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Urbanity and postmodern sensuality: the "Post-Magyar" Endre Kukorelly.

That Hungarians represent alterite par excellence has long been argued, and this perception is still very much present both within Hungary and abroad. The more recent treatment of Hungarian literature by Susanne Scherrer cited above, and my own discussion of literary critics with reference to Michael Ondaatje's Booker Prize-winning novel The English Patient (Totosy, 148), are but two examples. The marginal and "other" notion of Magyar-ness is understandable - to a point - if we accept the historical position of Hungary in the Danube Basin, one of late arrival of the "scourge of Attila," and the fact that Hungarian is a non-Indo-European language with only remote linguistic relations to Finnish (and even that relationship is at times contested [e.g., Endrey]). More specifically, the "foreignness" of the language explains the difficulty Hungarian literature has had in penetrating the Western countries, Hungary's immediate neighbors, both those where the major European languages are spoken and those where minor ones predominate. Along with this difficulty goes another, as Scherrer implies: Hungarians, ever since their arrival in Europe in the ninth century, have proclaimed that they belong to the European cultural noyau and civilization, despite Europe's reluctance to accept them. This is still so, and Scherrer makes it clear that Hungarians must "open themselves outward, if they do not want to run the risk of passing up the opportunity of connecting with European culture" (as the above quote may be rendered).

Ungarn muss sich kulturell nach aussen offnen, wenn der Anschluss an das europaische Kulturleben, dessen Tradition sich die Magyaren zugehorig fuhlen, nicht verpasst werden soll.

- Susan Scherrer, 113

Endre Kukorelly, one of the prominent and still-emerging writers of contemporary Hungary, manifests the alterite of his language, poetry, and historicity in his writing in most poignant and varied ways. Of course, the Iron Curtain's disappearance in 1989 eased matters considerably, and it is interesting to note that in geopolitics and history, only now, several years after the demise of the Soviet Union and its sphere of influence, has it become acceptable to name Hungary as part of "Central Europe" as opposed to the older term, "Eastern Europe" - a designation that resulted precisely from the division demarcated by the Iron Curtain (see, for example, Teleky).

In 1993 the Cambridge scholar George Gomori wrote a review of Kukorelly's Egy gyogynoveny-kert (A Garden of Herbal Plants) for World Literature Today (see WLT 67:4, p. 864), noting particularly the author's preoccupation with urbanity and post-modernity, which is expressed in a language perceived as "unpoetic - not prosaic but unpoetic, if one may refer to mannered exercises in an idiosyncratic and self-limiting rhetoric this way." What Gomori senses - "he [Kukorelly] will be able to shed some of the postmodern affectation which at present still hides and camouflages his real and perhaps deeper emotions" - but ultimately misses, in my opinion, is Kukorelly's deeper concern with alterite on several levels: the author's personal situation of growing up in communist Hungary; the "foreignness" of Hungarian versus the rest of Western Europe; his (ambiguous) rejection of ardent Magyar nationalism; and his questions about poetic style. (This Gomori correctly assesses, however, but completely in isolation from other concerns. Kukorelly's preoccupation with form is also recognized by other critics such as Foldenyi.) Kukorelly's writing contains another type of postmodernity as well, a specifically literary-historical "East Central European" postmodernity and sensitivity which is manifested in the author's works in form, language, and thematics (see Tottossy, 193-94).

Endre Kukorelly began to publish in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He was born in the oppressive Rakosi era, in 1951, and grew up - and has remained - an urbanite, living and writing in Budapest. In Hungarian publications on him, and in published interviews, the poet is often queried, and he freely responds in the autobiographical mode. For example, he views his own early writing from both a political perspective - he could not publish because in pre-1989 Hungary his writing was politically suspect - and a critical perspective: "What I wrote then was not only and simply bad but was 'different' as well" (1991, 74). However, in the mid-1980s Kukorelly burst onto the literary scene with a flood of writings, to immediate and continuing high acclaim.(1) His poems as well as his prose are more often than not thematically determined. In what follows, I will concentrate on three prominent themes of his writing: urban living and urbanity; the question of relationships and women; and the theme of magyarsag or "Hungarianness." These three themes appear consistently, not in isolation within specific texts but often intertwined, in most of his texts, and define the poet's place both in traditional Hungarian literature and in contemporary and "post-Magyar" literature.

The notion of "post-Magyar" begs for an explanation. As far as I am aware, the concept was theoretically and critically explicated by Ferenc Odorics in his 1993 book Beszedhelyzetben.(2) Odorics explains the notion in a manifesto-telegraphic style and in "postmodern" terms and vocabulary. The main tenets of the concept are: the Post-Magyar comes into existence when the postmodern is no longer sufficient; the post-Magyar is above and beyond the Magyar and the "I, Hungarian"; it means Hungarianness, but by inevitability and not by proclamation; it means inward-rooted nonagreement with and active objection to anti-Semitism;(3) it means knowledge that freedom is inaccessible; it means that language exists and creates itself and that it must not be constructed. Post-Magyar is a style of life and is a form of language; the post-Magyar individual loves, and therefore he/she is not alone (Odorics, 185-87).

Interestingly and importantly, in the second paragraph of his text Odorics refers by name to Kukorelly as one of the "good Hungarians" (185). In this "manifesto" and initial explication of the notion of the post-Magyar, especially in the suggestion of the idea of something "above and beyond the Magyar," Odorics takes up what both Kukorelly and another prominent Hungarian author, Peter Esterhazy, proclaim as an important approach to Hungarianness in its contemporary context of resurrected nationalism. Esterhazy writes, for example: "I am Hungarian. I do not care for Hungarianness" (239). The objections raised by Kukorelly, Esterhazy, and similar younger Hungarians to the navel-gazing ideology of Hungarianness and its real - and, in my opinion, often unsavory - political expression in today's Hungary are nothing short of remarkable. In the context of Hungarian history and literature, nationalistic consciousness is a potent tradition few Hungarian writers have deviated from, let alone objected to.(4) This was of course often done to various degrees in the period of communist "internationalist" ideology. However, that type of objection clearly emanated from political correctness, by party directives, and thus rested on questionable bases of truth and honesty.

In view of the current resurrection of various European nationalisms, Kukorelly's and Esterhazy's stand is clearly indicative of a kind of litterature engagee and, more often than not, against public opinion. What is more important, however, in its literary configurations, is the fact that their rejection of nationalism - Hungarian or any other - refers us to the question of alterite the recognition of the necessity to join in a spirit of "Europeanness," and more, the possible reduction of Hungary's and Hungarians' "other" historical position, will be possible only by avoiding precisely the historical insistence on Hungarianness in its various forms - what I would term the potential abyss of nationalism - and degrees.

Here is one example (a partial translation) of Kukorelly's poetic rendition of Hungarian history. Textually and formally, the piece is situated somewhere between prose and poetry.

(4. Tar paper)

. . . . Everyone already knows about these things. Freedom of the press, or what the fuck. For days they journalisted about it, the radio and the TV; on TV they repeated the pics of that old man, with his moustache and his thin neck, the way he talks and his claims on the law. He says his say, they let him, they even film it, and then they string him up. And they hang several hundred men and women. Hanging is strangulation by rope. . . . When they all died, there always was a physician who ascertained the fact, they cut the bodies off the ropes and buried them in the courtyard. Sometime later they dug them out again, why no one knows, and the reports did not say. They wrapped them in tar paper, threw them into a truck, took them somewhere - they mentioned the location, where they were to be trucked to, a new location, they were transferred and dug in again. . . . Because they thought this will remain so, forever, and will never be discovered. They believed that this piece of earth is not in the world. The field of murdered people and of deceased animals, that did not exist. That parcel of land is not in our world. And that cemetery. And that Hungary is not in the world. (Memoria-part, 113-14)

The description here is of Minister-President Imre Nagy's show trial and execution following the 1956 revolution against the Hungarian communist leadership and subsequently against the Soviet army. Obviously, Hungarian history is important for the poet, and historical tragedies and injustices resonate in his soul. But this resonance is not then magnified into traditional nationalist-historical Hungarian consciousness. Rather, it is understood as part of being irrevocably Hungarian in the context of human tragedies and is thus converted into the notion of "post-Magyar."

Kukorelly's understanding and expression of the post-Magyar condition and its significance in regard to national questions is at times curiously connected to his other main theme, that of relationships and women.


I either love her or I despise her, or I do not even see her, because she has become such an immateriality that I cannot even see her. I have said that I love <my wife> <my nation>, but perhaps I do not understand her, because she cannot be understood in her magnitude. Apparently everyone understands his own best; she must be loved, if one is aware, because this is possible, or if this is not possible, if he is incapable and he is saturated by all. Even then . . . . (Memoria-part, 85)

In this excerpt Kukorelly equates women, the woman as a concept, with the concept of nation. Thematically, perhaps the most consistent aspect of Kukorelly's writing is his circling around and about the theme of relationships with women. It is common knowledge on the Hungarian literary scene and among the Budapest literati that "Bandi" (the diminutive of his first name, Endre) is a "womanizer" with a string of (concurrent) girlfriends and frequent heartbreaks. But beyond his personal life as a poet, Kukorelly is genuinely drawn to and questions the eternal dance and struggle between the sexes. Here is an example:


Put my hands on her body. I already loved you then, and I could sleep long often, In between I often put my hands on your body, and this thing

happened so then, almost linear, because I invented that, I found the ruler. It hung over there on the buffet. Only it must not disappear. Until you can find something.

(En senkivel sem uldogelek, 12)

The poem refers to the domesticity ("buffet") of the relationship and its - at the time - uncomplicated, "linear" composition. The speaker yearns to maintain the simplicity of the relationship, which he metaphorizes by reference to familiarity, represented by the apartment's interior and the objects contained therein. At the same time, separation is anticipated through the possible disruption of familiarity and domesticity by his or her finding another ruler - that is, another "linearity."

XV. You always search for contact.

(2) (Period.)

(3) Why, you want to create.

(4) (Question mark.) (Exclamation mark.) Well,

(5) That excites

(6) This excites you, that something arrives, someone, or what, some shield-bearer, and then you would immediately jump to create.

(7) To create contact, or like that, that, possibly, you would go at it, you would turn it over

(8) Then your whole form would squeak

(9) Devour her, wrap her in, you would sit on her and would chew the armor, you would chew down to the sodrony, and back to the beaver, look out through the visor, you would listen out from the shield-bearer, you would grow out like hair, you would be the flu.

(10) You would want it all. Morning

(11) (Begging mark)

(12) You would want a woman.

(13) But in the morning there would be no woman, in the morning there are no women, they begin at noon. They begin

(14) then, when. And they begin not for you.

(15) And they begin to squabble. Contact and argument, yes. And the beaver, yes. Destroy, gorge, yes. Creation too, go ahead, yes.

(16) Everything, yes.

(17) And excitement too, yes, yes.

(18) But woman, not that. Not that, that never, not a woman. (And

(19) period.)

(Memoria-part, 43-44)

Here the poet converses with himself as someone who looks for meaningful contact with a woman. The woman is conceptualized as armor he would pierce. However, the poet then slides into explaining his perception of women, who spend all morning preparing themselves and then "squabble." They are destructive and interested in food. At times they are also interested in "creation." They provide excitement as well. But they are not "Woman." Period.

The theme of relationships and women reverberates throughout Kukorelly's poetry and prose. One is tempted to read his writing in the context of the current prominence of questions related to gender politics and the history of gender. But while I do not detect in Kukorelly's writing a clear understanding of gender equality in the sense of feminist objectives, I do sense that he is taking a position of differentiation between the roles of the sexes. In this he is remarkably similar to several more recent feminists who advocate that while equality is tantamount, women and men are different: "Of course it is not easy for her, it is not easy for a woman. For women it is usually more difficult, for men on the other hand it is often worse" (Memoria-part, 125).

The following excerpt illustrates that the poet's configurations involving relationships and women pertain not only to the question of nation and alterite but also to his prominent theme of urbanity and urban life: "This woman, who grew fat while that one lost weight to the point of bulemia, this one was fed fat by the city council, the one on Szondy Street in the sixth precinct, gorged her life full on sugar beets. But she got even that, really, from the council's money" (Memoria-part, 161). Municipal politics in Budapest are again intertwined with the question of women in the following excerpt: "What I wrote to Murai. As per Esteemed Comrade Murai or Dear Mr. Murai, or whatever I wrote, is not important; in other words this process will be, I asked him. That I will not be appointed? <About the woman> <About our compatriots> I did not write. That is not the issue now" (Memoria-part, 91).

The theme of urbanity and urban life in Kukorelly's work possesses a particularly multilayered and sophisticated texture. He often relates autobiographical data to his love and criticism of urban life in Budapest, or, more precisely, to Pest, the area of the city on the left shore of the Danube. The poet lives downtown, on Szondi Street. Urban life and its interrelations with politics are treated in minute detail in Kukorelly's work. For instance, the spelling of his street name is of some importance. When at one point I asked the author why the name on the street sign is spelled "Szondi," whereas in all his texts it is given as "Szondy," he replied that this is owing to his intention to rectify the communists' unilateral sociopolitical act of changing surnames ending in -y to end instead with an -i. This the communist authorities did because, in Hungarian surnames, often - though not always - a -y at the end may denote an affiliation with the gentry, and such a denotation obviously does not correspond to the requirements of a classless society. Another consideration, according to Kukorelly, is that the name is inconsistently spelled in historical works and in literary treatments of the story, appearing both as Szondi and as Szondy (the name is that of a sixteenth-century hero in the Turkish-Hungarian wars).

There are many descriptions and poetic renditions of street segments, apartment buildings, houses, avenues, and boulevards in the poet's work. These spatial renditions are always connected to some historical, political, autobiographical, or relationship matter. In their composite expression, urban life becomes a focus. Here is another example:

XII. The Cake

I live on the third floor. If I open the window, the sky walks in. And the stars appear. Eventualities and they may fall. All the eventual little stars. But there are those whom this does not concern. They are interested only in eating a hundred grams of salami. He wants only a hundred grams. A hundred grams. He would like to have at least a hundred grams of salami. And without bread that much. Without anything, just like that, by itself. This is not instant. But it is not much either. He would like to sit down in the kitchen because he is tired. There he would sit. He stares at the table, stares at one spot.

(Egy gyogynoveny-kert, 33)

The poem excerpted here speaks about the domestic difficulties of the everyday person in Budapest. I should point out that Hungarian salami - a well-known delicacy which cropped up even in descriptions of the New Hungarian Economic Plan of 1968 as a Hungarian "salami tactic" - was virtually unattainable during the communist period because of its exorbitant cost and the frequent difficulty of even locating any (most of it was exported by the state to obtain valuable foreign currency).

The Situation in Szondy Street

There are always lights on the street it shines from one side, on the other it is noisy forget it - this is well the twentieth century.

Before vegetables rotted faster and our street smelled of summer now the privateer keeps it better distributes it better with less rotting forget it - this is already the eighties.

Before the drunks shouted now too there is always someone who screams forget it - there is progress and there are things we stand still in, numb.

(Poet's Corner, 10)

It is as if the poet looked out from his apartment and fleetingly observed the activity on the street one night. This quick view enables him to sense the changes which have occurred owing to the altered political (and economic) situation now manifest in the city, Budapest.

University of Alberta

1 On Kukorelly's curriculum vitae, I counted over 1,000 specifically literary publications, published between 1984 and 1993, excluding his books. In the bibliography appended to this article I list a selection of Kukorelly's books and translations of his works. Biographical and literary information about the poet has appeared not only in Hungarian sources but also in various other languages (see, for example, Foldenyi [German], Orsos [French], and Tottossy [Italian]).

2 Dobos and Odorics's volume represents an exposition of questions in current literary theory, specifically poststructuralism, constructivism, and the empirical science of literature (for an English-language discussion of the same topic, see Totosy, 1993).

3 On the current situation of anti-Semitism in Hungary, see, for example, Kalmar, 211.

4 It is important to make a distinction between national consciousness in Hungarian literature and the evident objection to the idea and notion of "national state" apparent in the literature of the last decade (see Biro, 13).


Biro, Bela. "Vadkeleti toprenegesek: 'Jo' es 'rossz' polgarok a nemzetallamban" (Wild-Eastern Meditations: 'Good' and 'Bad' Citizens in the National State). 2000: Irodalmi es tarsadalmi havi lap, 7:4 (April 1995), pp. 12-18.

Endrey, Anthony. Sons of Nimrod: The Origin of Hungarians. Melbourne. Hawthorne. 1975.

Esterhazy, Peter. "A semmirol, a mindenrol" (About Nothing, About Everything). In his Egy kekharisnya foljegyzeseibol (From the Notes of a Bluestocking). Budapest. Magveto. 1994. Pp. 239-46.

Foldenyi, Laszlo F. Review of Endre Kukorelly's Egy gyogynovenykert (Ein Krautergarten; Budapest, Magveto, 1993). Irene Rubberdt, tr. Neue Literatur: Zeitschrift fur Querverbindungen, new series 3 (1994), pp. 113-18.

Gomori, George. Review of Endre Kukorelly's Egy gyogynovenykert (Budapest, Magveto, 1993). World Literature Today 67:4 (Autumn 1993), p. 864.

Kalmar, Ivan. The Trotskys, Freuds and Woody Allens: Portrait of a Culture. Toronto. Penguin. 1983.

Kukorelly, Endre. A valosag edessege (The Sweetness of Reality). Budapest. Magveto. 1984. (Poems)

-----. Maniere. Budapest. Magveto. 1986. (Poems)

-----. En senkivel sem uldogelek (I Will Not Sit Around with Anyone). Budapest. Pannon. 1989. (Poems)

-----. A Memoria-part (Memoryshore). Budapest. Magveto. 1990. (Prose)

-----. "Hungarian National Brick, No. 2"; Andras Sandor with John High, tr. "Mozgasa lelassul"; Gerard Gorman, tr. In "Mapping Codes: A Collection of New Writing from Moscow to San Francisco," Five Fingers Review, 8-9 (1990), pp. 233, 235.

-----. Poet's Corner: Endre Kukorelly. Irene Rubberdt, ed. Gerd Adloff, Karin Hopp, Barbara Kohler, Irene Rubberdt, Susanne Scherrer, and Andrea Seidler, trs. Berlin. Unabhangige Verlagsbuchhandlung Ackerstrasse. 1992. (Poems; bilingual Hungarian/German.)

-----. Azt mondja aki el (Said What Who Lives). Pecs, Hungary. Jelenkor. 1991. (Poems)

-----. "A forma teszi Isten kepeve az egeszet" (It Is Form That Creates Completeness in God's Image). In Felterpeszben: Arckepek az ujabb magyar irodalombol (Half-Straddling: Portraits of Recent Hungarian Literature). Tibor Keresztury, ed. Budapest. Magveto. 1991. Pp. 71-90.

-----. Egy gyogynoveny-kert (A Garden of Herbal Plants). Budapest. Magveto. 1993. (Poems)

-----. Algunas salidas: Poesias. Maria Teresa Reyes-Cortes, tr. Rio Pedras, Puerto Rico. Cuadernos Este-Oeste. 1994. (Poems)

-----. Budapest-Papirvaros (Budapest-Papercity). Budapest. Varoshaza. 1994. (Essay on Budapest, with photographs by Karoly Gink)

-----. Napos terulet (Sunny Areas). Budapest. Pesti Szalon. 1994. (Essays, Journalism)

-----. "Las mujeres escriben diarios" ("A nak naplot vezetnek"); "Dice el que vive" ("Azt mondja aki el"). Maria Teresa Reyes-Cortes, George Ferdinandy, trs. Cayey, 25:73 (March-June 1993), p. 33.

-----. "Film." In Cvi-haplaot/A csodaszarvas: Mai magyar koltok antologiaja. Itamair Jaoz-Keszt, ed. & tr. Tel Aviv. EKED. 1988. P. 188.

-----. "Movimenti nostrani (1987)" ("Hazai szakaszok [1987]"); "Chi e che (1989)" ("Ki az, aki [1989]"); "A S. (1989)" ("S.-nak [1989]"); "Camminata (1990)" ("Jaras [1990]"). Beatrice Tottossy, tr. & ed. "Maniere di deambulazione poetica: I dintorni di tre generazioni di poeti ungheresi (1975/79-1994)." Si Scrive: Rivista di letteratura, 1 (1994), pp. 222-29.

-----. "If I go, what is underneath?," Akos Szabo, tr. Anachronia: Esprit contre Temps/Spirit Against Time/Geist gegen Zeit, 2 (January 1995), pp. 9-13.

Odorics, Ferenc. "Mi az, hogy posztmagyar? Jelentescsinalo elobeszed nem-letezo szohoz" (What Is Post-Magyar? Report-Making Foreword to a Nonexistent Word). In Istvan Dobos and Ferenc Odorics, Beszedhelyzetben: Irodalomelmeletek kozott (Conversations: In Between Literary Theories). Budapest. Dialogus. 1993. Pp. 185-87.

Orsos, Jakab Laszlo, and Agnes Boissy. "Endre Kukorelly." In Ecrivains hongrois du [XX.sup.e] siecle. Jakab Laszlo Orsos, Agnes Boissy, eds. Die. Editions A Die. 1991. Pp. 73-79.

Scherrer, Susanne. "Schriftsteller zwischen Macht und Moral: Das Verhaltnis von Literatur und Politik in Ungarn heute." M.A. thesis, Universitat Hamburg, 1988.

Teleky, Richard. "Towards a Course on Central European Literature in Translation." Canadian Review of Comparative Literature, 22:1 (March 1995), forthcoming.

Totosy de Zepetnek, Steven. "The English Patient: 'Truth Is Stranger than Fiction'." In Essays on Canadian Writing: Michael Ondaatje Issue, ed. Karen E. Smythe, 53 (Summer 1994), pp. 141-53.

-----. "The Empirical Science of Literature/Constructivist Theory of Literature." In Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory: Approaches, Scholars, Terms. Irene R. Makaryk, ed. Toronto. University of Toronto Press. 1993. Pp. 36-39.

Tottossy, Beatrice. "Maniere di deambulazione poetica: I dintorni di tre generazioni di poeti ungheresi (1975/79-1994)." Si Scrive: Rivista di letteratura, 1 (1994), pp. 187-95.

STEVEN TOTOSY, current President of IGEL (International Society for the Empirical Study of Literature), is Associate Director of the Research Institute for Comparative Literature at the University of Alberta. His published work - two books and over forty refereed articles since 1989 - is in comparative studies, literary theory, Canadian ethnic minority writing, Canadian literature, translation theory, and history. He recently completed a volume on systems theory and comparative literature in the context of legitimizing the study of literature. He is Associate Editor of the Canadian Review of Comparative Literature.
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