Hungarian Romani Literature: An Overview

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Zoltán Beck

Attila Balogh (b. 1956): poet and editor

‘Attila Balogh is a poet who has no homesickness, nor is he at home anywhere. A migrant, as so many in this world, and so many of the great poets... Since everyone in this world is a refugee, so is Attila Balogh. He took refuge in the Hungarian language in order to be a writer, he took refuge in the Roma community to find a home, but Roma have no home. Hungarians merely believe that Roma have one: but what kind of home is that, which excludes those who are born here and refuses to accept those whose skin is darker? Why do we believe that there is Romani and Hungarian poetry and that there are two cultures ...? To be a poet, to run between languages, to find a home means to be a Rom, to be a Hungarian, to be anyone.’

Péter György on Attila Balogh

This is the motto of the 2006 documentary film portraying the life and writings of Attila Balogh. The film’s title is Három pokol [Three Hells] and the narrator and director of the film is Tamás Jónás, a well-known author of contemporary Hungarian-language literature. The three episodes of the portrait are available on YouTube in Hungarian.

Attila Balogh appeared on the Hungarian literary scene in the 1970s. His first book of poetry entitled Lendítem lábamat [I Flung My Leg] was published in 1980. A study by Dénes Csengey published in 1986, probably the first contemporary attempt to canonise Romani literature in Hungary, judged the book to be so significant that he referred to Balogh as one of the members of a lyric triad, along with Károly Bari and Béla Osztojkán.

The poetry of Attila Balogh, especially when expressing his explicit, integrated and consistent lyrical self, could be seen as an idiosyncratic interpretation of Attila József. The autobiographical blurb on his first published book playfully alludes to Attila József’s Curriculum Vitae, a public and at the same time poetic autobiography.

The motto of Balogh’s second book reads: ‘So the title of this book is It Deeply Hurts’ (Balogh, 1991). ‘Nagyon fáj’ –‘It deeply hurts’ – is an emblematic poem from Attila József’s late lyrical period.

Furthermore, the position of the lyrical narrator is strongly influenced by the narrative structure of Attila József’s Szabad-ötletek jegyzéke [The Inventory of Free Associations], 1997 – throughout the volume but especially in the poem ‘Előszó’ [Foreword]:

‘You have contemplated your life as an outside observer,
and if a woman tried to love you,
you loved yourself through her.’

Balogh, 1991, 10

Balogh welcomes the publication of the selection of poems as a questioning of the social and moral reality of the present. At the same time, his awareness of the poetry is clearly evident in this personal statement: ‘Szabad-ötletek jegyzéke is not a poem, but the intimate root of poems’, Balogh writes in the journal Cigányfúró [Gypsy Drill]. In his later work, paraphrasing Attila József becomes a common practice, for example in József Attila a peep-showban [Attila József at the Peep-Show], 1997.

The poetic voice of Attila Balogh is rather isochromatic. He expresses the experience of discrimination powerfully in language that is sometimes naturalistic, sometimes picturesque and sometimes more conventional. Attila Balogh’s lyrical oeuvre was published in a volume of selected poems in 2016. His two books, Óvatos emlékezés (Careful Remembering) from 2014 and A lélek infarktusai (Infarcts of the Soul) from 2016 were issued in Hungarian by a Transylvanian publisher.

A selection of his poems has been published in English under the title Gypsy Drill, taking its name from the arts journal that he established in the mid-1990s (see below).

Attila Balogh as editor

Attila Balogh is not only a writer but also an influential editor, arts manager and intellectual. He is the founder and editor of Cigányfúró (Gypsy Drill), an avant-garde journal with a socio-critical tone that appeared regularly between 1994 and 1998 and was originally devoted to fringe literature, publishing scientific papers, first translations, graphic art, poetry and essays.

One focus of the artistic community was materiality in art; not only conventional but also tracing paper was used for printing, and the printing techniques were both extreme and experimental. Eventually it became impossible to continue financing the journal. The last edition appeared on a single page printed on both sides with a list of abstracts of potential articles.