This year the Hungarians celebrate their greatest poet prince, and yet the world will scarcely notice. His name is János Arany. He was born two centuries ago, on 2 March 1817, in what was then Hungarian, now Romanian Nagyszalonta, and the son of a minor aristocratic family who had fallen on hard times. With great discipline and modesty, he literally wrote himself out of the no man’s land of his ancestral origins and in the 19th century became part of the canon of modern Hungarian literature. Internationally, he remained in the shadow of his friend Sándor Petőfi and his character was the exact opposite of him. Petőfi, aged just 26, died on the battlefield of the 1849 revolution against the Habsburgs and was the image of a poet filled with impetuous passion as equally in affairs of the heart. The older János Arany lived until the age of 65 and suffered the social and private calamites of his life with reticence and reserve. His intention was not to provoke, but to work. In his extensive oeuvre, we scarcely find a word of enflamed passion and love. A spirit of courage along with a deep sense of shame are inextricably linked for him. He kept the most sacred and private away from the eyes of the reading public and literary criticism, albeit naturally embedded in the depths of his poetry, is as reticent as it is unbridled and unrestrained.
For forty years, I have tried to explore the secrets of the Hungarian language without tripping up, yet so far, I have not succeeded with János Arany. I get hopelessly lost in every second line of his poems. His treasure trove of vocabulary is a depressing reminder of my own poverty. Arany is for me an almost impenetrable jungle full of gnats, vipers and predatory big cats. A totally unknown planet in the Hungarian sun system.
This is even more frustrating because from all sides I repeatedly hear explanations along with high praise – from avant-garde poets to taxi drivers, from my mother-in-law to my wife – that János Arany is the most eloquent and truest source of the Hungarian language and life conduct.
For an entire year, the Hungarians are currently celebrating this bicentenary of the poet’s birth. There are some clever ideas. Fourteen ambassadors recite the first verse of one of his best-known poems in wonderfully incorrect Hungarian. Yet, the charming message of this beautiful game shines through: we must dare to speak in foreign tongues and to understand each other, even if we do not comprehend each other. Before the Frankfurt Book Fair several German translations will be published to foster greater understanding. For the 2018 Leipzig Book Fair an array of small editions should be produced with 48 Arany poems – the languages will reflect Hungary’s neighbouring countries. That isn’t likely to change much; Arany is and will always remain a Hungarian secret. It is scarcely possible to influence this. Nevertheless, the nod to the neighbouring lands points ahead to a better future, one of invitation not demarcation. Understanding not hate. Curiosity not greed. Reading not making a noise. And dignity in perilous times.
János Arany stands for an even more pleasing and conciliatory message for Hungarians – for the inner dialogue of a country that is so sorely lacking these days. This man’s poetic works have proven that the will for life and resignation, melancholy and the quest for happiness must surely fit in with an individual’s overarching destiny: there is a true life within the false one. János Arany left behind the legacy of a large table where Hungarians who are now so inwardly riven with disagreement can learn to talk to each other again. The simple fact that they are willing to sit at this table with positive expectations is worth its weight in gold. Arany – that is the Hungarian word for gold. Arany aranyat ér. Arany is worth his weight in gold.
By Wilhelm Droste
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright