Hungarian may be an unknown language to most of the world but a substantial number of its greatest works have been translated and are ready to read in English.

Get to know more about a fascinating, sometimes bizarre nation, romantic and crazy, with a history full of brilliance and brutality, through its literature.

This Babel Guide presents modern Hungarian literature: novels, short-story collections, poetry and drama that have been translated into English. Sample the hallucinogenic typography of Peter Nadas, the psycho-comedic narratives of Agnes Hankiss, or Tibor Dery's Lilliputian characters.

Guide

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Night of the Pig-killing [Disznótor]

SZABÓ Magda

The tale of Night of the Pig-killing is about love, betrayal and the limited choices available for people in tangled relationships. Set in 1955, in an unnamed city of Hungary, strongly reminiscent of the author’s birthplace Debrecen, Night of the Pig-killing tells the story of two families, the déclassé gentry Kémerys and the soap-makers the Tóths. The story unfolds through parallel internal monologues of different characters, apparently preparing for that great Hungarian tradition of the pig-killing feast, usually the occasion for copious eating, drinking and a family get-together. Yet, while preparing for the event, the protagonists of a long family drama, none of whom can live or wants to live without the oppressive shadows of the past, gradually narrate their own and their family’s story over the previous forty years.

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Kazohinia [Kazohinia]

SZATHMÁRI Sándor

A twentieth-century Hungarian writer rewriting Gulliver’s adventures — despite its oddity, the idea has produced an entertaining and profound book which is still to nd its place in the canon of utopian writing. Its hero, Gulliver, undergoes the predictable experiences: while serving as surgeon on a British ship he suffers a shipwreck and nds himself stranded in a strange country; the land of the Hins which has reached the utmost perfection of technical civilisation which he rst adores then ...READ MORE

The Smell of Humans; a Memoir of the Holocaust in

Hungary [Emberszag]

SZÉP Ern

Despite its eye-catching title that evokes dreadful memories in so many people, The Smell of Humans is a surprising addition to the many memoirs published by holocaust survivors. Ernő Szép, a Jewish author of rened lyrical poetry, was already over sixty towards the end of the war when the ghettoisation of Budapest Jewry took place, and this book describes his own memories of the Budapest ghetto and its survivors and his time as a forced labourer. Yet the book, based on the author’s personal experiences, differs from many other similar works.

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Journey by Moonlight [Utas és Holdvilág]

SZERB Antal

A highly amusing (and popular) Hungarian book from the late 1930s, in which we meet the romantic gure of Mihály, aloof and poetic but struggling to break with an adolescent rebelliousness which he tries to quell under respectable bourgeois conformism but also with the disturbing attraction of an eroticised death-wish. While there is no doubt an element of (the then especially inuential and risqué) Freudianism in this, as well as perhaps the sexual and emotional claustrophobia of a society with strong Catholic and martial traditions, it is also has a distinct originality.

The narrative is a little pat but, lying beneath this symmetrical structure, there is the phenomenon that af...READ MORE

The Angry Angel [A dühõdt angyal]

ZILAHY Lajos

Zilahy belongs to the small group of Hungarian authors better known in English-speaking countries, as the author emigrated to the US in the company of many other Hungarians after the Second World War, and many of his works were written with an eye for an American audience. Yet his narratives attract readers on both sides of the Atlantic, for his eminently enjoyable stories provide splendid reading material.

The Angry Angel is the last volume of his monumental multi-volume family history The Dukays, which describes the degeneration and fall of Hungary’s aristocracy through the fortune of a ctitious...READ MORE

Century in Scarlet [Bíbor évszázad]

ZILAHY Lajos

Lajos Zilahy was already a very successful and widely translated author when he embarked on his trilogy about an aristocratic Hungarian family, the Dukays, from 1814 down to the Second World War. A minor aristocrat himself, he was born in 1891 and wrote his rst book, a collection of poems, when he was recovering from serious injuries he had received on the Russian front during the First World War. His views on social reform and his refusal to join any political party made him enemies in the Hungarian press and among the Nazi occupying forces, who were about to arrest him when he managed to go into hiding in a cellar in Budapest, with his wife and son. It was here, in 1944, that he started on the trilogy.

His democratic views were equally unpopular with the post-war Communist regime and three years later he ...READ MORE

ANTHOLOGY

(ed. Andrew Handler)

Ararát; A Collection of Hungarian-Jewish Short Stories As the editor and translator of this collection, Andrew Handler, points out, emancipated Jews have been very active in Hungarian cultural life — most of the founders and major editors of the very inuential literary magazine Nyugat (West) were Jewish for example. It’s clear from this fascinating anthology of stories from 1921–1944 that there are, as Handler puts it, an interesting group of Jewish writers hidden, as their Gentile compatriots tend to be too, ‘behind the forbidding barrier of the Hungarian language’.

Tamás Kóbor’s ‘When they ...READ MORE

ANTHOLOGY

Peter Zollman ed.

Peter Zollman is a respected translator of Hungarian poetry and here he has put together a personal selection, his ‘dream team’ of poets and poems, from the 1800s to the present. Most of the major poets of Hungary seem to be represented: Petőfi, Babits, Kosztolányi, József etc. As a charming coda to the main Hungarian business there is also a rather splendid selection of thirteen pages of other, international — French, German, Latin, Portuguese and Italian — poets that demonstrate Zoll-man’s quite impeccable grasp of who the really great and interesting poets (in these languages) have been; from Catullus to Pessoa, via Baudelaire, Villon, Brecht and Salvatore Quasimodo, in his selection he doesn’t seem to miss a trick.

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Contemporary Hungarian Short Stories. Give or take a day.

Ottó Tolnai et al.
One of the more recent in a series of anthologies of Hungarian prose and poetry translations produced by the publisher Corvina in Budapest, Give or take a day includes stories from Hungarian writers living in ex-Yugoslavia and Romania where the Transylvanian region has historically been an important centre of Magyar culture and settlement. One of the most interesting stories is Ottó Tolnai’s ‘Diamond’, an account of rough-and-ready immigrant worker life, of women leaving the Bácksa region in ex-Yugoslavia’s Vojvodina to do agricultural labour in West Germany. The narrator sometimes speaks from a little girl’s point of view, explaining that one set of grandparents were ‘Red Grandpa’ and ‘Red Grandma’ who end up in Russia purged by Stalin in Siberia — ‘hell itself’. Meanwhile the asparagus elds and vineyards of the Rheingau (Germany) don’t seem to be exactly heaven either; the women pickers wake in the dark every morning hands and legs aching with pain…

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The Kiss; 20th Century Hungarian Short Stories

István Bart ed.
Published in Hungary, this collection of stories by thirty-one writers, all well known at home, makes a good introduction to Hungarian ction. Novels by a few of the authors — Péter Nádas, Péter Esterházy, Gyula Krúdy and Dezso Kosztolányi — are available in English, and a play by György Spiró has been translated. But on the whole, this anthology offers an opportunity to discover the work of writers otherwise inaccessible to English-speakers.

The stories are not dated, but the arrangement appears to be loosely chronological by the authors’ date of birth, starting with the title story by Endre Ady (born 1877) and ending with ‘The Miraculous Life of Prince Bluebeard’ by Péter Esterházy (born 1950) — though Sándor Bródy, the author of the second story, was born fourteen years before Ady. The brief biographical notes at the end of the book are useful.

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Present Continuous. Contemporary Hungarian Writing

[ed. István Bart]

Present Continuous. Contemporary Hungarian Writing The editor of this substantial anthology — István Bart — is also head of the publishing house, Corvina of Budapest, that produced it. He has here tried to put together a collection that illustrates both the period 1945–1985 in Hungary and its literature. He starts, however, in the middle of World War Two with István Örkény’s ‘The Hundred and Thirty Seventh Psalm’, a bitter, economical account of a forced labour company in German-occupied Hungary. Its Jewish protagonist is an ex-medical student whose studies were cut short by Hitler’s entry into Prague and he is now forced to carry out a botched operation under primitive conditions; clearly Hungary had its own ‘Year Zero’ in 1945 after the cruel and destructive conditions imposed by war and Fascism. In the same vein Ferenc Sánta’s ‘Nazis’ gives a glimpse of a menacing soldiery with unlimited power over civilian lives. The post-war period starts with Iván Boldizsár’s ‘Meeting the General’, an excellent aperçu on the political constipation of the 1950s, when every move could be a false move and the cell door is slammed shut by torturers; here the new Communist ones, but there is also a sinister link to th...READ MORE