Revolutions and their aftermath: interview with György Dragomán, author of “The White King”
Nine years after his novel of international reputation, The White King, was published, Hungarian writer György Dragomán has published a new novel. Bearing the Hungarian title of Máglya (“The Bone Fire”) the novel retells the story of a teenage girl who is in search of freedom on the ruins of a repressive regime.
Issues coming up in this interview include memories of Târgu Mureş (Marosvásárhely), Romania, dictatorial regimes, success, and the forthcoming screen adaptation of The White King.
Q: The last time you published a novel [before this one] was in 2005. What explains the silence of nearly a decade?
A: When I was working on The White King [Hungarian title: A fehér király], I decided to write at least two more books in which a young person would be the narrator. I first worked on a text that had the working title of Mesék a palotából (Tales from the palace) but then the voice of another narrator emerged, which kept nagging me, and the result has been The Bone Fire. Indeed, for some time I was writing the two texts simultaneously. You know I’m not a systematic writer: I don’t rely on a master plan of the novel and even if I make one, I don’t follow it. Worse, alongside the two novels, I was writing two collections of short stories. As it happened, The Bone Fire got finished first.
Q: Just like in the case of your previous works, the location of The Bone Fire is a fictitious country, which eerily reminds one of Romania immediately before and after transition. [Ceaușescu’s Communist regime was toppled in December 1989.]
A: The White King, The Bone Fire and a novel I’m working on now will form a loosely structured trilogy. They are related on in terms of their location but not in content. The location is a fictitious version of Transylvania [a region in Romania]. My purpose was to present the history of that region – of which I am still a captive [psychologically]. My next novel will have plotlines in two periods: immediately before the revolution and twenty years after the transition. Put together the three novels will recount the history of seventy years. I hope those three books will set me free from this virtual captivity.
Q: You and your family left Romania in 1988, of which you have repeatedly spoken in earlier interviews and in an essay. While in Romania you had to wait for the passport for three years and you used that period to record in extensive detail Târgu Mureş. Is it that period that takes you back to the scene of your childhood in your novels?
A: What you see as a child and a teenager has a strong impact on your personality. It was an unusual exercise to try and remember, and put on paper, everything I saw in that town. That was an efficient apprenticeship – I still work with that technique. I memorize scenes that first have no significance at all but I know that sooner or later they fall in place in a story. I use the method always to set out from a scene that is precisely described – often the roots go back to childhood.
Q: You first experienced freedom after resettling to Hungary.
A: I experienced the transition [from Communism to multi-party democracy] in Hungary and that’s where I first fell in love. Add to those experiences homesickness. When the revolution broke out in Romania, I couldn’t follow the events on a day-to-day basis and still I had the impression that I was there. It came to me as a shock – which I have not recovered from ever since – that Târgu Mureş, my native town, became the first place after the fall of the Iron Curtain where people killed one another in the street.
Q: In The Bone Fire the narrator is teenaged Emma. Why did you choose a girl to be the protagonist?
A: That wasn’t consciously devised. When I stumbled into the protagonist, I discovered that it speaks and breathes in quite a different way from Djata, the narrator in The White King. I felt that the narrator is older and has a more developed sense of reflection on what it sees and strongly wishes to discover who it is. Its monologue was highly intensive and phrased in Present Tense. So the monologue was more elaborate and precise than Djata’s. That’s when it dawned on me that the narrator can only be a girl. For a writer, it doesn’t matter whether you speak through a male or a female character. The real question is whether or not you can pull it off convincingly.
Q: You told in an earlier interview that the subject-matter of your novels is the absence of freedom. In The Bone Fire freedom arrives in that country but the people cannot benefit from it.
A: As a teenager I had meant to become a philosopher. The question that kept bugging me was what freedom is. When I realized that I couldn’t offer a philosophical answer to that question, I began writing fiction. Before writing The Bone Fire I attempted to define freedom by writing about its absence. In The Bone Fire I examine what happens to us when we become free. Besides, that’s the most pressing question for a teenager because it’s intimately linked to the search of identity. Emma wishes to find out who she is, what her past is, and where freedom has been hidden to.
Q: The Bone Fire sounds out contingencies of forgetting and remembering. Whether living under conditions of freedom or in its absence, in your novel the characters cannot properly remember or forget.
A: Forgetting and remembering are contrary processes. You have to face up to your past but that’s almost impossible because forgetting overrules memory. I have been awed by this painful and yet beautiful struggle. You can only come to terms and analyze a repressive regime if you know exactly what happened in that period. As long as you only know myths and lies, there can be no facing up, which means the past will linger on. Forgetting is not the key because amnesia is an instrument in the hands of the mind-managers of repressive regimes. When a repressive regime lies about the present, it rewrites the past too.
Q: The unmasking of presumed and real informers, and absence of their exposure, are key moments of The Bone Fire. Is that a signal for the here and now?
A: The questions of the past should have been clarified. What exactly happened in the repressive regime has still not been analyzed with full precision, and perhaps that ship has sailed. I regret to say that 25 years into transition, we are still where we were the day after it. If my novel has a political message, it is my disappointment. When it comes to the analysis of repressive regimes, it is crucial to know what justice is and how we define it.
Q: Unlike in your two earlier novels, in The Bone Fire there are hardly any Romanian names; reference to bilingualism is almost absent. Is that deliberate?
A: On a linguistic level the impressions I gathered in Romania are present in the same way as before. But it has never been my purpose to do justice between the two peoples [Hungarians and Romanians]. I wasn’t interested in what the Romanians did to the Hungarians or what the Hungarians did to the Romanians, instead, what the repressive regime did to us all.
Q: Your works are marked by a film script-like idiom. How come your works are so visual?
A: I was a teenager when pirated VHS cassettes were the rage and I regularly did simultaneous interpreting of the dialogues of films for members of the audience. Actually that was my first job. In two years I did oral translation for 1700 films, including arthouse works and action films in the B movie category. Often I did translation one day and the next day I retold the story of the film to classmates at school. If I wished to analyze how I became a writer, I would mention two things: the habit of making detailed descriptions of scenes and retelling stories of films.
Q: It was announced last week that a two British filmmakers have decided to make a film adaptation of The White King. Will you be on their team?
A: The White King will indeed be adapted to film in the United Kingdom. The two filmmakers concerned are Alex Helfrecht and Jörg Tittel. The protagonist will be Carice van Houten (who movie-goers might know from Games of Thrones). The producers are optimistic: they predict the start of shooting as early as May 2015. But I deliberately keep away from writing the screenplay. The best adaptations grasp the essence of the original work without sticking to detail. That is why I am not going to participate in the writing of the screenplay.
Q: The White King has already been translated into thirty languages. What do you attribute its success to?
A: Readers spontaneously embrace that novel, and in many cases the translators acted on their own initiative. A large number of people pinched in to make The White King popular. The number of copies sold is important but for me it matters more that the text I worked on for years, the world I created, has become part of the mind of my readers and are bound to stay with them.
Benedek Ficsor | Source: Magyar Nemzet via The Budapest Telegraph