The great Hungarian poet Attila József once stated that “the past must be acknowledged.” In essence, this is what A Magyar Magány by Tóth Tibor Albert tries to do. In the first book of this three book collection, the poet examines his heritage and the long, turbulent history of the small central European country from which he hails, a country not many outside its borders (or what had at some time been its borders) know much about, or care to know much about.
So in many ways, these are poems about the past. The trouble with the past is this – it is contentious. And nowhere is this truer than in Hungary, especially today. Twenty-three years after the collapse of the communist regime and the deluge of “freedom, liberalism, and democracy”, most contemporary Hungarians can be solidly divided into two opposing camps: the red and the white. (This is a rather crude division that in noway addresses the existing complexities of the country, but for the purposes of ideological analysis, this model should work.)
The reds are the socialists and liberals and all those who wholeheartedly embrace everything socialism and liberalism promulgates: multiculturalism, individual rights, secularism, globalization, etc. The whites are the traditionalists and nationalists and all those who celebrate everything traditionalism and nationalism espouses: family values, heritage, religion, and protectionism.
To the reds, to steal a phrase from Princeton Professor Kim Lane Scheppele, who is strongly entrenched in the red camp, the whites are “primitive, parochial, petty, punitive, and increasingly paranoid.” The reds point to the rise of right-wing political parties like Jobbik and sound the alarm bells of encroaching fascism. The whites, on the other hand, lament the reds' disregard for Hungarian tradition and heritage. The reds, they claim, are internationalists who, either accidentally or as part of some grand scheme, are intent on destroying the Hungarian nation through such tools as lax immigration policies, foreign speculation, financial exploitation, etc.
On the surface, this sounds like a typical liberal/conservative political conflict, but in Hungary, nothing is typical. One need only see the history of the country's past ten years to understand that, in many ways, the past still needs to be acknowledged. The question is – whose past? The current Fidesz government leans auspiciously more toward the side of the whites. Their populist stance and insistence on a new constitution both make an attempt to overcome more than a half-century of communist oppression and exploitation by reinstating or reinforcing traditionalist values. Unfortunately for Fidesz, the rest of the Western world, the EU and the United States included, leans more toward the red side. A savage media battle has raged ever since Fidesz was ushered into power. The result? Well, if one were to judge Hungary by Western media sources alone, one would be inclined to think Hungary has become a hotbed of neo-fascism and that the entire country is barreling unstoppably toward some hellish form of pre-second world war autocracy. Seen in this light, there is a certain loneliness in the Hungarian, as Mr. Tóth's book of poems suggests, though I would be more apt to substitute the words solitude, alienation, or perhaps even forlornness for loneliness.
Enough of the preamble . . . let's get to the poems. In the first book in this three book collection, the poet, whom I would place on the white side of the field in terms of ideological beliefs, often reaches back through ten centuries of Magyar history as he reminds the reader and, perhaps even himself, that his past is a rich one, peopled with noble figures, heroic deeds, dogged determination, and incredible endurance. The poems are a bittersweet blend of praise and criticism, celebration and scorn, pity and disgust. Adding to the overall bittersweet tone of the poems is the poet's own ironic self-exile from home – the verses were written mostly in the United States and, in terms of perspective, come off like a series of out-of-body experiences . . . that feeling of being outside of yourself and watching yourself in daily life yet being utterly powerless to influence any course of action your body chooses to do.
There is a rich use of symbolism and allusion in all of the poems in this collection, most of them Magyar in nature and origin. At times, I found them fresh and profound, like experiencing an old forgotten flavor or visiting a place of deep nostalgic value; other times, I found them esoteric and obscure and overwhelming to the point of being overbearing. (Are there Hungarians alive today who truly feel a deep personal, nay, spiritual affinity with the Huns or Árpád that goes beyond words or the scope of historical narrative? Perhaps there are. I certainly am not one of them, though I do appreciate the significance of the history behind them.) Maybe this is the essence of the Hungarian loneliness/alienation/forlornness? Perhaps there is a point where outsiders, or quasi-outsiders like myself, cannot cross over, cannot understand. One thing is for certain, historical considerations aside, the poet's whispered warnings of the dangers his country has faced and continues to face are valid warnings to all, Hungarian and non-Hungarian alike, for they strike at the core of what it means to be a human being today.
The second book (rough English translation I Dream of Gold) deals with more contemporary themes: working and living in a foreign country, the nature of society, dreams of success; whereas the last book when "kisses are not enough" deals primarily with love. I found the second book both insightful and entertaining, while the third book, though well-written and moving, was a little too subjective for my taste. (I have a personal aversion to reading subjective romantic poetry, but others who enjoy it are sure to appreciate the vignette poems and the confessions they contain.)
Overall, this is a fine collection of poems written in Hungarian – I hope it finds its respective audience. My only complaint is there is no English version, so I cannot recommend it to my non-Magyar speaking friends. Is an English translation a future possibility?