György Dragomán: ‘one can really see how a dictatorship functions through the eyes of a child’

English translation of an interview I gave to Caffeé Babel on the first leg of my Polish Book tour in Warsaw. The original can be found here:

The Transylvania-born Hungarian author, 34, uses an unconventional narrator to express the horrors of a totalitarian system

György Dragomán appears to be flabbergasted by the popularity of his latest exceptional book, The White King. I meet him as the collection of childhood stories from Communist Hungary, showing how Communism and suffering of the time robbed people of their individuality, has its grand premiere in its Polish edition at the popular ARTistic (meaning more wannabies than artists) pub in the Wola neighborhood of Warsaw.

The bespectacled Dragomán is unusually humble and quiet for someone so hugely successful. The Romania-born author has lived in Hungary for the past twenty years. He has translated classics by Beckett, Joyce and even Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting into Hungarian. His last name – ‘Dragomán’- even means ‘translator’ and ‘guide’ in Middle Eastern countries. Amongst his stories and plays, his first novel Genesis Undone (2002) was awarded the Sandor Brody Award. His second novel The White King was recently released across Europe, and garnered the Déry Tibor and Sándor Márai top Hungarian literary awards.

Goalkeeper avoiding the ball

‘Four years ago, I turned on the television and saw Helmut Ducadam, a Romanian goalkeeper for Steaua Bucharest man who everyone thought had disappeared,’ says Dragomán, explaining how the idea of a child protagonist came unexpectedly to life. ‘In the 1986 UEFA cup final against Barcelona, he stopped four penalty kicks and then disappeared. There were rumours that the Romanian dictator Nicolas Ceausescus had broken his arm out of jealousy for fame. Yet, as if nothing had happened, he appears on television, and refuses to say what had happened to him. He did, however, relate how the team had prepared for a game after the Chernobyl disaster. Apparently, goalies were told to avoid the ball, said to collect dangerous radiation as it rolled on the grass. I could not forget this sentence. The concept of a goalie who was avoiding the ball was such an absurd concept to me, that only a child could talk of something like this seriously.’

Aside from his childlike, flowing and occasionally chaotic narration, Dragomán is characterised by his extremely detailed descriptions. His stories are full of memories and objects: toys, cards, pocket-knives, ‘home-made’ weapons made to ‘battle’ with boys from the next street over. ‘The majority of the objects generate a beginning for a new storyline. Generally when I write, I observe and then sit staring at the wall. I concentrate on one object, until I see the history contained within it.’

Violence is born of violence

The predominantly sad and moving short stories from The White King are full of atrocity, violence, and demoralisation. The protagonist’s father is arrested because he is a member of the opposition. His Communist party member grandfather denies his son. His mother, all the while, struggles to convey some sense of normality.

The characters are faced with the constant oppression of a system which infiltrates society, robbing individuals of their souls and goodness. The adults and teachers who are especially torn down by the system take this out on children who cannot defend themselves. ‘This is a story of how we had to become our own fathers in a world where there were no fathers,’ says the author. ‘Where no one could defend us.’

The concept of a wonderful and forever lost childhood is a common writer and artist theme, easily idealised. However Dragoman does not believe, that the reality of children was simply pure and innocent – ‘corrupted solely by adults.’

Dragomán is not very forward. It is difficult to get him to open up, and his childhood is very obviously a sore subject. ‘I wouldn’t want to forget about it,’ he says, expressing a minimal of nostalgia. ‘What would I write about? However, the world of children is always one of violence – one must always fight for himself and his position within society. Children always fight with each other and they can be incredibly brutal amongst each other. In the reality of children, where the head of the group is usually most powerful, one can really see how a dictatorship functions.’

Hungarian, but..

We move to the less, it would seem, personal topic of personal history and identity. Born in Transylvania, he moved to Hungary with his family in 1988 at the age of 15. He remembers it as the end of a chapter of his life. ‘Emigration was a very difficult situation, a trying experience. It’s not just simply get up and go. For someone who left Transylvania, this was not easy at all.’

It is as a Hungarian, but also an ‘outsider’, that Dragomán looks critically at the current situation in Hungary. He is even considering writing a book about the recent anti-government protests, which ‘would be reminiscent of a detonating grenade which explodes into many fragments–each of which tells a different story, has a different life.’

Although his biography is quite complicated, like the history of the mysterious land where the author was born, he has no doubts as to his origins. ‘I’m Hungarian, though I can examine myself from the outside. I feel that, in a certain sense, I was lucky. As Joyce once said, ‘in order to be modernist one must loose his family, his country, and his religion.’ This is what happened to me,’ he finishes with a smile.

He does not, however, compare the recent protests to a fight against the system. ‘The fall of the system was a beautiful, ecstatic event. After so many years of Communism, it was difficult to believe that it was actually happening. What is happening today is an echo of those times. Politicians on both sides have their histories. Hungary doesn’t function too well as a country – it never was – but today, in these different times, people are getting angry because of it. We’ll deal with it though, because that’s who we are. Political parties won’t communicate with each other, they’ll always have hate, and you know what? We shouldn’t let it bother us, because it’s not interesting at all.’
Natalia Sosin – Warsaw – 22.6.2007 | Translation : Wojciech Kubik