Am I an European?
Abstract from an essay correspondence with the japanese authoress Yoko Tawada.
Once a girl told me how, after she'd had a row with her then boyfriend and he was drunkenly snoozing away, she wrote the word “gyűlöllek” a hundred times all over his body – covering every little part of the skin she could reach. In a synthetic language such as Hungarian, that single word is a complete sentence, a pronouncement or statement, and it means “I hate you”. Expressing the opposite feeling, for which an analytical language such as German needs three words, similarly only requires one word – “szeretlek”. But precisely because she still loved him, she didn't want to inscribe letters of love on his skin but spelled out her hatred. To do it, she used a thick red felt-tip pen. So in the end, while he lay there unconscious, heavily sweating in the summer sun, his skin was dotted with shocking red diacritic marks. The word “gyűlöllek” contains two parallel accents over the u because it is a long vowel and an umlaut over the o because this is a short ö, and then there’s the y, which is not an independent sound but only indicates that the g should be pronounced rather like dj. The word has a soft and gentle sound, though its meaning is hostile and harsh. In contrast, the word “szeretlek” meaning “I love you” hisses like a snake, rattles like an old typewriter and hasn't a single diacritic mark to its name. The young man woke up after a few hours, unable to remember anything at all about a row with his girlfriend, and discovered his body densely covered with a rash of large red blobs. As mentioned above, he had sweated heavily and the hatred repeated a hundred times over had dissolved into red blotches. He was so shocked that shortly afterwards, while their relationship was breaking up, he actually did suffer from an allergy-like skin disorder.
I had never previously imagined that writing and skin, letters and feelings could be so closely entwined. But since I know this story, I also see how – at least, in my country – letters and other signs could depict a person's identity on their skin.
In his novel A sziget (The Island), my famous fellow-countryman Sándor Márai has his first-person narrator ask: “Am I really white?” The novel is set shortly after the end of the First World War, from which France – the location of the story – emerged a winner and Hungary emerged a loser; from being a not-quite independent yet important part of a large monarchy, Hungary became an independent yet insignificant and humiliated country. The story’s main protagonist is a young Hungarian man who has a passionate love affair with a young French woman. Without any word of explanation, she suddenly leaves him. Attempting to explain what happened, he realises he has not only been rejected as a man but first and foremost as a stranger; afterwards, he fancies how he can notice that, as a stranger, he is also not accepted by the French in general. He speaks perfect French, is familiar with French culture, educated, witty, good looking and elegantly dressed, and even well off; nonetheless, he feels as if there were an invisible wall separating him from French people because they immediately spot the stranger in him, the non-French. As is so often the case, he generalises his thwarted love for a woman into a thwarted love for France and then into a thwarted love for all of Europe. He starts to doubt whether, as a Hungarian, he really belongs to Europe at all. In this state of mind, he notices the concierge at the hotel where he is staying. Since the concierge is an old African, the protagonist reasons that this man must have a wealth of experience and expertise in the question of skin colour. He goes over the concierge and asks him: “Am I really white?” The old man (or, as Márai put it with no reservations eighty years ago, “the old Negro”) scrutinizes him carefully and finally replies: “Well, rather white!”
Márai uses that state of “feeling-rather-white” to heighten the Hungarians’ general sense of inferiority, a sentiment especially prevalent after the First World War, and takes it to the absurd. If a Hungarian assures a western European (this zeal is slightly less intense when it comes to people from the rest of the world), that Hungary used to have a plethora of Gothic churches and Renaissance palaces but the vast majority have been destroyed, or that our leading poets are just as great as the classics of world literature – although what they write is nearly untranslatable –, behind such statements lies the fear of not being accepted in Europe as a European. On the one hand, this fear is based on historical facts and experience, on the other, on a deep (and sometimes, because it is unsettling, a thoroughly productive) inner insecurity in the Hungarian culture and even in Hungary’s entire cultural historical tradition.
I noticed something similar when I first heard West Germans talking of the “Europe versus East Bloc” polarity in the 1980s. I can remember just how shocked and upset I was. What’s that supposed to be? I wondered. Aren’t I just as much a European as they are? My inner freedom, which I defended under the dictatorship with all my strength, was rooted in an awareness of Europeanness; I held my central moral and aesthetic beliefs to be European values. Now I wanted to enjoy real freedom in the real Europe and found that real freedom equally consists of being able to exclude from the continent an inhabitant of the East Bloc with his once-upon-a-time Gothic churches (and his real-life border barbed wire). Only later did I understand that although this exclusion was stupid and unfeeling, it was not necessarily wrong; and even later, after the East Bloc collapsed, I understood that some elements of the East Bloc Dasein continued and continues to exist. Once when I was on a journey from Poland to Kaliningrad, through the Baltic states and finally to Minsk, I was told at least six times that the very place we were in right now is Europe's “geographical centre” – and I thought: “Oh yes, I know what you’re on about but a centre, even if it’s geographical, is far too small a fig-leaf to cover up so much nakedness!” And at that moment, my previous indignation evaporated entirely. Instead, I experienced an angst almost identical to that described by Márai’s alter ego.
The main characteristic all Hungarians share is a constant questioning of who they actually are or what comprises the essence of Hungarian-ness. When the Middle Ages were drawing to a close, the Hungarian intellectuals regarded the Ottoman conquest as divine punishment for the “sins of the nation”. And before the First World War, the great Hungarian poet Endre Ady wrote of Hungary as a “ferry country” plying backwards and forwards between two expansionist regions. Perhaps Ady was thinking of inner insecurity and that ferry plying its course when he wrote in one of his poems: “We are the men who are always late.”
The ancient Magyars, who are not necessarily identical with the ancestors of the present-day Hungarians, also arrived relatively late, not reaching the Carpathian Basin until the end of the 9th century. In contrast to all other nomadic peoples pressing into Europe from the east since the Migration Period, they could establish and retain their own independent state. They preserved their non-Indo-European language – or rather, integrated radical innovations, effectively renewing it. During the Christianisation process, they joined the Roman Catholic and not the Byzantine Church. Until the Ottoman conquests, Hungary was regarded as a regional power coined by western influence. During the Ottoman period, the majority of Hungary was under non-Christian rulers (which, according to the usage at the time, meant non-European). Later, a European empire – namely, the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian empire – sought to integrate the country into its realms; ultimately that attempt, or rather its failure, led to the loss of the throne. The country was then colonised once again from the east, by the Soviet Union. (I would not claim that the USSR was a non-European power. I would not want to cut either Russia or the Ukraine off from the continent, nor deny the European roots of Bolshevism. But was the Ottoman empire of those days with its Greco-Byzantine heritage really a non-European entity?)
My compatriots often think of Hungary as a ferry country. And perhaps they forget even more frequently that it is not the only ferry in the region. Depending on how you do the maths, you could count ten to fifteen countries plying a course back and forth in this region of ferries. Now, though, we are a EU Member State. Consequently, our country, together with other ferry countries, is presently on the western bank. I have no idea how long we will be staying here, but I imagine this will also prove to be a temporary state of affairs. Admittedly, it is hardly a matter of indifference whether we (but, once again: who are “we” actually?) spend twenty or one hundred and fifty years in Europe, yet the next swing of the pendulum is certain to come at some point. In reality, the region with the “geographic centres” has always been peripheral and a buffer zone. In the periods of belonging to the west, we tried, just as quickly as possible, to catch up with the process of civilization there and copy it as effectively as we could – from institutions to architecture and infrastructure. We tried to put ourselves on a par with the role-models that held us so enthralled. Yet precisely for that reason, we felt the advances in civilization (and culture) in Hungary were merely superficial and never part of our traditions. It seemed as if everything glittering here was just a sugar coating, a poor imitation. Everything we welcomed “here” as a remarkable innovation and largely adopted had already long been labelled passé “there”. At the same time, the historical experience that only a brief time is available for development in peace and quiet, and development is always abruptly broken off has become an unquestioned commonplace.
That is how this area developed under the Romans (who abandoned the province of Pannonia as quickly as they had established it) just as much as in the Middle Ages or during the Austro-Hungarian empire. At present, the Hungarians are trying, in just ten years, to expand, introduce, and implement everything achieved in Austria over the last sixty. Looked at from outside, the development seems dynamic (if it is not halted by political and economic crises), but back in Hungary my compatriots are asking themselves: “Why are we still so backward?” And they add: “We have made fairly substantial progress …,” or, as the protagonist of Márai's novel would put it: “We are rather white …,” but: “…somewhere along the path we lost our way and, with it, our true selves.”
Sándor Márai spent the latter half of his life in exile. On the Pacific coast of North America, he wrote his bitter poem: “Our names are losing their diacritic marks.” For many people from a ferry landscape transformed into an East Bloc, who left their homelands under fascist or communist rule, the diacritic marks of their names suddenly took on an immense significance. It was as though these accents, diacritics and circumflexes embodied a part of their homelands or furnished the final proof that the name’s owner once called somewhere home. In the ethnic minorities’ given names in these countries, the additional accent marks are just as important, if not even more so. If one of these marks is removed or added, as often happens in official documents (for example, a Hungarian cs turned into a Slovakian č or a Romanian ţ into a Hungarian c), their ethnicity is no longer discernible. The person has to live with the fact that that s/he’s no longer one hundred per cent identical with her/himself. Yet the diacritic marks really go to show that not all the phonemes in the languages spoken in the ferry landscape could be written with the Latin alphabet used there, and every script developed different solutions for the problem.
The script or typeface is a more or less elegant dress. It should be worn with dignity. It goes both over and below the skin. When I was a boy, my grandmother, shrewd and more often than not acerbic, talked me into believing that she could read my secret thoughts because they were written on my forehead. And she really could read them. If I was not allowed to collect snails in the garden (something I always liked to do) and she discovered me out there in the early morning, and when asked what I was doing, I replied: “I’m looking at how beautiful the flowers are”, she would put her index finger against my forehead and, spelling the words, slowly read: “I-am-look-ing-for-snai-ls”. When I stood in front of the large wall mirror trying to discover the letters which, at that time, I could neither have read nor written but which I knew were capable of betraying secret and therefore forbidden thoughts, she would walk over to me and read off exactly what I was thinking: “I-don't-want-to-go-to-kind-er-gar-ten-and-so-I'm-go-ing-to pre-tend-to-be-ill”.
I had not yet learnt to read or write but was already convinced that the heart’s secrets could be read off the skin.
Later, when I was between 10 and 12, I ate vast amounts of letters. In the 1960s and 70s, the shops sold what were called alphabet noodles; they contained the entire alphabet in noodle form though – almost as in books – the letters never cropped up with the same frequency. I was given alphabet soup two to three times a week. It wasn’t something that I particularly liked but, as I was eating it, I tried to imagine what exciting adventure novels or fiery love poems were on my plate swimming around and soon to be swallowed. (“Not in a moment – now!” I was told when I started to construct entire sentences, sometimes entire paragraphs, on the edge of my plate). I was allowed to read when I’d finished my homework. I read fantastic books with space ships and strange planets and excessive amounts of future. These books were also a kind of alphabet soup, but I found they were far more to my taste than the liquid variety. At some point, though, quite suddenly, I grew tired of these books and, with them, the future they described: They had no permanent effect on me. Yet I find the effect of the soft alphabet noodles I ate back then is even more important now. I am convinced that, in my later years, I am only writing down all those letters I spooned up when I was childas a child.
And, with my East Bloc past (and present), would I define myself as a European? I only know that I have eaten up all my alphabet soup.
Slightly shortened version of a letter from an essay correspondence with Yoko Tawada, due to be published in German in spring 2009 by Edition Thanhäuser (Ottensheim, Upper Austria). Published with the kind permission of the author and publisher.