Hungarian Romani Literature: An Overview


Zoltán Beck

Tamás Jónás (b. 1973): Poet, Writer and Playwright

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

Tamás Jónás

At the outset of his career, just after having scored his first major success, Tamás Jónás made this pronouncement in 2002 in an interview with the journal Barátság. Since the beginning of the 1970s, this issue has been raised throughout discourse about the canonisation of Romani or ‘Gypsy’ literature, albeit not in such theoretical terms. The dilemma of the ‘Gypsy writer’ or ‘writing Gypsy’ is associated, above all, with Károly Bari. However, Tamás Jónás’s assertion in effect signals the end of the discourse through the total negation of the syntagma of ‘Gypsy literature’. He replaces it with something else: for him, the poetic-aesthetic scene provides the ground for the existential mode of the artwork.

It is worth viewing Tamás Jónás’s oeuvre not only from a national but also from a global perspective. After several somewhat overlooked collections of poetry that appeared in 1994 and 1996, his first book of prose fiction was published as Cigányidők [Gypsy times]. The novel, published in a surprisingly small print run, was a major critical success. Because of the legitimacy this conferred upon him, his volume of poetry titled Bentlakás [Internship] (1999), was brought out by a national publisher in his native Hungary – an event that gave the writer a permanent place in the canon of Hungarian literature.

A historical narrative could be created by arranging Tamás Jónás’s texts in the order of their appearance (that is, chronologically) and incorporating the contemporary critical reception of the respective volumes. An exciting and revolutionary aspect is Tamás Jónás’s utilisation of the platforms offered by social media (see also Romani online literature in Russia and in the Balkan states). Several years ago, he began to post on Facebook poems that had appeared in his earlier publications grouped by volume. Uploading to social media brings the formerly printed texts – fixed in time on paper and in book form – right into the discursive space of the present. The writer used the same means to publish Nem magunknak [Not for ourselves] in 1996 and Bentlakás in 1999.

The process itself is interesting because through these actions the writer turns himself into a phenomenon that – instead of being separated from the artwork – is created according to the nature of the work of art. Moreover, his socio-political activities can be interpreted from this perspective: for example, as both author and performer, he appears in a music video clip on a video-sharing website as part of a campaign for a free press: Nem tetszik a rendszer [I don’t like the system].

Thus, the public representation of the self is the representation not only of the writer but also of the phenomenon, creating permanent polyphony and providing countless opportunities for misinterpretations, misreadings and misappropriation of the original, thereby ultimately generating uncertainty and a mode of being somewhere in-between. This experience of being in-between is articulated through the voice of the narrator in the novel Cigányidők:

‘Are you Árpi? Although I do take after my father, he was never addressed as Árpi. But my brother, he’s also called Árpi, though he didn’t take after me at all.’

Cigányidők, 1997, 50

Tamás Jónás has become a leading writer of Hungarian literature, especially poetry. His latest books were published by Magvető and Irodalmi Jelen. The 2013 volume titled Lassuló zuhanás [A slow fall] is one of the most significant examples of lyrical poetry in the Hungarian language. His works have also been published in French and German, among other languages. Two volumes are available in German: Als ich noch Zigeuner war [When I was a gypsy] and Fünfunddreißig. Gedichte und Erzählungen [Thirtyfive. Poems and stories], which incorporates both prose and poetry from 2008. His last novel, Apuapuapu [Daddydaddydaddy], was published by a Transylvanian publisher in 2013, and his last book of poems appeared in Hungary in 2016 with the title Törz [Tribe].

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