungarian and have the lyrical tone of modern Hungarian poetry, primarily influenced by the poetic language of Attila József, Ferenc Juhász and László Nagy. The then sixteen-year-old author was called the ‘oracle boy’ (táltosfiú) by Sándor Csóry. In his two studies on the history of literary forms, Dénes Csengey emphasised Bari’s role in the formation of a literary canon. There is no doubt that Bari played a major role in late modern Hungarian poetry of the 1970s and 1980s. Later, he turned to translations and especially to research into Romani folklore, where he had many achievements to his credit.

The beginnings of Romani prose literature in Hungary are closely connected with Menyhért Lakatos (1926–2007). His first great novel, entitled Füstös képek (published as The Color of Smoke in the United States and as Bitterer Rauch in German), tells the story of a Romani community over a period of several decades. In part autobiographical as well as fictitious, the novel provides a micro-history of the early twentieth century, culminating in the deportations of the Romani people.

The Hungarian edition has been republished several times. Its style is characterised by a combination of several genres and languages – which is true for Lakatos’ entire oeuvre. The ambitious great epic was written with the intention of being personally as well as sociologically accurate and includes anecdotes and short stories with sections in the Romani language within the main Hungarian text. In addition to the novel, Lakatos has published a collection of short stories entitled Csandra szekere (The Chariot of Chandra, published in German as Csandras Karren) and has also written magical tales, other stories and television plays.

Dániel Holdosi | József Holdosi | photograph | Hungary | lit_00649 Rights held by: Dániel Holdosi | Licensed by: Dániel Holdosi | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Dániel Holdosi – Private Archive

In 1978, József Holdosi (1951–2005) wrote his first novel, entitled Kányák (The Kányás [the name of a family], 1978). The circumstances surrounding the publication of the novel attracted public attention, since real people (mainly relatives of the author) recognised themselves in the allegedly fictitious story, having spotted familiar characters, places and stories. Soon after the novel was published they filed a law suit and Holdosi had to appear in court. The trial led to the production of Hajh, cigányok, hajh, Kányák (Ho, Gypsies, ho, Kányás), a radio play which later became part of Holdosi’s book Cigánymózes (Gypsy Moses).

His writing was greatly influenced by the narrative technique of Gabriel García Márquez. This is especially noticeable with regard to the construction of the space-time of the novel, which inextricably connects the transcendent with the mundane realms of events, dreams and reality. Thus, symbolic actions take place in the novel’s reality. It is an action-oriented saga full of events, yet the narrative style is very lyrical.

Kányák was also published in German and Polish. In 2014, the German edition from 1984, translated by Peter Scharfe, was reprinted and the title of the book was changed from the original translation Die Straße der Zigeuner (The Street of the Gypsies) to Die gekrönten Schlangen (The Crowned Snakes). The reception of the novel shows that despite having been written forty years ago, the text still speaks to its readers (see Erich Hackl, Magische Prosa der Roma) today.

Attila Balogh (1956) made his mark in Hungarian literature with a volume entitled Lendítem lábamat (I Flung My Leg), published in 1980. On the one hand, his free verses draw on the poetry of Attila József, in terms of their socio-critical point of view and conscious imagery, while on the other hand, they are linked to the avant-garde tradition and to the contemporary Hungarian grotesque with its deliberate use of signs. This aesthetic and moral point of view is revealed in his second collection of poetry, published at the time of the regime change in 1989, as well as in the journal dedicated to the arts Cigányfúró (which appeared in English as ‘Gypsy Drill’) that was established and edited by Balogh himself. In 2014, he published a third collection of poetry entitled Óvatos emlékezés (Careful Recollection), followed two years later by A lélek infarktusai (Infarcts of the Soul).

Béla Osztojkán (1948–2008) appeared on the Hungarian literary scene in the early 1980s as a lyrical poet and an author of prose fiction. His book of poetry Halak a fekete citerában (Fish in the Black Zither, 1981) and a volume of prose fiction Nincs itthon az Isten (God Is Not at Home, 1985) address questions of communal existence. He is strongly influenced by the literary icons of the Hungarian lyrical tradition, Endre Ady and Attila József. In his prose fiction, the tradition of Gabriel García Márquez interacts with the balladic mode of Hungarian epic literature. Osztojkán’s last great novel is titled Átyin Jóskának nincs aki megfizessen (There Is No One to Pay in Jóska Átyin’s Place).

The second generation of Romani literature in Hungary

From a poetic point of view, the authors mentioned below do not differ greatly from their predecessors. Furthermore, the start of their careers as authors does not necessarily overlap with their social engagement as public figures. In contrast to the earlier generation of Romani writers, these authors did not develop a comprehensive literary agenda for their generation. Nevertheless, the authors who started writing in the 1980s remained interested in the same topics and issues as the first generation until the mid- or late-1990s. They did, however, approach these topics in diverse and new ways, reflecting the new historical and cultural circumstances, which had changed significantly since the 1970s.

The so-called ‘Black Coral generation’ (Fekete korall nemzedéke) took their name from a book published in 1981. The author and editor József Choli Daróczi (b. 1939) is a cult figure among Romani intellectuals. His literary translations have made a significant contribution to the formation of the complex corpus of Romani language. In the early 1990s, two influential works of his were published, each including poems that he wrote in both Romani and Hungarian, as well as translations of Hungarian classics into Romani: Isten homorú arcán / Pel Devlesko bango muj (On the Concave Face of God, 1990), Csontfehér pengék között (Among Bone-white Razors, 1991). József Choli Daróczi is the author of the most popular Romani-language book entitled Zhanes Romanes? (Do You Speak Romani?), co-authored by Levente Feyér.

Hontalan József Kovács (b. 1950) began his career as a poet and publicist in the 1980s and has been actively publishing books regularly since 1991. His first collection of poetry was titled Ismeretlen cigányének [The Unknown Gypsy Song, 1991]. Similar to the authors of the first generation – and to his contemporaries – his texts testify to the public role of the author. His first publications appeared around the regime change of 1989. Kovács’s role as an author has a literary as well as a social aspect, which often renders the first person narrator indistinguishable from the author. Thus, there is no clearly separate lyrical self discernible in the poems:

‘Rom som
azaz ember
és cigány vagyok

cigány az
aki a cigány
néphez tartozik (...).’

I am a Rom
so I am a man
and a Gypsy

Gypsy is
who is of the Gypsies
of the people (...)’.

In German:

Rom som
das heißt,
ich bin ein Rom

ein Rom ist, wer zum Zigeunervolk gehört (...)

Gyurkó / Kovács Hontalan (ed.), p. 91).

In Romani the poem is slightly different:

‘rom sim
feri murs
thaj rom sim

rom ko / kaj rom inkrelpe (...)’

(ibid., p. 90)

Hontalan József Kovács

The lyrical character of the texts is discernible not only in the language, but also in the poems’ depiction of reality, which provides clear reference points and gives the poems a confessional quality. Kovács’ socio-critical stance is expressed most prominently in a collection of his interviews entitled A nemzet szemétdombjai (The Waste Heaps of the Nation, 1997).

The social sensitivity of József Szepesi (1948–2001) is clearly apparent in both his lyrical poetry and in his prose. His first book Elszórtan, mint a gyom (Scattered as Weed, 1983), did not gain much attention. His lyrical texts are characterised by strict poetic forms: he applies metrical prosody and uses the sonnet form in order to provide a contrast to the naturalistic depiction of the social periphery. His last book A mámor templomában (In the Temple of Intoxication) was published in 1993.

Magda Szécsi (1958) is a prominent author of Hungarian contemporary literature and especially of Hungarian-language women’s writing of recent decades. Her diverse oeuvre encompasses lyrical texts, shorter and longer prose fiction, short stories and plays. She has also made her mark as an artist through her drawings in ink and felt pen. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, she focussed on prose fiction and appeared in an anthology of female Hungarian writers entitled Szomjas oázis (Thirsty Oasis), 2007. She has published two prose fiction volumes, Időtépő (Time Ripper) in 2005 and Cigánymandala (Gypsy Mandala) in 2007.

Her narrative mode is realistic, sometimes polemical with a critical edge, and characterised by a high level of reflexivity, not only with regard to the text’s intrinsic reality, but also regarding contemporary external reality, which makes Magda Szécsi’s narrative language lively and dynamic.

Géza Csemer (1944–2012) started out working in theatre and later turned to literature. As a dramaturge, director and founder of a theatre, he saw himself as a social actor. This self-understanding is also reflected in his works and contributes to the defining characteristics of his texts. The Romani almanac Habiszti (1994) made him well-known to a wider public. The work paints a socio-historical tableau of the society of Romani musicians and comprises a collection of anecdotes and biographies of musical dynasties as well as a recipe book. It can thus be regarded as an alternative history book of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

His novel Szögény Dankó Pista (Poor Pista Dankó, 2001) narrates the career of this famous principal violinist. It is both an ambitious and accurate biography that adheres to academic standards but is also a work of fiction at the same time. Géza Csemer’s collected stage works were published in 2004.

Tamás Jónás (1973)

‘There is no such thing as Gypsy literature, but if there is, it should not be so’

Tamás Jónás

said Tamás Jónás in an interview with György Kerényi (2002, p. 3770).

Tamás Jónás began his career in 1994. His first two volumes of poetry – Ahogy a falusi vén kutakra zöld moha települ (Like Moss in an Old Village Well), poems, 1994; and Nem magunknak (Not for Ourselves), poems, 1996 – did not attract much interest. His first major work was the novel Cigányidők (Gypsy Times) published in 1997.

The novel was critically acclaimed by Péter Eszterházy. Jónás’ ground-breaking volume of poetry, entitled Bentlakás (Internship, 1999), elevated the author to a central figure of Hungarian literature. Ever since then, he has regularly published prose and poetry in major literary journals. He regularly writes articles for social media, teaches creative writing and works with a theatre in Transylvania. In 2013, a volume of prose fiction was published under the title Apuapuapu (Daddydaddydaddy). He published another book of poetry entitled Törzs (Tribe) in 2016. He has also had two books published in German (Als ich noch Zigeuner war in 2006 and 35, Gedichte und Erzählungen in 2008).

Jónás is interested in all forms of life and existence and not primarily in Romani life. His appearance on the literary scene represents a shift in the mode of narration, a departure from the former binary order. He depicts life not from a normative social position, but rather interprets imagined communities from the perspective of the individual. This shift in the narrator’s point of view results in a new narrative voice, in a literature that is up-to-date and very much alive, a voice that is not elevated, but used in everyday life.