Madame Mayor Roth,
What I have to say is entirely a public matter, but please bear with me while I begin with a very personal matter: there was a period of six and a half years in my life which I shared not with books in general, but with three particular books. All three were stamped “passed” on the first page by the prison authorities and when I was transferred from one prison to another they took away or returned either one or the other or all three. The first was a volume of poetry by Attila József, the Hungarian poet closest to my heart. The second was a German novel: Thomas Mann’s Joseph tetralogy. This was taken away or returned, depending on whether the prison I was in classified it as West German or East German. The third was a collection of short stories by the Russian writer, Turgenev: “Sketches from a Hunter’s Album”. Fortunately, this was always classified as “East Russian”. To me the three together were what I called literature, “without boundaries”. The volume of poetry represented intrinsic infiniteness. Joseph in the well was a strange, abstract literary reflection of my days at that time, and of reality expanding into the future. Turgenev meant the silence of the birch tree groves, the infiniteness of nature, nature that embraces man as well. The three books together made it possible to bear the cruelty of prison life and the infinity of what was known in legal terminology as a “life sentence”.
If I had never been a “reader” before, I would certainly have became one then. I was a reader who had already formed his own “image of literature”, although a constantly changing one. The nature and quality of this picture depends on the kind of task one attributes to literature.
I expected it to expand my world.
I feel certain that the world of the human spirit is timeless and universal. Its source reaches back to the common original experience of seeing the Sun sink blood red to be born again in all its glory at dawn, and the Moon, queen of the night, shaping our ancestors’ image of their gods and the other world. It must have lost its timelessness and universality when man first attempted to put his experience into words. His tool was language, and this is more than an articulated mass of sounds, because each word depends on its environment, the neighbouring word, and – whether he wishes it or not – the words together form the immediate world of the user which differs from that of others. The spoken – and even more the written – word needs to be translated if it is addressed to someone with a different language. It must be made to coincide with the written image of the world of someone with a different language if we want that person to feel the same thing in the same way as we do from our own words.
The Frankfurt Book Fair is a vast market-place of written words. A market where we want to sell our past and present, our immediate environment and its carefully crafted likeness. The different participants set out their own words under the big, common bush then step back and watch to see what the neighbour will select from them and what he will leave in exchange. The only means of persuasion is to put something under the bush that the neighbour will decide can be of use to him once he has picked it up and inspected it.
The guarantee of a good reputation in the world is if what we have to offer – our world put into words, the literature of our mother-tongue – is of value for the buyer too. Selecting the works offered involves care and responsibility on both sides and it is very easy to make a mistake if we are not familiar with our trading partner’s demands. These demands may be the same as our own, they may be similar, but they could just as well be entirely different.
Most of the trading partners who appear on this particular market use today’s major world languages. Not that our language is without companions here: within the Ural-Altaic languages, the Finno-Ugrian language family belongs to the Ob-Ugrian branch. But its use is restricted to a limited area and it is perhaps younger than today’s major world languages. It makes greater use of images and is closer to the origin of languages, in contrast with the major languages whose unadorned use of notional concepts now all but obscures the chief source of all languages, the image. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage. Therefore it is not at all easy for a Hungarian writer to judge whether his message will convey in translation the same content that he has been able to express so readily with his own native-language tools. This was true centuries ago and is still true today, regardless of the period, subject or style of the writing. He cannot shed his linguistic identity: it would be in vain to try to be something other than himself.
This is not to say that the Hungarian writer is not adapting rapidly in his language and message to the increasingly uniform demands of readers in our rushing world, for his life and words are being swept along and shaped by the wind of world change, just like everyone else’s. But since his basic linguistic material is different, he remains different even while he is carried by the same wind. The universal value of what he has to say lies precisely here, in its local authenticity, in the additional novelty, the distinctive flavours and colour it contributes to the universality of the human spirit. Remember that all true works are inherently linked to a particular place. In other words, they are provincial: they can be enclosed within the compass of a single village, a single floor of a single tenement house at the edge of a town. It is precisely this that makes them true: the fact that they are not without boundaries and that they are very much linked to a particular place as regards their origin.
I am fully aware of this when today, in a country speaking an Indo-European language, I recommend Hungarian literature to everyone who is prepared to recognise the common human spirit in the other, the familiar unknown. I hope that you will discover and, perhaps even love, this different world seen through our eyes.
Allow me, as Hungary’s President and as a Hungarian writer, to thank you for inviting me and enabling me, as your guest, to participate in and witness this exciting, shared intellectual adventure.
I have experienced the power of the spoken and written word as a president for ten years now and as a writer for thirty years, and have tried to make use of this and also contribute to its credit.
I am doing so today here in Frankfurt where, thanks to your generosity we Hungarians – more precisely: the Hungarian word striving to expand its boundaries – are your guest of honour.