Budapest, Hungary – Throughout the 20th century, Transylvania became an ethnic and ideological battlefield; disputed from one country to another, by Romania and Hungary, from the Trianon Treaty to the Second World War.
Surprisingly enough, one of its greatest literary voices, Gyorgy Dragomán, a Transylvanian-born author of Hungarian language, chose not to write directly about the conflict and refused to “pick a side”.
Rather than examining and reinventing the conflict between Romanian and Hungarian communities mingled in Transylvania, Dragomán, who left his native region when he was 15, focuses on the communist regime in Transylvania, its fall and the impediments to its actual end.
Gyorgy Dragoman was born in 1973 in Târgu Mureș, Marosvásárhely in Hungarian. In 1988, he and his family left Transylvania and emigrated to Hungary, where Dragomán lived the last days of communism. He experienced first-hand the changes brought by the end of a 40-year-long regime in Hungary – and could only observe, from the outside, the bloody revolution that took his native country by storm.
The representation of a fictional Transylvania
In his most recent novels, Dragomán recreates, without ever naming the geographical area in which the action takes place, the conditions of the end of the communist period in Transylvania, and its immediate aftermath. In A fehér király and Máglya (translated in English under the titles The White King and The Bone Fire), Dragomán evokes an unnamed world of violence and childhood, recollecting the memories and impressions of the communist system.
The White King and The Bone fire are brought together by their narrators, Dzsátá and Emma. These two young characters describe, with voices and visions marked by their youth, a fictitious place – the fictional embodiment of Transylvania – and the violence induced by the end of communism.
They live their passing years from childhood to adulthood in a lawless world, torn between the longing for freedom and the mediocrity of the reality of the transition from dictatorship to a post-communist, liberal and democratic society.
Children and teenagers seem to bear the cost of this new state, forced to build their new life through violence and savagery. Their limited perception of the political events unraveling around them outlines a blurred world full of uncertainties, interrogations and ferocity – a world, ultimately, still intoxicated by the communist regime and ideology.
The everlasting shadow of the communist past
Dzsátá, the main character of The White King, is the son of a man deported to a work site on the Danube. Emma, the protagonist of The Bone fire, is adopted by her grandmother, who is accused of being an informer, after the death of her parents. Their lives have been shaped by the communist state and the past of their region. Their violence has impregnated the fabric of everyday life.
In The White King, through a first-person narration reminiscent of the stream of consciousness, Gyorgy Dragoman portrays everyday events of an uncertain and disturbing life: people violently scrambling to grasp exotic fruits that they never had the possibility to taste before; fighting nearly to death between children of eleven or twelve years old; abuse of children by themselves or adult authority.
“Coach Gica was still standing in the door and Janika was still lying there and not moving, and I thought, maybe he hadn’t really died, maybe he’d just fainted, because if he had died there wouldn’t be a game and I wouldn’t keep goal, and I looked at those real leather goalie’s gloves there on the floor next to Janika, and then all at once my tears began to flow, and the ball fell out of my hands, bouncing once and rolling into a corner, but by then Coach Gica was no longer in the dressing room”, writes Dragomán in The White King.
Political atrocities and every-day violence
Even though the novels are strongly linked to the reality of the region, the conflict is not about Transylvania’s identity. There is no arbitration or mediation between Hungarians and Romanians, no battle between ethnicities; the only combat is the one that opposes a dictatorial state with its oppressed inhabitants, who assimilate the violence of the state they live in in such a way that it impacts their very own behaviour. They reproduce the political atrocities in their social and personal interactions.
In this world, young people bear the burden of the current state of affairs. Their lives and their deeds are exaggerated; the gravity with which their actions are described mimics grown-ups’ wars and violence. Like in Ferenc Molnár’s The Paul Street Boys, a Hungarian classic of youth novels, it’s on the shoulders of teenagers that the future of the world is built.
If in Dragomán’s novels, it’s a post-communist world that is being erected, in The Paul Street Boys, quarrels between two groups of children lead to a tragedy: the death of one of them. In Molnár’s book, the fight between them is over-dramatized and described through military vocabulary. Children become the emblem of the changing world and all its flaws.
Gyorgy Dragomán: a world where history is adrift
In The Bone fire, the way of describing reality is also carefully chosen: no military vocabulary, but a strong touch of magical realism. Emma, the main character, encounters magical situations thanks to her grandmother. With everyday items, like flour or dolls, she deforms and recreates reality. She discovers new worlds over the course of the novel: growing up in the ever-changing post-communist world, she familiarizes herself with magic, becomes a woman and sees her body changing. She is evolving with the world she lives in.
The absence of reaction Emma feels in front of magic and supernatural events highlights one of the main faults of the troubled post-communist world: a world where the narration of history, uncertain, is continuously rewritten by revisionists, allowing mounting deviations.
Until the end, Emma accepts and puts up with the shifts of history, the lack of precision, the vagueness of the communist past – only in the last part of the novel does she feel the need to understand what really happened in the period ending before her eyes, and uncover the truth about her town’s communist past.
But both Emma and Dzsátá live in a world where history is adrift, forgotten or used as a tool, if not a weapon. In his novels, Gyorgy Dragomán possibly expresses his regrets regarding the revolutions of 1989: they didn’t go far enough. Freedom cannot be complete in a world of violence where history and remembrance are used merely as a tool.
By Louise Ostermann Twardowski
A French student of Polish descent, Louise studies languages (Polish, Hungarian, Russian), linguistics and literature in Strasbourg, and is passionate about Central European history, culture and literature.