Don Quixote – Our Literary European
Writer Terézia Mora talks to Klaus Pokatzky (Deutschlandradio Kultur) about types of heroes in poetry
Spaniard Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote embodies "Old Europe," says Terézia Mora. He fights windmills – good at heart, but fairly clumsy. In contrast to the American hero's, this intrepid adventurer's ways and objectives are rather mismatched.
Klaus Pokatzky: In which European language, English set aside, should every European be able to say a little more than "please" and "thank you?" One of the questions off the Europe List, a survey with the help of which the Goethe-Institut, daily newspaper Die Welt and Deutschlandradio Kultur hope to discover Europe's cultural framework. In the case of this question, German, French and Spanish rank high – Hungarian does not make the top ten. Writer Terézia Mora was born in Sopron in Hungary in 1971 and grew up at the border to Austria, speaking German and Hungarian. She has lived in Berlin since. Welcome to the studio!
Terézia Mora: Thanks for having me!
Pokatzky: And what is that in Hungarian?
Pokatzky: And how about "please", "thank you" and "hello?"
Mora:"Please" is "Kérem", "thank you" is "Köszönöm" and "hello" is "Jó napot".
Pokatzky: Among the top ten languages in the survey results, Polish is the only one from the former Eastern Bloc. Why do you think that is?
Mora: Because Poland is a large country. Or it may just be due to how these questions are asked and how the top ten results come to be. After all, there is a large variance in the answers; several thousand people answered. And it is only to be expected that the larger countries and the more prevalent languages appear prominently, even though a couple of smaller ones are given as well. And you can make first place with nine percent and second with five percent – I've had a look at the results. But I think it's great to be able to say "please" and "thank you" in any language, for instance, when travelling there. Therefore, travelling is very educational, because it puts you in situations where you try to be polite by saying "please" and "thank you" in the local language. I think that definitely makes a difference.
Pokatzky: So more languages make the better European.
Mora: I certainly think so.
Pokatzky: And the greatest number of languages makes the greatest European?
Mora: Of course we can't accustom ourselves to any number of languages, but I wonder what it would be like if it weren't only in good taste to learn the bigger languages, but also to take a look around at our neighbours and learn something about their language and culture. Apart from the Austrians, we are surrounded by Slavic countries, after all...
Pokatzky: The old Imperial and Royal monarchy of Austro-Hungary.
Mora: Exactly – and I hardly know anything of it all, but a German could follow this train of thought...
Pokatzky: Danish, Polish, Dutch, French, the Swiss German dialect...
Mora: Right, so you have an even better chance...
Pokatzky: ... Czech ...
Mora: Take Czech, there's an interesting story. A couple of my students – I teach part-time at the German Creative Writing Program in Leipzig – there were a couple of my students who went ahead and said to themselves, "There's this thing called the Czech Republic – they have young Czech literature." Then they went and met several Czech writers, and some of them are now learning Czech. I think that's absolutely brilliant!
Pokatzky: You grew up bilingual, near the border of Austria and Hungary, so you feel at home in the German as well as the Hungarian language. You write in German and translate novels, such as those of Peter Esterhazy, from the original Hungarian. What does this bilingualism mean to you?
Mora: It's my life, the greatest gift I've received and one I intend to pass on to my daughter...
Pokatzky: Who is now five years old...
Mora: Five years old and a brilliant bilingual, which I'm very proud of. Not talking to a child in its mother tongue is inconceivable. In the course of my work, I have quite a lot to do with immigrants and people who don't live where they were born and have to switch languages and customs. And I know first-hand that there are those who are so eager to integrate themselves that they speak to their children in the language of their adopted country and not their mother tongue, which then gets lost. It's a terrible shame.
Pokatzky: You say mother tongue – which one is your mother tongue and which one is your daughter's?
Mora: That's a tough question, quite hard to answer. In my case, it was difficult to know, but now that there is a new definition of mother tongue, which is the language of one's education: that would be Hungarian, in my case.
Pokatzky: That is school, university...
Mora: For the first 19 years of my life, I lived in Hungary in a Hungarian-speaking environment; this was very dominant. Even though my mother spoke German to me, I would still call Hungarian my mother tongue, because I had all my basic education in Hungarian. And it's the other way around for my daughter: I think her mother tongue is German.
Pokatzky: Writer Terézia Mora in our series Europe List on Deutschlandradio Kultur. Ms Mora, our list includes the likes of Don Quixote, Faust, Hamlet and the Little Prince as the most captivating European literary figures. Which figures would you have named?
Mora: Exactly the same, wonderfully enough. That was my favourite question, not least because many participants confused literary figures and authors, which, after all, are also figures of literature, in a way. And this list, I've seen, is headed by Don Quixote – I wholeheartedly second that: he is our European...
Pokatzky: Why is Don Quixote the prototypical European? Because he is a tragic hero?
Mora: Because he fights those windmills and is good at heart, but fairly foolish. I think that's a spitting image of us: we are the Don Quixotes, fighting against those soulless windmills. On the other hand, Don Quixote is also a satirical figure. We make fun of him for trying to be chivalrous in a time devoid of all chivalry; he is basically terribly out of date. He is "Old Europe." He sticks to his values, surrounded though he may be by simpletons and morons. And that's something we like to see in literature. Hamlet is also this European. Before he goes and polishes you off, he ponders. He tortures himself, seeking what is right.
Pokatzky: So it's his brooding vein.
Mora: The brooding, exactly.
Pokatzky: Despairing of one's self.
Mora: As a scriptwriter by qualification, I have to bring this up: what is the difference between an American and a European hero?
Pokatzky: What is it?
Mora: The American hero starts out with a goal, and the acts upon it. The European hero, even if he has an objective, struggles with it. It's all very murky – but even if he knows his aim, the path to it is murky. There is brooding to be done, doubts to be addressed – and it is not till then that the path is trodden. And it's quite possible for the European hero to fail in his venture. Those aren't the same heroes. And then there's another type I have to distinguish as an old Eastern European, myself. A Hungarian filmmaker once said to me that – get this – the Eastern hero is righteous, fights and loses.
Pokatzky: And the Western one?
Mora: Is righteous, fights and prevails in the end. Or at least, he has a chance of finally winning.
Pokatzky: I'd be interested in knowing which European writers – that's writers, not figures – captivated you the most.
Mora: Well, I think Kafka would make the top ten. Not least, because he'd do well as a literary figure as well. I think Germans generally aren't aware – and this is reflected in the Europe List – of their great presence in the cultural life in other countries.
Pokatzky: Are we too modest or is an inferiority complex involved?
Mora: I haven't a clue. Maybe they're just legitimately unaware, I don't know. But I think they still believe themselves to be hated because of the Nazi issue, which isn't the case. The Europe List has shown this – and so has the Germany List. When I spent time in England, Germany turned up in the news every day, the cultural news. If that's not presence, I don't know what is. They are the people we are looking up to.
Pokatzky: In Hungary, we are witnessing developments that run afoul of our democratic sentiments, and also of freedom of opinion and cultural pluralism. Are we Germans doing enough about that?
Mora: I don't think so, but neither have I. I once sat across from a German politician and missed the opportunity to say, "Go do your job – do something about it!" simply because I didn't want to bug him. But why shouldn't I have – it is his job, after all. The European higher-ups could definitely be doing more, but I fear that the current rulers, no matter how frankly they are addressed--
Pokatzky: The government in Budapest wouldn't be fazed?
Mora: No they wouldn't – I think they are fairly divorced from reality by now.
Pokatzky: Are you confident that a different government may find the path back to reason?
Mora: Yes, I think they will – but it will have to be a different one. I have no hopes whatsoever that the current regime will change their minds. Very unfortunately, I'm reminded of the world I grew up in. No matter your efforts, there was no way of making the Communist regime listen to you.
Pokatzky: And in which European language may I say "thank you" now?
Mora: How about "Köszön öm?"