MARCH 27, 2020
I WAS REINTRODUCED to the Hungarian poet Szilárd Borbély last winter, in Jerusalem, in the course of a dinner with American friends. My hosts wondered if, as a translator from the Romanian, I had read Borbély, who spent a portion of his childhood on the Romanian border, and who, as an academic, had specialized in Baroque European literature, a scholarly field not too different from my own. Had I read his Final Matters: Selected Poems, 2004–2010, which had just been published by Princeton University Press? I replied that, unfortunately, I had not heard of the writer, though his name sounded familiar. I later realized that this was because I had in fact heard of Borbély. I just had not connected the poet and academic with the playwright who in 2010 had written In Olaszliszka, a drama about the 2006 lynching of the Hungarian biology teacher Lajos Szögi, which controversially suggested that ethnic violence between minority and majority populations in Hungary is chronic and cyclical.
Perhaps the confusion shouldn’t have been surprising. There are indeed many Borbélys, most of whom remain unavailable to an English readership. There is the libretto writer of a children’s musical based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” as well as the collaborative songwriter behind the operetta The Golem (2002). There is the accomplished literary critic. And there is also the self-identified Jewish poet with a 2005 Christmas nativity collection titled While the Holy Infant Is Sleeping in our Hearts: The Mystery of Bethlehem and the male poet who explored pregnancy, birth, miscarriage, and abortion from a woman’s perspective in the 2010 collection To the Body: Odes and Legends.
As my Jerusalem encounter attested, due in part to the selection of texts chosen for translation, in English Szilárd Borbély has come to be known as one of the great European masters of catastrophe. His poetry collection Berlin·Hamlet (NYRB Poets, 2016) and the novel The Dispossessed (Harper Perennial, 2016), both translated by Ottilie Mulzet, are studies in suffering, individual and collective. The posthumous Final Matters: Selected Poems, 2004–2010, published last year in a bilingual edition and likewise translated by Mulzet into elegant and tonally astute English for Princeton’s Lockert Library of Poetry in Translation series (edited by Peter Cole, Richard Sieburth, and Rosanna Warren) is the last installment in this lifelong study of devastation. At the time of this writing, the collection has been shortlisted for the 2020 PEN Literary Award for Poetry in Translation. This aspect of Szilárd Borbély’s work, only one strain of the many he left behind at the time of his death in 2014, employs silence as a compositional unit in order to meditate on literally and figuratively absent father figures, from Borbély senior, to Old Hamlet, to God.
Berlin·Hamlet, Borbély’s account of his endless walks in the early 1990s around the recently reunified city, is haunted by ghostly literary father figures like Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin, as well as by his own relatives and other adopted cultural and religious fathers who disappeared in the Shoah. Made up of several poetic sequences that echo and amplify one another, the collection attempts to speak with many voices only to suggest that in the face of the atrocities of the 20th century speech can do very little. In “Epilogue I,” the speaker reflects, “I annihilate the similes, before my time / was to come. The entanglements of speech, like / nooses.” None of the long quotations from the collection’s many fathers will suffice. The fathers are dead, and their speech acts “writhe for days afterwards in the snares, and their cries, like Christmas-tree ornaments / stored away between layers of cotton” decorate Borbély’s poems, though they come through only belatedly and very faintly: “They disintegrate / at a single touch.” Indeed, “the cry […] / is but / an obtuse murmuring.” In “Fragment I,” the speaker who most resembles Borbély himself admits that, in the face of this linguistic crisis, “recently / I have begun to interpret my silences.”
The silences result not only from the difficulty of speaking meaningfully about the Holocaust, but also from Borbély’s own difficulties in addressing the violence done to his own parents. Like Hamlet meditating on his father’s murder, Borbély returns obsessively to Christmas in 2000, when his parents were assaulted by burglars in their isolated home in the northeast of Hungary. The poet’s mother was bludgeoned to death; his father survived the attack only to die a few years later due to the injuries sustained. Borbély was in the process of writing Berlin·Hamlet at the time of the attack, and the collection is haunted by the events, as speech gives way to painful, garbled cries, and, eventually, to a Hamlet-like conclusion in which the rest becomes a deadening silence. In the book’s Berlin sequence, this silence ironically seems to be the only means left to describe catastrophe. In the poem “Schöneweide,” for example, the poet remembers a boy, “perhaps living in the same district as I,” who would often ask him for a cigarette. “Then he would / only say: Feuer? He didn’t ask, it was / practically a command.” Everything that matters about this intergenerational exchange is left unspoken, summed up in the silence of gestures and weather patterns:
[…] And I thought of my relatives
the ones whom I could never meet. Who
hovered for a while above the German-Polish lowlands, as
dust and ashes. Perhaps that is why I wanted to look, simply
to observe, for months on end, what the sky was like over Berlin.
Despite being published much later, in 2013, The Dispossessed functions as a kind of long footnote to the wanderings described in Berlin·Hamlet. “We walk and we are silent,” the narrator says. “We are always walking somewhere, and while we walk we are silent.” Like the poetry collection, the novel recounts both personal and collective catastrophe, but, this time, by focusing on events from Borbély’s own life, which the novel reworks. His narrator is a young, unnamed boy who, like Borbély, grows up in the 1970s in excruciating poverty, in an isolated village on the border with Romania. Too hungry, too cold, and too poor to come to terms with the antisemitism and ethnic hatreds that dictate the course of events in his village, he is also silenced by his family, who, like all of their neighbors, believe that speaking about the past, especially past suffering, is unwise. (In interviews, Borbély recalls a similar promise to his father not to write about his bleak childhood, a promise he kept until the death of both parents.)
The protagonist’s evasive, endlessly rewritten descriptions of his daily life form a smaller silence within the family’s and the village’s larger silences: “Peasants know how to keep their mouths shut,’ my mother says. No one is allowed to talk about the past. […] What we are silent about doesn’t exist.” Sometimes, the silences are meant to be protective, as when the boy asks about the current political situation: “I ask my mother what the word revolution means. […] She is obstinately silent.” Sometimes, however, especially when dealing with the past, the silences are guilty. The deportation of the village’s Jewish population is recounted as a silencing: “They were given the order that they could not speak. ‘Don’t talk! Shut your traps!’” Sometimes, they are both protective and guilty. The return of Old Mózsi, a last Jewish survivor, who might be the boy’s grandfather, is passed over in silence, as are the family’s celebration of the Jewish high holidays and the weekly lighting of the Shabbat candles: “My mother does not speak.” His father simply dons his hat. Even Messiyah, the disabled Roma man ridiculed by the entire community, who cleans the villages latrines and for whom the housewives are perpetually waiting, comes silently and speaks only brokenly: “‘Faf goo,’ says Messiyah gently. He smiles. We see into his toothless mouth. Inside his mouth it’s dark. Thick darkness.” The narrator’s persecuted father, whom Messiyah is asking about, is himself forced into silence — not by disability but by his neighbors, who insult him and eventually run him out of the village. Nevertheless, he “never pronounces” “that word — Jewish.”
In 2004, before beginning work on The Dispossessed, Borbély published the first edition of his poetry collection Halotti pompa, or The Splendors of Death, from which, in 2019, Princeton University Press would eventually select a number of poems, compiling them with selections from the collection To the Body into the single volume Final Matters. Halotti pompa, which makes up the bulk of the book, and whose title might translate more literally into the French term pompes funèbres, has been described as an ars moriendi that returns to the world of The Dispossessed to search for some sort of explanation for devastation and suffering, attempting various answers: Christian, classical, and Jewish. However, the poems eventually repudiate all such answers, and it is in this repudiation that the collection’s agonized ingenuity lies. It is as if no explanation, no form of human language, be it mundane (“‘Blood pudding, my dear, and instant coffee?’ / a voice asks on the darkened stairs” from “Eternal Love”), sacred (“Why is this night different from all other nights? — / Otto Moll, Oberscharfürer, asked himself” from the Hasidic sequences), incantatory (“He who is Sacred must appear: / Maraha tha!” from “The Sequence of Emptiness”), or profane (“‘Who are you’ — Psyche // asked. ‘Bitch!’ — I’m going to fuck you, / so just shut up and lie down!’ — came the answer.” from “On the Wings of Freedom”), can account for the simple facts of the world.
In these poems, which speak about the deaths of Borbély’s parents and his own suffering more candidly than anything else Borbély ever wrote, nothing can explain the color of the “wine in the bottles like crushed blood” (“The Sabbath didn’t want to arrive”) or “the spilt milk [that] left a stain / on the stone floor by the fridge” (“Rosary for the Nymphs”) on the night his parents were attacked. They are details that, like all facts of our existence, become emblematic in light of our inability to explain why suffering takes place or why evil exists. All that is left is silence: “Just as speech / has no tale to tell” (“Emblem of Voices”). The collection that equates even the act of love (refracted through the myth of Cupid and Psyche) with serial murder, and portrays it as a form of literally unspeakable violence, asks us to remember that language will always fail to convey suffering, because at its most basic “language is like night. Moist / indecipherable grunts. Pure dread, and / inchoate visceral shrieking. Inhuman” (“On the Wings of Freedom”).
Borbély reworked the poems in Halotti pompa obsessively, publishing the third edition in 2014, the same year he died by suicide. In the last version of the collection, in the section he called the Hasidic sequences, he included a poem about Rabbi Hershele Friedman (1808–1874), better known as the first Lisker Rebbe, or the tsaddik of Olaszliszka (the dead forefather of the Jewish “Stranger” wandering around the town in Borbély’s play In Olaszliszka). In the poem, which is a compact disquisition on silence, Rabbi Hershele “related the teaching of his Master”: God made the body and soul by creating the “I,” which He did by making sure it “would not be identical” with “Himself.” He repeated, “Not I! Not I!,” put the soul in the body, and “sealed its mouth with the I, so it couldn’t / get out. Only if God says ‘I’.” The speaker here is relating the paradoxical, Kabbalistic idea that God could only create the world by withdrawing into Himself to make room for something not Himself. But, as the poem goes on to demonstrate, “this turned out / to be so hard” in part because, at the point of death, when the soul or divine spark escapes, presumably God does say “I,” admitting that creature and creator are one and that the world is an expression of God. For Borbély, final speech acts, like all final matters, seem to suggest that, as we pass into inexistence, categories like “human” and “divine,” “father” and “child” — and, perhaps most disturbingly, “victim” and “perpetrator” — collapse into one another. For him, our common mortality, the last great silence, shows what was lying at the bottom of those smaller silences all along: an understanding that we are all part of God. As Borbély stated in a 2009 interview with the literary magazine Parnasszus, throughout our lives, “God remains silent. Since God can only speak through human words, and since only we can give Him a language and a voice.” Or, as another poem in the Hasidic sequences puts it, “when Cain in his sudden rage struck Abel / down, God didn’t stay his hand / […] / God, however, did not close his eyes.” Paradoxically, if we believe Borbély’s Lisker Rebbe, in the face of death, when our language fails us for the last time, it is only so that God finally can speak for Himself. As Borbély’s poems suggest, in doing so, God becomes “identical” with the one who, in falling silent, at last conveys this essential fact.
Carla Baricz is a Mandel Fellow at the Mandel School for Advanced Studies in the Humanities and Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is the translator and assistant editor of Romanian Writers on Writing.