View into the german literary scene

Borders and Stories

György Dragomán © György Dragomán
György Dragomán © György Dragomán
György Dragomán
I’m sitting on a train penning these lines. We’ll soon be crossing the Hungarian-Austrian border. I’m taking my book to Salzburg, where I’ll be reading from the German edition of The Bone Fire. One might even say that my book is taking me across the border again, as it has done so often in recent years, to present itself to readers together with me. The novel is set in Transylvania. It takes an internal perspective, giving a very personal and graphic account of the first turbulent years after the fall of the Communist dictatorship. People who experienced this themselves or were involved and feel that this is their own personal story often ask me what someone who has not gone through this experience can understand about this book. What Germans understand about it.

That is really a desperate and rather naive question, because its unspoken implication is that everyone is caught in their own story, a story that is in effect untellable, that our personal borders are actually impermeable walls, impossible to penetrate, and that we cannot understand one another in any way.

That makes me think of moments during the readings when the fact that I am hearing sentences in German that were written in Hungarian does not matter because they still retain the melody of the original. Thirteen-year-old Emma enters her grandmother’s wooden shed with its dreadful hidden secrets with exactly the same courage in German as she does in Hungarian. It is the same wildness that drives her to raise her head when attacked by her classmates, and it is with the same self-destructive, nonsensical vanity that she falls from the lido diving platform. The fact that the German book is a translation does not matter – it is identical with the Hungarian book to the extent that that is possible.

I think of the German readers listening with concern, of the liberating feeling of hearing the rhythm of my own restless sentences pulsating behind the words of another language for the first time, and I reply that I have the impression that they understand everything. Sometimes I also add that it would certainly be a good thing if they did not understand, if the world was such that for part of humanity, some stories were completely incomprehensible, for example about being at someone’s mercy and being suppressed, because that would mean that these were not general human experiences. That is not the case, certainly, and literature and reading it with understanding are the best evidence to show that we are able to comprehend and empathise and are able to understand each other’s stories, regardless of differences of culture, history or tradition, and even that we are able to deeply identify with these stories, thereby making them our own.

The train arrives at the border without stopping, rolling across it in a completely unspectacular way as if the border did not exist. Most people only register that they are in a new country when they hear the beeping of their mobile phones and see the change of network provider. Here and now, there is nothing to suggest how many fences are currently being re-erected at European borders. As at every border crossing, I now also recall the great border crossings in my life. The time when we finally had to cross the Romanian border in September 1988, and, just before Christmas, also in 1988, the first time I was allowed to cross the Iron Curtain, still in existence when I moved to Szombathely, a city very close to Austria.

In this half of Europe, everyone has stories of borders and border-crossings to tell. Waiting and uncertainty make everyone do a bit of summing up and see their lives and themselves from an external perspective, whether they want to or not, make them aware that they are the players in their own story and that in the process, they are also part of a bigger story.

At the border, we are all forced to face history itself, and for a moment our own history becomes part of this big process. Suddenly, the personal and the impersonal are side by side. That is why experiencing a border-crossing changes us even if there is no border, no river and no line on the ground. Simply knowing that we are going from here to there makes us step out of ourselves a little, an experience that inevitably changes us. Crossing borders helps us discover a little more precisely who we are.

I recall what a feeling it was to cross this border for the first time, to get out of the car and look up at the sky. It felt as if I was standing in the middle of a maelstrom - intoxicating, dizzying and frightening. At the time, I felt as if I had broken through an invisible wall, a feeling that etched itself into all my senses to such an extent that I can still conjure it up. When writing, I sometimes have the feeling that I am standing there again, on the edge of an asphalt road that is just as grey and dusty as any other asphalt road, but in my eyes it is still shining as if the sun had suddenly come out after a thunderstorm, eliciting a mother-of-pearl gleam even from the deepest grey. When I write, I am on a quest for this feeling, I want to experience anew cathartically rare moments of freedom and describe them as faithfully as possible.

Writing is about precisely this crossing of borders. What happens to us when we write is exactly that, several times and at several levels. When we write, we cross our own intimate borders and, at the same time, the borders defined by our community and history. With the aid of writing, we can not only smuggle our stories across spatial and temporal borders, but also across linguistic ones, and what we are really smuggling is not just our stories, but also ourselves. If a book is written and translated and read, it is at the same time torn out of the literature, tradition and history of which it was a part when it was created. It is put into an entirely different context in the receiving community, but that in itself does not change its meaning, since even if it is read a bit differently, we are still involved in it in the same way.

As a child, I learned how books and tightly-sealed borders were mutually hostile. Books were one of the most sought-after items of contraband. The border police searched everyone for books and medicines and if they found any, they confiscated them both. Power was afraid of books. It was afraid of them because it knew that stories also change their readers. Opening a book makes us part of another story and begins to tear down our own borders a little bit. When we read, we have to cross the same borders as the book’s writer, and the most painful and uplifting thing about that is the very fact that although we come from the other direction, we still encounter ourselves on the other side of the border.

György Dragomán

György Dragomán was born in Marosvásárhely (Târgu-Mureş), Transylvania in 1973.
In 1988, he emigrated to Hungary with his family. He completed a doctorate on Beckett, translates works from English and works as a web designer. His award-winning first novel, A pusztítas könyve (Genesis Undone) was published in 2002. The White King (published in 2005; the German translation was published in 2008) has been published in thirty countries. His novel The Bone Fire, which was published by the Magvetö press in 2014 and by the Suhrkamp Verlag in autumn 2015, was given an enthusiastic reception in the German features pages and topped the SWR and ORF bestseller lists. This success has taken him to Germany and Austria on numerous reading tours. Dragomán lives in Budapest.

Budapest, March 2016