Evoking a Betrayed World
Imre Oravecz’s third volume of his trilogy A rög gyermekei (Die Kinder der Scholle) has concluded an enterprise that continued for over twenty years. Although the first part of this trilogy was only released in 2007 by the publisher Jelenkor, Oravecz’ first book about the inhabitants of Szajla, Halászóember (Der Fischermann) was set in 1998. Strangely, this book was a poetry volume whose texts were exclusively dedicated to the people, places, events and mythologies of the mountain village of Szajla in north-eastern Hungary. The individual poems, which were initially published in magazines seemed so trivial, but the book version merges them into an epic poem about a lost world: namely, the traditional farming life, which was destroyed by Communism, rather than leaving it to internal modernization and an emergent agricultural industry generating local products.
Imre Oravecz (b. 1943) was born into a farming family from Szajla. His multifaceted biography was regarded as totally uncharacteristic for the so-called socialist era. He left Hungary twice; he lived for many years in the U.S., including linguistics studies at the universities of Iowa and Illinois. So, he followed in the footsteps of his grandparents and many other residents of Szajla, who escaped from a life without prospects, and whose aim was to find a secure livelihood and maybe even some dignity.
The publication of the first part of the trilogy (Ondrok gödre – Ondroks Grube, 2007) highlighted how Der Fischermann was a kind of preparation for a real prose text about the citizens of Szajla and their emigration. The plot of the first part of this series is set in Szajla. The heroes are a young couple called the Árvais. At first, they try to make a living in their native village at the start of the 20th century. When they realize that their life is destined to be a constant struggle, they decide to leave the country. The story ends with them and their two small children, as well as hundreds who share their plight, embarking on a steamer headed overseas.
The second part, Kaliforniai fürj (Die Kalifornienwachtel, 2012), aroused considerable attention as the very first description of the fate of millions of Hungarians who left the country at the turn of the 19th and start of the 20th century. Initially, the husband, István/Steve, finds a job at a steel works. As production declines, he is forced to look for work opportunities elsewhere. The couple and their children relocate to California. Steve works in the oil industry which at that time had become the powerhouse of the American economy.
Steve and Anna originally arrived in America with the intention of saving some money and returning to their home country to buy a plot of land. But their children, who were already born and grew up in the New World, didn’t want to leave America. Finally, they bury the idea of returning when Steve and Anna invest their savings in a ranch in California and go back to a life in farming.
The hero of the third part (Ókontri) of this trilogy, which has just been released, is one of the Árvais’ sons. He is also called Steve, though he soon changes his name to István. Although he was born in America, he decides to start a new life in his parents’ home country. In 1938, he and his adoptive child Georgie arrive in Hungary – the Americans call this Ókontri (the ‘old country’). In Szajla, he takes ownership of the plot of land, which he inherited from his grandfather; he purchases more land and sets up a new farm. As time goes by, he also finds a wife, Julia.
This new beginning and the repetition of the names is Oravecz’s allusion to the mythological return that traditionally influenced the farming world. Yet, this kind of return is no longer possible. This is the era of the linear flow of world history that rapidly leads to a new world war and then to a divided world. Steve and Julia, who are declared ‘kulaks’ (affluent peasant farmers) are exploited by the new, Communist regime and ultimately threatened with ruin. Not surprisingly, at the first suitable opportunity during the 1956 revolution, they flee Hungary. And the trilogy ends here.
Oravecz was one of the foremost writers among Hungary’s neo-avant-garde circles during the 1970s, a kind of Hungarian representative of neostructuralism. His style of prose is unembellished, so being particularly suited to the unsentimental evocation of a lost, forgotten and betrayed world.
By Gábor Csordás
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright
Ókontri – A rög gyermekei III.
Magvető Könyvkiadó, 2018