“With The White King I wanted to write a book about freedom in a society where freedom should not be possible”
Tollef Mjaugedal interviewed me for Cappelen’s book club in Norway. The interview will be published translated into Norvegian, here is the English version:
You grew up in Romania, but later moved to Hungary – is that right?
Were there any special reasons for your family moving – and do you think this has influenced your writing?
Yes I was born in Romania as part of the Hungarian minority living there. I spent the first fifteen years of my life in Marosvásárhely, which is a town in the region historically known as Transylvania. We left Romania in the autumn of 1988. The situation in Romania in the eighties became more and more brutal, my father who thought at the University of Medicine (he was professor of stomatology) was accused of ethnic bias and separatism (Romanian socialism was a very nationalist sort of socialism) lost his job, and was constantly harassed by the secret police, (questionings, house searches) and our family was “encouraged” to leave the country. In an absurd way the process of getting a passport and permission for emigration lasted for almost three years, (the harassment did not stop) during this time both my parents were unemployed, so we had to sustain ourselves by selling almost everything on the flea market.
These experiences undoubtedly have made their mark on my writing, my parents treated me as an adult throughout the whole process, and this meant I was lucky enough to have firsthand experiences about the way a closed society works.
Which writers do you appreciate most, and how have they influenced your work?
I am indebted to many Hungarian writers, (Géza Ottlik, Ádám Bodor, Imre Kertész, Peter Esterházy), but I also read in English, and quite a few English and American writers have influenced me, like Samuel Beckett, B. S Johnson, Cormac McCarthy, Isaac Bashevis Singer, to name just a few. I learnt different things from each of them, and of course I learnt a lot from translation. (I translated Singer and Beckett among others.)
Your novel has been published in many countries. Have you noticed differences in the reactions to it – for example in eastern and western parts of Europe?
I am afraid I can not answer this question yet, as in most of the places the book will be published during 2008 and 2009, the book will come out in the UK in January, so this means the Norwegian edition will be the second publication of the book in the west.
What impact would you like the book to have on its readers?
I would like them to be rushed along by the feverish unrelenting narrative of Djata, the eleven-year-old narrator, ideally feeling everything what he feels. For me the beauty and the humour of the book is also very important, and I would like my readers to understand that freedom is a possibility even among the most brutal circumstances.
You have mentioned a beautiful sentence (the goalkeeper avoiding the football for fear of radiation) being a starting-point for The White King. Could you explain more about how the idea developed?
I have seen a famous Romanian goalkeeper, Helmut Ducadam on the Romanian program of the Hungarian television talk about how they were training for the UEFA cup finals just weeks after Chernobyl. He disappeared from the public eye, just after he caught four of the five penalties in the decisive shoot-out against Barcelona in 1986, thus helping his team Steaua Bucharest to victory, an unprecedented feat for a team from Romania. Many rumours circulated about how his hands were broken because the communist party’s secretary envied his great popularity, and when I saw him on tv in 2002 I was surprised to even see him alive. The explanation he gave about his disappearance did not make a lot of sense – some ghastly accident – but when he began talking about the ball gathering radioactivity from the grass, he had my full attention. His words seemed so absurd, that they resounded in me, and I heard Djata’s voice, and in a few days I had the full story. I am quoting the sentence almost verbatim in the novel, ‘”we goalkeepers were told to avoid contact with the ball as it would gather radioactivity from the grass” the absurdity of this utterance just would not let me go, I found it unbelievable that grown men could talk in such an absurd way, so I heard it spoken in the voice of a child, and this is how I found the narrator of my novel.
How did you get the idea of Djata being the storyteller? (Do you think he resembles yourself as a child?)
I just heard his voice telling the story about football practice, which became the End of the World, the third chapter of the book. It was a fast and vibrant and feverish sort of a voice, with which I could quickly identify, and I soon realized that I could see things through his eyes. The voice proved so powerful that it would not let me go, and I soon knew that I had a novel on my hands.
Djata is similar to me in many ways, but I think he is infinitely more brave, and adventurous, also he has to survive much more difficult times than those I had to cope with.
What were you most happy about achieving, writing this novel?
Many people told me they read the book in one sitting, and others said that it made them understand the absurd impossibility of the closed and totalitarian society, without getting lost in theory, and in such a way that they could feel it on their skin. Others have been touched by the beauty and freedom and the humanity of the book.
What do details mean to you as a writer? Objects are often described in fantastic sharpness – how do you work to achieve this?
This book could be seen as an inventory of loss, meaning that objects are lost or gained in almost every chapter, and the passion in the act of winning and loosing seems to infuse even the tiniest object with great importance. Also I am a very visual sort of a writer, I keep staring at the wall until I see an image, which is quite often an object, I look at these imagined things as long as I see them in a sort of a hyperrealist detail, and then I glimpse the story behind them. Object in this respect work like symbols of different relationships wishes and passions, they play an important role in almost all of my stories.
I was strangely enough struck by the freedom in the childhood you describe – as well as the brutality. The stories always involve a great deal of risk, on several levels. Could you comment on this?
I take this question as a compliment, as the concept of freedom has always been very important to me, with The White King I wanted to write a book about freedom in a society where freedom should not be possible. In the process of the novel Djata grows to be an adult, but he understands with a childish clarity that almost everything in this society is a great game of pretension, and the rules are there to be bent, and this gives him a possibility of outer freedom which is reinforced by his integrity and inner freedom. But of course this is a risky game, and he takes great risks all the time just by the simple fact that he does not believe in the rules. In this society no one believes in the rules, so everybody lives in a state of constant risk. My stories unearth these risks, these constant games of chance and pretension.
As for the brutality, it is a violent society, where aggression seeps down to the lowest level, and this is the world of the children, the bottom of the society where there is no more pretension.
Magic, secret worlds of people (like Pickaxes’ cave of singing birds!) exist inside a life-denying political system. Did you experience this paradox in your own childhood?
A friend of mine called the book “a totalitarian version of a gothic fantasy” and I thought he was partly right. I lived a huge fantasy life in my childhood telling stories to anyone who would listen, and these stories often involved the discovery of secret hidden worlds, caves tunnels and so on. This sort of inner escape was important to me, I was convinced that it must allways be possible, even under the most brutal circumstances. These instances are once again crossing of thresholds, as if reality itself would be a game of pretension. In an absurd society reality itself becomes absurd, and fantasy becomes reality. This is what Djata keeps experiencing throughout the book.
There are rumors of your fascination for the norwegian hero Roald Amundsen, and I remember him being mentioned in the novel. Could you explain this some more?
My grandfather on my father side was a geography teacher, he would always tell me stories about explorers, and he had a vast library with many books about geography and travel. My mother read me a biography of Amundsen when I was five (the book was written by a Hungarian writer András Dékány) and I was fascinated by the parts where Amundsen began preparing for the expeditions as a child by sleeping on the floor without clothes by an open window, to learn to tolerate cold. Up to this point I wanted to become an Indian chief like Greyowl but when I heard Amundsen story I decided that I’d become an explorer instead. Unfortunately my career ended rather abruptly, because my mother caught me trying to sleep on the floor with the open window, and was quite angry. Still, Amundsen remained my hero for a long time. So I was very happy when I learnt from Kari Kemény, my translator, that one can actually visit the Gjoa.
Do you have opinions on so-called nostalgia for communism (For example what do you think of the film Good-bye Lenin in this context)?
I understand that some people look back at the era and remember only the relative security they must have felt, obviously they do not remember the price they had to pay for that kind of perceived security. For my part I do not feel the slightest bit of nostalgia for that age. The problem is we have not done a very good job of assessing our past, we have not assessed the complex effect a totalitarian regime has on society, because of this many people perceive our socialist past as a simple narrative, and there is a certain longing for this simple narrative, because things have become too complex too suddenly. But I am certain that if we looked at the past trying to assess it in all its complexity it would be much less tempting. I do not have the slightest bit of nostalgia for that era. As for Good-bye Lenin it played masterfully with the cliché of the simple narrative, but luckily there are such movies as The Lives of Others, to put it into a finer context. I think these two movies complement each other quite well, in showing the different possible attitudes to the past.