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Friday, February 10, 2012


André Kertész, Men Reading at Outdoor Book Stall, Fourth Avenue, New York (1959)

Two plus two equals four.
If you do not say never, they forget.
If you say many times, nobody believes it.

Kemény István

Traducción de María Elena Szilágyi Chebi

Editorial Baile del Sol
Tegueste, Tenerife, 2011

On the poetry of Kemény István

Poetry, once again, looks for its place in the world of the living. Its ambitious task of illuminate what is beyond the sight of our eyes persists despite the prevailing clamour. Even in an age like ours in which undoubtedly the tyranny of the obvious has succeeded despotically, there are still voices that are determined to undress reality with their speech. When some wonder about the relevance of a courageous way to make literature that probably had more presence in other moments of history, nowadays, poetry seems to ignore itself while it struggles almost always timidly to redefine and find a place to live in if someone wants to visit her. "Poets have died, said the poet, but their message is more alive than ever." And many, reading the poetry of the dead, did not pay enough attention to those who are still with us and are, for that simple reason, contemporary with the strong vocation to be heard in these times when poetry is perhaps more elitist than ever.

Ediciones Baile del Sol, a brave and committed Spanish publishing house, which, like a few more, still believes in the usefulness of transmitting the poetic speech of our contemporaries, has published recently Discurso vivo (Élőbeszéd) by the Hungarian poet Kemény István with a careful translation of María Elena Szilágyi Chebi in their great collection DelEste. This Canary publishing house with already twenty years behind them, dares with everything and, as they themselves say "The road has been long and we have left behind many things, but we're still dreaming, as in the beginnings." Novels, plays, essays, journalism, travel books and, of course, poetry, with special attention to native literature but without neglect what goes beyond all borders and nationalities with a clear African tendency. We can find in their catalogue juicy titles grouped into collections presented with originality like Textos del Desorden, Dando Pata or DelEste among them. The last one, dedicated to authors from a less familiar Europe, including names like the Romanian George Bacovia (40 Poems), the Bulgarian Georgi Tenev (Casa del Partido), the half Croatian half Galician Deborah Vukusic (Guerra de identidad), the Slovenian Andrej Blatnik (La ley del deseo) or the Hungarian Kemény István (Discurso vivo). We can follow their fascinating and tireless activity on their blog.

For those of us who have already went deep into the world of Hungarian literature without still being able to enjoy it completely in its original language is always good news when appears a Spanish translation. And even more when we talk about poetry, a genre that Hungarians have been turned into with a special passion. Kemény István is one of the most exciting active Hungarian poets for the uniqueness and complexity of his proposal. In his own words:

I was born on October 28, 1961 in Budapest. My mother was devoted to teaching and my father (who died in 1999) was a sculptor. My little sister is a restorer. I finished high school at the Institute of Budaörs and graduated from Hungarian History and Philology at ELTE in 1990. I am married and I have three children. I've written so far poems, prose, essays, reviews, a half-drama, diaries and television dialogues. I have translated poems from various languages. Quite a few ideas of mine have become part of the works of others. And I've learned as well a lot from others. Many have asked my opinion about their literary work. I had the opportunity to read hundreds of times in front of my audience. I was able to greet and meet great artists and know a few famous people. I walked on four continents until today. Most people who think I am someone, defines me as a poet.

Kemény István
Considered as a post-modern, for want of a most ingenious label, when perhaps post-modernism has already become part of that history that so much pretended to take distance, this poet stands out, however, for his profound belief in the existence and vitality of History. Although Eastern post-modernism has developed differently, and the political change after the communist totalitarianism is too new to believe in the death of History. The post-modern reaction of Eastern Europe is a kind of mourning. And from all the strenuous efforts of post-modernism to deconstruct everything, from its insipid historical relativism, arise in the the work of Kemény the following questions: Is there a place for history in poetry? Or should poetry also join the movement of deconstruction? Is this consistent with its true purpose? The answers to all these questions are the verses of the poet himself. Escaping with elegance from the artificiality of post-modern moral sense abandoned itself to the anxious search for the lost nature, the poet proposes instead try to find the dimension of joy and happiness in a fragmented world. With no doubt he senses that poetry is perhaps in its most crucial moment: sources of inspiration are gone and it does not know how to express itself. The relationship between History and Poetry thus becomes a kind of game. This game is constantly present in the work of Kemény. The author attempts, with all means at his disposal, to look beyond post-modernism.

Gradually he begins to perceive limited frames in Hungarian poetry. In one of his poems he says: "... although that was an ironic time." (... Az egy ironikus kor volt). Isn't our age ironic any more? In the words of Kemény: "Since the seventies, Hungarian poetry has ceased to deal with politics, national thematic, beside a few vital issues like the tragic, the pathetic, the sentimental and cathartic (...) to restore order in itself. It wanted to be renewed, it has become self-reflective, intelligent (...) since then, with the use of words like "nation", "world" or "all" one can be seen wrapped in a suspicious dilettantism".

His poetry deals with the present history in a conscious and committed way with poems that refer to recent historical events such as the bombing of Kosovo by NATO. The use of history in Kemény's work can be interpreted as a personal return to the ahistorical myth rather than an attempt to represent history in its time unit.

Discurso Vivo (cover)
His Discurso vivo (Élőbeszéd), published in Magvető in 2006, is an extraordinary sample of sensitivity. The treatment of dialogue, sometimes almost a monologue, the magic and meaning of everyday objects, the silences that are sensed all over, suspiciously bring us close to the world of stage. What does a driver do when he sees a glove lying on the road? -Glove (Kesztyű)- How to deal with a past that has lost its value? -Sadly (Szomorúan) or Érdliget station up and down (Fel-alá az érdligeti állomáson)- What to do with ideals that are no longer in force? -Family, time zero (Család, nulla Ora) or Astronaut betrayed (Megcsalt űrhajós)- Is it possible to overcome the presence of money in our lives? -Money (Pénz)- What to do with the real criminals? -Speech alive (Élőbeszéd)- and What to do with us, heirs of Cain? -A week with the old Cain (Egy hét az Öreg Káinnal )- Do we have time for our children? -Monkey (Kismajom)- What to do with the hysterical and ill zero? -The Case of Nothing (Semmieset)-.

These moral issues may have never been so clearly presented in Hungarian poetry in recent years. Kemény's language is revolutionary, "There is a crisis of values, Mr. Cain" (Értékválság van, Káin úr!) A backward movement (in Hungarian expressed with the prefix vissza) is a leitmotif in the poetry of Kemény: the interlocutor "leaves, but returns", in "Dancer unemployed" also everything starts all over again, the numbers go back to zero and the initial motives of the book resonate again in the last poem.

A work that requires another way of understanding things or perhaps a serious attempt to "not understanding". It is often difficult to interpret. It is when we should not seek to understand the content or intent of the author, but treat the work as something suggestive, something outside of us, but which can go deeper. The interpretation of the poems is based only on a certain point: the doubt in the poem itself, the insecurity of the trials and evaluations hidden under the various theories that try to decode it insistently. Totally contradictory ideas can reference to the same poem, justifying their own truths. If our interpretation separate the meaning of words, phrases and sentences from the global significance, we can understand things in a different way.

In Discurso Vivo Kemény offers the reader that possibility, as if it were an adventure. The reader is based on the biblical story of Cain and the presence of death throughout the book, and these, apparently, are the characters who speaks in the name of the author. Thus the overall meaning is clearer, but also sparks off a certain instability about the true voice of the poet.

The nostalgia that comes from the work of Kemény is free from excessive decorations. In the poem entitled Private practice (A magánrendelés), he speaks about the visit of a family from Budapest to their doctor. One of the key elements of this poem is money, that becomes a metonymy of nostalgic memory. This nostalgia for the mythical expresses that characteristic escape of the Hungarian people from the fragmented present, releases the post-modern self forced into the celebration of deconstruction and allows him the contrary option: the technique of identification. After the Flood only remain the search of meaningful signals among the fragments of the self. However, this "final" is not absolute, but rather signifies the start of something new: the destruction of the Flood has not been total. This imperfect final speech is also present in Discurso vivo -Sadly (Szomorúan) or Appropriate Ruins (Célszerű romok)-. The idea of ​​the meeting and the fear of death is the main theme of the work. The eleven stanzas of the poem Discurso vivo detail the visit of the death at narrator's home. This poetry, full of Christian myths, then takes moral dimensions: the theme of Cain give us back to the original crime. This return to biblical times is often associated with other great Hungarian poet, Ady Endre.

In brief: History in a long-term perspective, which temporal limits are distorted as part of a personal symbology and a Christian myth ceases to exist as such to become the "trash" of mythical realities. Although this work of "reconstruction" and "restoration" never be accomplished at all, only in some fragments of poetic language.

Kemény István

Talking with the author

Kemény István is not only one of the most celebrated authors of his generation, but also one of the most representative artists in the new Hungarian poetry, beyond post-modernism.

How did you start writing poetry? Do you keep your first poems?

I started it when I was a child. But, of course, I haven't kept my first poems from the age of eight. When I was about 18 years old I had a standard in my mind for the poetry, an idea about the Good Poem. I was about twenty years old when I wrote the first poem according to this idea. That is the first one I've kept.

You also write theatre plays, and dialogue is often used in your poems, what relationship has your poetry with the scene?

This relationship is more and more important to me. At least half of my poetry book Discurso vivo consists of stories and dialogues. One of the poems is a little theatre scene. Its title is The Jobless Ballerina.  I’ve chosen to give the same title to the book of my collected poems which is going to be published this autumn.

Do you think that your poetry could be danced? What elements could inspire a dancer or a choreographer?

I believe that everything can be danced as well as everything can be written into a poem. But of course it is harder if I have to name concrete elements. I would really like to ask a dancer or a choreographer about it!

What is your theatre about? Has it been put on the stage?

15 years ago I wrote a play together with my friend Attila Bartis whose novel Tranquility was a success also in Spain. And I started to write one alone in 2009 but I haven’t finished it. So if we add this two half-plays to each other, that’s exactly one complete play! But seriously... I’ve never worked directly onto the stage.

What is the place of Discurso vivo in your poetry? Is poetry the field you feel more comfortable?

I wrote the poems of Discurso vivo after the age of forty. And then a period of my life was closed. Until that time writing prose was just an episode. After Discurso vivo I wrote a novel and since then I feel comfortable in writing prose too. And then came the poems again. Now I have enough to fill a new book.

What does prose or theatre means for you or gives you that poetry cannot?

For a long time I was sure that writing a novel to a poet is like running the marathon to a runner of 100 metres. That he has no chance. But now I realised that a novel (although many have written good novels in young age) requires experience and perspective. Unfortunately getting a little older is necessary. My novel Dear Unknown has some chapters which are so rich in dialogues that they could easily be adapted to theatre. Thinking these structures over and over again influenced my way of thinking and the style of my poetry too.

Is a poet necessarily alienated or distanced from everyday life, political or social of his country? How is this reality reflected in your poetry?

I am not a revolutionary type and for a long time I was blind enough to think that after the fall of communism things will go in the right direction automatically. I feel that if I can see bad tendencies in the Hungarian (and even in the European) society I am somehow responsible for them if I don’t mention them. There were some moments when I had to react, for example when I wrote about the bombing of Yugoslavia or the intellectual civil war of the Hungarian society now in 2012.

Kemény István

What is poetry for when new technologies are invading everything?

If you mind the internet, I think there is no problem at all. Internet doesn’t kill poetry. In Hungary there are many poetry blogs and through them poetry reaches a lot of (mainly young) people who probably wouldn’t buy the books.

What does God think about the world he created when he sees it now so polluted?

I think he will wash it accurately, and even wipe it with a dry sponge. We have to pray to survive it.

Is irony a constructive option against the political and economic situation of the country?

This is a vital question to me: no. Irony isn’t constructive. It’s a survival strategy. It’s very important and everybody should be tough to understand it. But also to use it only in emergency. Because if one uses irony too often he becomes cinical and too many people ironizing at the same time can ruin a whole society.

I have it understood that you worked for television, what did you learn from that experience?

I obtained practice, experience and self-confidence. I found serious values in the genre of the daily soap. I understand better how things work. So I think I became a better writer during writing the lines of soap characters.

In your opinion, what plays of Contemporary Hungarian Theater would be absolutely essential to translate into Spanish?

I think the plays of Pintér Béla could bring Hungarian and Spanish people together. Without exaggeration, that could became a common cultural language. When a country is almost always loser in its history but has a fantastic culture, the best tragicomedies are born.

Maria Elena Szilágyi Chebi

The translation, a specially challenging task when we talk about poetry, has been led to a more than satisfactory end by Maria Elena Szilágyi Chebi, an Uruguayan who lives in Budapest and just got Hungarian citizenship. His mastery of language has allowed her go deeper into István Kemény's work and bring out their strengths avoiding the traps of a language like Hungarian which seems destined for high literature. Maria Elena is also a musician, violist, and maybe she though about the rewriting of the poems of Kemény as an interpretation of a small chamber concert.

Maria Elena Szilágyi Chebi
foto: David Robert Evans

How did you arrive to Discurso vivo and the poetry of Kemény István?

First I found the book of poems Cold (Hideg) by the same author, while I was studying literary translation in the Balassi Institute of Budapest, with Professor Peter Rácz, during 2008-2009. In this book, the poems entitled November, panic (November, pánik), I've sold myself (Eladtam magam), Almost black (Majdnem Fekete), Plastic (A műanyag) and others, were the first which I translated from this author for a contest translation, that was organized by the institute. In that contest I got the third prize, and then began my "career" as a literary translator, parallel to the music. Later I bought the book Discurso vivo and I translated the first forty pages as the final work of the literary translation course. I also analyzed the work of Kemény in a seminar of contemporary Hungarian poetry in Balassi, also making a comparative study of the translation of some poems in 6 different languages. No need to say that I've read almost everything written so far by Kemény, and also including many reviews of his works in different Hungarian literary magazines.

What were the main challenges or difficulties of translating the poems of the book?

The first challenge was to think with the mind of the author, "put myself in his shoes" understand the poems and write them again, with a careful selection of words, maintaining the structures. When I made the first part I used mainly the River Plate Spanish vocabulary. As I continue the project later with a Spanish publisher I had to make drastic changes in the language, they asked me, and I agreed. Luckily I had the help of a Spanish writer, Andrés Barba in The Hungarian House of Translator's in Balatonfüred.

Till what point does a poetry translator get involved in the translation work?

In my case I was involved the normal, and I matured the work for almost 3 years. For me it was very important and necessary to work in a quiet place, I was lucky enough to be almost a month with a scholarship at the The Hungarian House of Translator's in Balatonfüred, where conditions are ideal to translate.

How would you define the style of Kemény István?

Some say that Kemény is the first post-modern Hungarian poet with relevance. I know the poet personally and although I think that statement is partly true, I also think that you cannot "label" that easy all his poetry.

What criteria have you followed to translate these poems?

The criteria were chosen words carefully, keep the meaning but also use words with "texture". Where the form appeared clearly I tried to keep it, but in some cases where history or content were more important than form or rhyme, I translated it as free verse. It's a trend frequently used in contemporary Spanish poetry. In short: to respect the author and that the poems sound "in Spanish."

Hungarian is an ideal language for poetry, can Spanish language reflect the richness of the original?

Spanish language is also very rich, but it's true that may things were lost. For example, at the beginning of the poem Bailarina sin trabajo, "Vissza a kályhához ..." If I translate literally to "return to the stove," in this sentence lies the Hungarian expression that does not exist in Spanish, "start from the stove "start from the beginning", so in that case is lost in translation the word "stove ".

Is it also the translator of poetry a poet?

Say yes, or at least it should be. I never pretend, I just did my job the best as possible.

You also dedicate to music, Does it help you in some way to translate poetry?

Essentially I'm still a musician (violist) and I think it might be a connection between the two, both music and poetry express feelings within certain limits (rhythm, form, etc..) And that inside energy becomes something magical when it arrives to the audience.

What other Hungarian authors would you like to translate?

I would like to translate for example Nándor Gion, Gyula Mirnics (two hungarian authors from Vojvodina) and László András, among others.

Bailarina sin trabajo
Állástalan táncosnő

Kemény István
Traducción de María Elena Szilágyi Chebi
from the book Discurso vivo, by Kemény István
Thanks to Ediciones Baile del Sol

André Kertész, Mademoiselle Gourbay (1937)

Comencemos desde el principio; sigue ahí, aún no la han tirado,
no la deben de haber tirado, siempre fue esa ancianita ofendida,
con el casco de hierro inclinado hacia atrás. Es como si hubiese dicho
también la vez pasada (pero no insistamos): «aún han de venir
muchas otras jóvenes, gracias a Dios, ellas me escucharán.»
—Querida señora Estufa, vine precisamente a hablar con usted, créame,
ya sé que me odia porque hace tiempo que no vengo por aquí,
la vida me arrastró, ¿sabe usted? Sí señora,
pero necesito sus consejos, además tiene usted un lomo inteligente.
—Se podría haber sentado en otro sitio, oiga, porque hay mesas vacías,
en cuanto a su abrigo, no tengo palabras, me ofende
que no se lo haya quitado... pero ya estoy acostumbrada.
Quiere mis consejos, claro, era de suponer,
mire, señorita, la danza es algo demasiado importante,
como para dejarla en manos de los bailarines. Míreme a mí:
no sabría hacer ni un paso de baile, pero puedo decirle que
ya han estado aquí no una ni dos bailarinas…
¡Y nunca se había quejado nadie de la calefacción! —¿Es que yo lo he hecho?
—¡Mírala ahora! ¡Se pone a tiritar haciéndose la digna! ¡En estos días
tal vez habría que darse por contenta, pero a mí no me conmueve!
Usted no entró diciendo «qué calorcito tan rico que hay aquí»,
cuando ahí fuera ruge el viento, sino que... simplemente entró.
—Y es verdad que ruge, ya no es primavera, primavera es sólo aquí,
¡aquí a su lado, señora Estufa! —¡Dígame piropos si quiere, tampoco por eso
la voy a llamar bailarina, no crea! ¡La vida, sépalo, no es una clase de baile
que comienza de nuevo, buscando trabajo en el periódico al calor de la estufa!
—Entonces, por amor de Dios, ¿qué cosa es?
—Déjeme tranquila, señorita, no me haga rabiar. Al final
resultará que tenía razón cuando decía que todos los que vienen no son más
que vulgares borrachos.¡No lo creo! Haga el favor de contarme
algo bonito que me rejuvenezca, no importa que sea falso.

Vissza a kályhához, ha megvan, ha nem dobták ki még,
de úgyse dobták, mindig ez a sértődött kis bácsi volt
a hátrabillent vaskalappal – minthogyha ő megmondta
volna már a múltkor is, de hagyjuk ezt: jönnek be még
újak, hál’istennek, nekik talán még nem hiába járatom…
– De, Kályha úr édes, én pont magához jöttem, higgye el,
és tudom, hogy most utál, mert tényleg régen jártam itt nagyon,
de az élet elsodort, maga ne tudná, hogy van ez? Igenis a
a tanácsaira szomjazom, amúgy meg intelligens a háta…
– Ült volna szembe, már bocsánat, üresek az asztalok,
a kabátjára nincs szavam, habár egy becsületsértéssel ér fel
hogy képes volt kabátban leülni… de ezt is megszokom,
a tanácsaim pedig, na persze, a tanácsaim, na ja,
hát nézze, kislány, a tánc az annál fontosabb dolog,
mint hogy a táncosokra lehetne bízni, itt vagyok példul
én: egyetlen lépést se tettem életemben, de mondhatom,
nem egy és nem két balerina fordult már meg itt,
és a fűtésre nem volt egy rossz szavuk! – Nekem talán volt?
– Mi az, hogy! Most is vacog, csak jólnevelten! Manapság
ennek is örülni kéne, de én már hadd ne essek hasra ennyitől!
Maga nem azzal jött be, hogy milyen jó kis meleg van itt,
de bezzeg künn a szél sikolt, hanem csak úgy… bejött.
– Pedig tényleg sikolt, ez nem tavasz, tavasz csak itt van,
itt magánál, Kályha úr! – Csak hízelegjen, táncosnőnek akkor
se szólítom, nem én! Az élet, kérem, az nem tánctanfolyam,
hogy a hirdetési oldalt böngészgetve a kályha mellől újrakezdjük!
– De akkor mi, az Isten szép szerelmére, mégis micsoda?
– Na hagyjon ezzel, kislány, ne mérgesítsen, mert a végén
még el találom mondani, hogy az összes belépő részeges
csibészben az ócskást látni, az milyen. Na nem! Inkább maga
meséljen valami szépet, hadd fiatalodjak, nem baj, ha nem igaz.