More than political speeches and formal acts, literature has an important role in sensitizing people to the suffering of others. Rather than doing that, however, the abundance of tear-jerker movies, streamlined teen lit, and often badly-written (and in some cases, forged) memoirs about the Holocaust have the opposite effect: creating what has been termed as “Holocaust fatigue”―being fed up with the topic without coming any closer to understanding it. The emphasis on the Holocaust as a unique event proves counter-productive as well when understood in the sense of “it happened only then, and exclusively to those people.” As the recently deceased Hungarian author Szilárd Borbély stressed, the Holocaust was not only then; all the necessary conditions are there for it to happen again, to others, in other places.
What good literature can do, besides telling the stories and honoring the victims, is to offer us various ways to imagine and understand what happened and how it could happen, beyond formulaic narratives driven by political agendas or commercial considerations. And there is an abundance of good Hungarian novels on the Holocaust. Those who follow literature in translation will of course be familiar with Imre Kertész’s Nobel Prize winning ‘Fatelessness’, one of the most important novels on this topic. The experience behind that novel is actually a confluence of both 20th-century totalitarian regimes, as Kertész repeatedly stressed that he would not have been able to write it without having lived in Communist Hungary.
But there are a number of other important Hungarian novels on the Holocaust. Among those available in English translation, there are two early first-hand accounts. Béla Zsolt’s ‘Nine Suitcases’ (1946) narrates the author’s experience as a forced laborer in Ukraine, then an inmate in Bergen-Belsen, and his eventual rescue; whereas Ernő Szép’s ‘The Smell of Humans’ (1945) is an account of three weeks of Nazi terror in German-occupied Hungary in the fall of 1944. (The deportation of Hungarian Jews started in the spring of 1944, after the German occupation, but was stopped in July. As many Budapest Jews, Szép was taken to do forced labor, but survived the war.) More than half a century after the events, Iván Sándor’s ‘Legacy’ and László Márton’s ‘Shady High Street’ attempt to reconstruct and interpret the events, and at the same time to record and challenge the process of reconstruction. ‘Legacy’ (2006, published in English last year by Peter Owen) tackles the problem of the unreliability of the human mind and the “editorial process” involved in making sense of the past, by following in the footsteps of the fourteen-year-old boy the author himself was in 1944. Starting from a collection of photos that represent inhabitants of a small Hungarian town who were killed in the Holocaust, ‘Shady High Street’ (1999) is an attempt at resuscitating those “shadows” to whom we were unable to say goodbye, and who therefore still linger around us. Translated into English by Tim Wilkinson (the translator of ‘Fatelessness and Legacy’), Márton’s novel has yet to find a publisher.
All these books are part of the Hungarian canon, albeit to various degrees. In my next post, I will talk about two lesser known yet important books that represent interesting cases of how and why certain books do not find their way into the canon.
By Agnes Orzoy
First part of Agnes Orzoy’s blog can be found here.