Part 4. Canada: “Freedom, Everybody’s Homeland”
Robert Zend and his wife, Ibi, and eight-month-old baby, Aniko, escaped Hungary in mid-November 1956 when the Soviets crushed the Hungarian Revolution. After receiving Canadian visas in Vienna, they traveled by train to Liverpool, where they boarded an ocean liner headed for Halifax (fig. 1). In Canada they could start a new life free from government repression and terror. They had fled along with a huge exodus of other Hungarians also eager to leave before the Hungarian borders were completely locked down. By 1957, about 200,000 Hungarians had escaped, among which 37,000 immigrated to Canada as political refugees.1
The official Canadian response to the humanitarian emergency was slow at first, and there was even a decision in the early days of the refugee intake to admit into Canada only those who could pay for their own transportation. Public pressure from Canadians to respond to the crisis with generosity gathered impetus and had its intended effect on immigration officials. By the end of November, Canadian Minister for Citizenship and Immigration J. W. Pickersgill was persuaded to ease restrictions. He traveled to Vienna to announce the cutting of bureaucratic red tape and to offer free transportation to the refugees. Even so, old prejudices resurfaced when the director of immigration issued a caution that “those of the Hebrew race . . . in possession of a considerable amount of funds” might attempt to take advantage of the Canadian resettlement program. In spite of the initially conservative official response, the bureaucratic wheels gained momentum, and by mid-December about one hundred Hungarian refugees were arriving in Toronto every day.2
The Zends, who had been living at subsistence level in Budapest and in fleeing lost whatever meagre possessions they owned, benefited from the new, more lenient and generous refugee policies. On December 11 in Liverpool, along with 106 other Hungarian refugees and hundreds of regular passengers,3 they boarded the newly-built luxury liner Carinthia of the legendary Cunard Lines, courtesy of the Canadian government (fig. 2). Their journey to Halifax took twice the normal time due to stormy weather and rough seas, causing Ibi to suffer from seasickness. But the amenities of the Carinthia must have helped somewhat to ease the discomforts of the ship’s heave and sway (fig. 3).
The Zends also befriended some of their fellow Hungarian passengers seeking asylum in Canada and the United States, documented by some poignant photographs on the ship by Zend (fig. 4).
Finally they arrived in Halifax on December 22. On their landing cards (fig. 5), Zend indicates his profession as reporter-journalist, and Ibi as librarian. Their religion is noted as Presbyterian. Considering the Nazi terror that Hungarians had experienced, it’s not difficult to understand the concealing of Ibi’s Jewish background, also keeping in mind that antisemitism was not limited to its long history in Europe but was also present and indeed institutionalized in Canada during the 1950s, as we have seen from the prejudice of the Canadian director of immigration. In addition, Jewish quotas and stricter admission standards were in place for universities such as McGill and the University of Toronto.
In Halifax, they boarded a train for Toronto. From the photographs Zend took from the train, his fascination with the vast stretches of snow, punctuated by a cluster of houses every few hours, is apparent (fig. 6). He and Ibi joked wryly that the landscape might well be Siberian — except of course for the occasional church steeple rising above a village.4 It was not an idle observation but one with ominous overtones, since after 1945 the Soviets had transported up to half a million Hungarians — among them poet György Faludy and writer György Gábori, survivors of the Gulag — to forced labour camps. Many of those camps were in Siberia, where a high percentage of inmates perished.5
The Toronto population mobilized to provide housing and jobs for the new refugees to help them get started. From January to March 1957, a couple in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke gave the Zends a place to live in exchange for Ibi’s labour as a live-in domestic (fig. 7). Meanwhile, Robert put his experience in the Hungarian film industry to use when he found work at Chatwynd Studios editing film and doing odd jobs while he learned English. Soon thereafter, Ibi was able to find a job in her field as a librarian at the Toronto Public Library. Robert and Ibi were pleased to find that even on their low income during the first few years in Canada, they were able to afford things that were out of their reach in Hungary because either supplies were short or they couldn’t afford them. Aniko, who was born premature and who was sickly and undernourished the first eight months of her life , received the special nutrition she needed to flourish.6
And for the first time in his life, Robert was able to afford a typewriter. In Hungary, it would have cost three months’ wages, but in Toronto he only needed to put a dollar down and pay affordable installments.7 He couldn’t know it then, but years later the typewriter was to become the instrument of an important body of his work in the categories of concrete poetry and typewriter art.
Zend describes the move to Canada as a “rebirth” and the new country like “a different planet” (fig. 8).8 And in important ways, life for the Zends had indeed improved. However, although remaining in Hungary would have placed Robert at great risk from the harsh reprisals of the Communist government, uprooting himself and his wife and baby from their native Hungary came with its own set of dilemmas and emotional trauma. He relates that his first five years in Toronto were “wretched,” and that for the next twenty he “felt like a man without a home” and a “misfit.”9
Zend’s unforeseen and precipitate departure from Hungary meant relinquishing his material possessions as well as his beloved Budapest and his friends and mentors. As he later quipped, “I lost everything except my accent.”10 As well, he had left behind all of his writing and personal mementos, which he had entrusted to a friend who stayed in Hungary. He later found out that his papers had disappeared or been destroyed when their apartment was ransacked in the chaos following the failed Uprising. He had been on the brink of publishing a one-hundred-page poetry book with a dissident publisher. The crushing loss haunted him for the rest of his life. 11
He revisited his family’s escape in “Chapter Fifty-Six,” a thinly-veiled autobiographical short story that posits an alternative history, a recounting of the rebellion of Maletrian citizens and its quashing by Romarmian forces. The protagonist tries unsuccessfully to escape with his family, but they are stopped at the border and are compelled to return to their home. He discovers the cause of the robotically compliant behavior of the citizenry following the brutal invasion: the Romarmian military had installed a “dream broadcasting centre” in the Ministry of Cultural Affairs to brainwash the people. Unlike actual history, the outcome is positive as he blows up the Ministry and the people are able to think freely again.12
More often, however, the sorrow of exile from his homeland echoes throughout his writings during these early years in Canada. Loneliness and alienation are common themes, as he tells of feeling like a person with no country, acutely aware of his “solitude among a thousand people”:
This is the real solitude bearing the whole world within
Consuming colours and sounds and growing big with them and
choking with them
Strangers have locked all the doors around me
Ghosts are stalking the desolate corridors
the walls are tense and about to explode13
In addition to writing of feelings of alienation, Zend, profoundly affected by the sudden and unexpected immigration, wrote “about the change, the culture shock, the homesickness, about the schizoid emotions of an exile between two worlds.”14Much later, during a trip to Budapest in the 1980s, he drew a sketch, “Split Zend,” showing his divided self — perhaps in reaction to experiencing once more the shift within himself that started in 1956 (fig. 9). He succinctly expresses the ambivalence of being mentally split between Budapest and Toronto in his poem “In Transit”:
Budapest is my homeland
Toronto is my home
In Toronto I am nostalgic for Budapest
In Budapest I am nostalgic for Toronto
Everywhere else I am nostalgic for my nostalgia15
As late as 1981, in a prose poem entitled “Fused Personality,” he writes that “[t]he deepest regions of my soul don’t seem to accept that I split myself and my life in two, in 1956.” He recounts a dream of living in a city at once Toronto and Budapest, sitting in a café having a stimulating conversation with Canadians Margaret Atwood, Glenn Gould, and Northrop Frye, as well as Hungarians Frigyes Karinthy, Béla Bartók, and Zoltán Kodály. He then leaves to find a table to write alone:
I write a poem for the excellent literary magazine called Search for Identity. I write down the title in Hungarian, but I realize that my English readership won’t understand it, so I cross it out and write it down again in English, but now I think about my oldest childhood friends who won’t be able to read it. My right hand holding the pen freezes in mid-air while I ponder the problem . . .16
At his idealized café table in a blended city, Zend assembles a dream coterie of Hungarian and Canadian cultural icons, who reach across anachronisms and language barriers to engage in brilliant conversation. But paralysis sets in when he must choose to write in one language or the other. The symbolism seems quite clear, yet it poignantly brings home the depth of the impression made by the culture shock of 1956 and the ongoing dilemma of identity, not only for Zend but for many thousands of refugees.
The title of the magazine, Search for Identity, is perhaps also a reference to the Canadian quest for cultural identity and cohesiveness. In Zend’s humorous piece entitled “An Interview with a Newborn Baby,” an interpreter translates the babytalk response to the question, “How do you like Canada?”:
Canada is a country that is engaged in an unrelinquished search for its “Identity,” and — due to this fact — it is quite impossible to determine whether one likes it or not. How can one like or dislike a territorial unit which doesn’t even know whether it exists or not and if not, why, and if yes, why not?
Zend riffs on the pop culture question pointing to the ongoing identity complex of a country perennially striving to distinguish its culture, especially from that of the United States. Zend, who explores in his writing and concrete poetry his own troubled and ambivalent feelings about cultural identity, settled in a country having an identity dilemma of its own. He felt the irony of that situation, which in “Interview” he resolves by pointing out (via the babbling baby) a basic fact of human universality:
Canada as such is not very different from any other country in the world. After all, they all have newborn babies who are starved and need instant breast-feeding.17
And in a short poem ending his speech on the evils of labeling people, he comments, tongue firmly in cheek:
In a country
is searching for
for I’m already
The play on “identity” and “identical” creates a paradox because of the ambiguity of the latter. Again, Zend’s solution is to embrace the commonality of basic human needs. As he wryly notes in a journal, pointing out the inherent contradiction in the quest for Canadian identity:
Why search for Canadian identity? We found it. Anybody who searches for Canadian identity is a Canadian. Consequently: He who has found his Canadian identity is not a true Canadian.19
Some of Zend’s concrete poetry such as “BUDAPESTORONTO” (fig. 10) graphically epitomizes his complex and conflicted feelings about the two cities: Budapest, cosmopolitan and cultured yet also a place where intellectuals were censored and oppressed, and sometimes in danger for their lives; versus relatively “prosaic” Toronto, as Zend puts it in “Return Tickets” — “huge, clean, and functional.”20
He also faced an uncertain future as a writer in a country whose language he had not previously studied. Arriving in Canada with his wife and baby, he quips that the first English word he learned was “diaper.”21 Magyar does not have Indo-European roots; neither does it share with English the etymological origins and grammatical structures (he describes Magyar as “extremely condensed” compared to English)22 that make it relatively easy to gain fluency within the closely-related Romance languages, for example.
In a short fantastical prose piece entitled “The World’s Greatest Poet,” Zend writes of Granduloyf, a poet who moves from Uangia to Obobistan and has difficulty learning the new language, which underscores for him not only grammatical but also cultural differences. His inability to reconcile the cultural with the linguistic occasions the poem:
While his people had no words for human character, but only for changing moods, the Obobs could not recognize changes in individuals. They thought of themselves as impenetrable iron bricks. . . . Like migrating birds, guided by ancient instinct, circling aimlessly over the ocean waves searching for Atlantis, the sunken destination of their migration, his pen circled aimlessly over the white paper and could not descend.23
Here Zend uses an image of paralysis similar to that in the dreamed café poem. The pen, like a migrating bird searching for a lost civilization, is unable to land words on paper. The poet as well as his language are exiled. Zend creates an artificial alphabet in a concrete poem to represent his perception of the differences between the two languages (fig. 11).
The poet’s initial awkwardness with the new language appears in the angularity of its alphabet as opposed to the graceful curves of his mastered native tongue. Zend’s own language barriers on arriving in Canada show through the veneer of fiction as he expresses the poet’s frustration of not being able to “ask for a packet of cigarettes without making himself look ridiculous.”
In addition to the challenges of learning a new language, Zend felt himself to be linguistically and psychologically “in limbo because I wasn’t a Canadian citizen yet, but I was no longer a Hungarian either.” He felt torn between writing and publishing in English or in his native language. He couldn’t yet write in English for Canadian publications, but neither could he write for Hungarian journals or presses because, “having illegally left the country, [he] was considered an enemy.”24
And his decision of whether to publish in Canada or Hungary was fraught with catch-22’s. At that time, there were no Hungarian ethnic literary publications in Canada. So for about a year in 1961, he published his own Hungarian literary monthly, The Toronto Mirror (fig. 12). However, his advertisers, “unable to think but in labels,” wanted to know whether his publication was for “leftists or rightists, for Catholics or Protestants, for Jews or Gendarmes, for junior or senior citizens.”25 Zend had felt himself to be a “misfit” in Hungary, and that had not changed in Canada. Canadian publishers also were in a quandary about how to categorize him, wanting to know whether he was famous in Hungary.
In the 1960s, Hungarian exiles were allowed to return to Hungary as tourists (once the government, needing “hard currency . . . changed our labels from ‘Counter-Revolutionary Hooligans’ to ‘Our Beloved Fellow-Country-Men Living Abroad’”). Zend seized the opportunity to fly to Budapest and meet with Hungarian publishers, only to be asked whether he was famous in Canada. Once again, Zend was faced with a lack of sympathy due to nationalistic labels. They asked, “If you are a Hungarian poet, why do you live in Canada? If you are a Canadian poet, why do you want to publish in Hungary?” One Hungarian publisher suggested labeling him as a Canadian poet whose poems had been translated into Hungarian, telling him that he had “never published the original Hungarian poetry of Hungarian poets living in exile, in Hungarian, in Hungary! We just cannot start a new trend!” Zend’s assertion “that being a poet does not depend on the geographical location of the poet’s body, or on the political system under which the publisher functions, but on the linguistic and literary value of the poems” did not convince any Hungarian publisher.26
Realizing the need to publish in English in order to establish himself as a writer in Canada, he decided to learn the language to the point that he could write poetry independently in it. His linguistic talents and his mastery of Italian and study of Latin and German no doubt helped him as he gained fluency in the new language. By 1964 he was writing poems in both Hungarian and English. He also worked closely with John Robert Colombo, a literary scholar and poet in Toronto, on translating the poems originally written in Hungarian and published in his first two poetry collections: From Zero to One (1973) and Beyond Labels (1982).
Determined to write his poems effectively in English, Zend took pains to transfer his musical feeling for his native language into his adopted one. Revisions of poems written in English during the 1960s shows him trying multiple versions, taking care that the language be musical and that the rhythm mesh with the content. In “No,” for example, he writes of honing the rhythm to achieve a percussive beat to reflect the knocking on a door of an unborn being, and towards the end of the poem creating a rhythm that “widens and calms down to annihilate” as the being becomes “lost / in the snowy fields of non-existence.”27 It’s not surprising that Glenn Gould calls Zend “unquestionably Canada’s most musical poet,” high praise from one of Canada’s greatest musicians.28
Finding employment in Toronto proved to be a huge setback for Zend. He worked at a series of menial jobs in order to support his family. In From Zero to One, he expresses frustration at having to restart his career with such labour “at the dreadful place where the supervisors / imagine themselves prison guards,”
where we have to put on cards
our comings and goings
and every moment of lateness or early leaving
has to be accounted for
but if during the eight hours we redeem the world
or just twiddle our thumbs
no one cares —29
In addition to such frustrations, Zend relates that his experience with labels did not end upon escaping Communist Hungary and immigrating to Canada: “the free world didn’t deliver me from evil labels.”30 In a story published in the Toronto Star in 1992, Ibi relates an encounter with antisemitism soon after the move to Canada, when they were living with the couple in Etobicoke:
Until one night the couple noticed the Auschwitz identification mark on [Ibi's] arm. “You mean you are Jews!” said the husband. Next day they were sent packing.31
Also, Zend relates being subject to denigration due to his country of origin: a supervisor at work called him a “bloody Hungarian.” With typical good humour, Zend responded by telling him that he should call him a “bloody Canadian” since he had just become a citizen.32
On the positive side, life in Toronto was relatively peaceful and stable, and provided a safe haven for Zend to continue his development as a writer (fig. 13). In a 1959 letter to Pierre Berton, he professes that with some reservations, he “likes Canada very much. Not because I am living here and this has become my second homeland,” but because it represents freedom, which is his “first homeland” for which he was “homesick . . . already in Hungary.” As much as he loved the land and language of his birth, it was also a country scarred by history and suffering under an oppressive regime intolerant of free expression. In a letter to the editor soon after his arrival, he writes that in the Soviet Union and its satellite countries,
It’s not allowed to notice the low standard of living. It’s dangerous to joke about party-leaders. It’s inevitable to adore the altars of their living Gods or applaud rhythmically at meetings and to smile happily while applauding. Also for listening to the radio of free countries you’ll get punished. What’s more: it’s quite risky to follow faithfully the party-line – if it is changed, you’ll be punished. That is: deported, jailed, exiled or tortured to death. No one is allowed to think of the enemy’s victory. To think means to hope. To hope means to wish. To wish means that you are a spy.
And although he realized that Canada was not without its historical baggage of discrimination and that he would face difficulties adjusting to profound changes in his life, he also understood that “life is not much without freedom,” that
freedom is everybody’s homeland — only secondarily the house, the city and the country where we were born.”33
To ease his feelings of isolation during his early years in Toronto, he held weekly house parties.34 And since he was a chess aficionado, he created a circle of friends when he joined a chess club. An anecdote related by Toronto chess champion Lawrence Day, in which Zend is jailed for unpaid parking tickets, shows his sense of humour in putting relatively minor inconveniences into perspective, considering his experience with totalitarian regimes in Hungary. Zend and others in the chess coterie had devised a system for serving the least possible amount of time in jail for parking tickets:
In those days serving three days in jail wiped out all parking tickets so the game was to get as many as possible and then turn yourself in at 11:30 Friday night and get out at 12:30 AM Saturday which added up to three days since Sunday was free.35
When officers caught on to this game and arrived at dawn to haul Zend away to jail to serve his sentence, he took it cheerfully. His friends asked whether he didn’t feel “paranoid with the cops after him.” He responded,
[I] survived Budapest under the Nazis and the Commies — then was tragedy, this was comedy.36
Employment conditions for Zend soon improved. He began working for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1958, advancing from shipper to film librarian, film editor, and ultimately radio producer of close to a hundred literary and and other cultural documentary programs for the series Ideas.37 Over the years, his work for the CBC gave him the invaluable opportunity to meet with many leading figures in world culture, including Northrop Frye, Glenn Gould, A. Y. Jackson, Norman McLaren, Marshall McLuhan, Harold Town, Isaac Asimov, Robert Easton, Richard P. Feynman, Andrei Voznesensky, Jorge Luis Borges, and the Dalai Lama, some of whom became long-term friends.38
Two of these friendships proved especially conducive to creative collaboration. In 1971, Zend contributed to a CBC Ideas program featuring Marceau on the concept of the mask. Zend’s creative exchange with Marceau began with his designing a metal chess set to be presented by the CBC to the mime artist, and culminated in a correspondence of art and poetry between the two. And in 1974, Zend spend two weeks with Borges in Buenos Aires, providing himself with an important mentor for his fiction and leading to a collaboration on a postmodern narrative entitled “The Key,” on the subject of the search for the key to a labyrinth, written as a series of footnotes. Both collaborations will be explored in future installments.
In 1967, Zend decided to continue his studies in Italian literature by pursuing a Master of Arts degree at the University of Toronto. First, however, he needed to give evidence that he had earned a bachelor’s degree in Hungary. Returning for the first time to Hungary since 1956, he was able to retrieve his university diploma. While he was studying toward his degree, he continued working at the CBC in Original Film Editing, again making use of the skills he had learned in Hungary. After passing his oral examinations In Medieval Italian Literature, Italian Lyric Poetry from Petrarch to Marino, nineteenth-century Italian Poetry, and Luigi Pirandello, he graduated in spring 1969 (fig. 14).39
That summer, he was accepted into a Ph.D. program within the Department of Italian and Hispanic Studies.40. His program of study was international trends in twentieth-century Italian poetry with special emphasis on Palazzeschi, Ungaretti, Montale, Quasimodo, and Pasolini.41 A few months into his program, he decided to write his dissertation on the poetry of Piero Bigongiari.42 One of his minor areas of study was the Italian language, and the other was fine art, which he later changed to Marxist philosophy.43 His intensive study of Italian literature was an important influence on his work, and will be documented in an upcoming installment on Zend’s Italian affinities. During his graduate studies, he continued to write and publish his own poetry as well as translations of Italian poets.
In fact, the 1970s was a decade of creative flourishing for Zend, as he hit his stride with several important publications, including poems and stories in a number of anthologies and magazines. In 1970, his poems were included in New Poems of the Seventies: An Anthology of Canadian Poetry edited by Douglas Lochhead and Raymond Souster. And in 1971, twenty-one pages of his poetry appeared in Volvox: Poetry from the Unofficial Languages of Canada . . . in English Translation. In addition, Exile Magazine published 136 pages of several longer works, including “A Bouquet to Bip” (his collaborative correspondence with Marceau), “The Key” (his collaboration with Borges), “Type Scapes: A Mystery Story” (his creative essay illustrating the evolution of his typewriter art), and excerpts from Oāb (his two-volume multi-genre work published in 1983 and 1985).
Seventeen years after his first poetry collection was to have been published in Hungary but instead tragically perished in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of 1956, Zend’s first collection of poems in English, From Zero to One, was published in 1973 by The Sono Nis Press in British Columbia (fig. 15). These poems were written between 1960 and 1969, and as he was still making the transition to writing poetry in English during that time, they were written in Hungarian and translated into English in collaboration with Colombo. In his first major statement as a poet we can already sense his cosmopolitan openness evidenced by the international influences in the poems and by his dedications to writers and artists from several countries (I’ll document these influences in greater detail starting with the next installment). Zend explores most of the major themes that would preoccupy him for the rest of his life: exile, science-fiction and fantasy, the metapoetic idea of the writer as creator, romantic love, and the cycle of birth and death. Evident throughout is his philosophical bent and his sense of irony and playfulness.
By 1972, Zend had finished his coursework for the Ph.D. but stopped short of completing his dissertation. His personal life was in a period of transition around this time with the dissolultion of his marriage with Ibi and his starting a new family with Janine Devoize, who had immigrated from France to Canada in 1964 and whom he married in 1970 (fig. 16). For her part, after the divorce, Ibi married writer George Gabori, a fellow Hungarian survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, whom Zend had introduced to her. Gabori was also a survivor of Soviet labour camps and wrote a remarkable autobiographical account of his experiences, When Evils Were Most Free (1981). A friend relates that on the occasion of their marriage, Zend thought it “wonderful that his and Ibi’s daughter, Aniko, now had two fathers.”44
In 1972, a daughter, Natalie, was born to Robert and Janine (fig. 17). Natalie remembers her father as devoted, and one of her happiest memories is of the bedtime stories he would tell her from the time she was two years old. She recalls being delighted with tales that he gradually unfurled in series that lasted months, including a fantasy novel about Atlantis, Bible stories, world history, and stories from his childhood.45
Feeling the pressure of working for the CBC while at the same time preparing his dissertation, Zend decided not to continue in the PhD program. He also took early retirement from the CBC in order to work as an independent radio producer for the CBC Ideas program. Among the programs to which he contributed are Perception and Prejudice in Science, The Magic World of Borges, The Five Faces of Norman McLaren, Inscape and Landscape (on ecology), The Lost Continent of Atlantis, The Mask, Humour, Man and Cosmos, Ideas on Evil, and Japan. He continued working for the CBC until 1977,46 thereafter contributing to programs as a freelancer. Because of the scores of cultural documentaries that he researched, wrote, directed, and produced, his contributions to intellectual life in Canada are immeasurable.
Zend, having long ago shed the introversion of childhood, was very much a social animal, and in the home he shared with Janine in the Hillcrest neighbourhood of Toronto, the couple entertained many poets, artists, scientists, chess champions, and CBC colleagues. They also collected works by artists whom Zend had befriended socially or through his position at the CBC.
In 1973, the same year that his first book came out, he suffered a heart attack. It was only the first episode in a prolonged period of ill health involving heart troubles and strokes, and culminating in his early death in 1985. He had been making arrangements to embark on a major CBC project on the myth of Atlantis. However, his plans were put on hold while he recovered. When he was well enough, the project offered him over the next few months occasion to travel to England, Morocco, Spain, the United States and France, where he taped forty-eight hours of interviews with scholars of world mythology such as Robert Graves and Immanuel Velikovsky.
Although the research and writing was a source of excitement and satisfaction to him, it was ultimately also the source of tremendous stress due to the CBC’s decision to air only one week of a planned three-week program. He believes that the disappointment of this decision, along with what he felt to be “deterioriating working conditions,” contributed to his decline in health.47 He also knew that his long-term smoking habit was not helping matters but was unable or unwilling to quit. On October 31, he had a stroke and was hospitalized for three weeks. Shortly thereafter, he had another traumatic cardiac event, which was diagnosed as inflammation between the heart and the heart sac.48 And in 1976, he suffered his second heart attack. During his recovery, the program on Atlantis aired from January 3 to 7, 1977; he was gratified to receive hundreds of enthusiastic responses from listeners.49 His decision to stop freelancing as a radio producer for the CBC that year allowed him to devote himself more fully to his writing and art as well as to avoid the stressful conditions that had exacerbated his health issues.
In spite of continuing episodes of serious illness, including two additional strokes and chronic arthritis, the period from 1978 until his death in 1985 was one of extraordinary productivity in his collaborative work as well as in his poetry, fiction, essays, and visual art. One of the most remarkable stretches of intensely concentrated inspiration occurred in 1978, when, during a span of two and a half months, he developed a unique process for making typewriter art, from relatively straightforward beginnings to a complex and sophisticated art form (fig. 18).
He created these self-described “typescapes” by superimposing characters on a typewriter to form shapes and textures. The meticulous execution, often involving overalpping forms and figures, achieves an effect of delicate intricacy. At the areas of intersection of these shapes, the effect is far from being muddied or heavy. Instead, they retain the delicacy that is characteristic of the whole.
In the beginning, the process was not easy:
I had to tame the typewriter . . . patiently, very patiently . . . one careless movement, and I had to start all over again. Several times, the typewriter forced me to alter my original plans and finish the picture as I was able. It wasn’t the same as typing a letter or a poem. I had to re-learn typing.50
The beauty of these concrete poems is that out of a slow and painstaking process of planning and creation using paper inserted into a clunky manual machine emerge visions of airy lightness and subtle movement.
Although Zend didn’t invent typewriter art, he did seem to have created it without knowledge of forebears in that genre, in the days before computer graphics software. He relates the evolution of the typescapes in a fifty-page account, the aforementioned “Type Scape: A Mystery Story” in Exile Magazine. This brief “period of fever, or inspiration, or obsession” produced a variety of interconnected works, including an amazing volume of typewriter art as well as work in other genres, all of which he describes as interrelated associations stirring in his subconscious mind:
In addition to his readings and publications with Priest and Sward, Zend collaborated with artists such as Jerónimo, a Spanish-Canadian with whom he published a collection of silkscreens and poems entitled My friend, Jerónimo (fig. 21).
He also paid tribute to artists in ekphrastic poems, notably in response to oil paintings and ink drawings of Hungarian-Canadian artist Julius Marosan54 as well as to paintings by the Belgian surrealist René Magritte. And he generously assisted fellow poets such as Peter Singer (Ariel and Caliban, 1980) and Mary Melfi (A Queen Is Holding a Mummified Cat, 1982) by editing and introducing their work.
In 1981, he attended the International Writer’s Congress, which that year was centered around the topic of “The Writer and Human Rights” in aid of Amnesty International. At a panel discussion on exile, he gave a talk entitled “Labels,” a moving and eloquent statement about the potentially catastrophic consequences of labelling people.55 He included the text of his speech in full as a preface to his second collection of poetry, Beyond Labels.
Zend was also active on the reading circuit in Canada. Among other events, in 1981 and 1982 he was a resident poet at the Great Canadian Poetry Festival in Collingwood, Ontario, a scenic town on Georgian Bay, and in 1983, he gave a reading tour including stops in Saskatoon, Regina, and Edmonton.56
The years 1982 to 1985 were especially fruitful for publications: during that span three important collections appeared: Beyond Labels (Hounslow Press) and Arbormundi (blewointment press) in 1982, and the two volumes of Oāb (Exile Editions) in 1983 and 1985.
Zend wrote the poems in Beyond Labels (fig. 22) over a twenty-year span between 1962 and 1982; most were originally written in Hungarian and translated into English with the assistance of Colombo. They extend the theme of displacement, and in addition to including poems of a personal nature, he continues philosophical and cosmic concerns with poems about the universe, time, and dreams — as in one about an hourglass with infinite top and bottom. He also branches out formally with some early experiments in concrete poetry that he called “ditto” and “drop” poems. In dedications and influences, as well as the Magritte-inspired cover by John Lloyd, Beyond Labels continues the cosmopolitan flavour of his first collection.
Zend’s magnum opus is generally recognized to be the two-volume Oāb, published in 1983 and 1985 (fig. 23). Oāb is a multi-genre fantasy about authorship and creation, involving autobiography, metafiction, concrete poetry, drawings, and doodlings. “Ze̊nd,” a character in Zend’s own creation myth, writes a being named Oāb into existence and gives his progeny the “Alphoābet” to play with. And Oāb proceeds to do just that, in comic-book frames that show his growing knowledge and abilities. Oāb in turn creates a being named Ïrdu. Together they romp across the pages like children on a playground, creating a compendium of games and puzzles using the letters in their names to create shapes and explore their universe. The effect of this alphabetic creation is encyclopedic.
Although the two volumes were published in the mid-80s, Zend relates that he wrote the bulk of it during a rush of inspiration during two weeks in May 1970. The long saga of his attempts to have it published is partly a story of the bewilderment of publishers who had never seen a manuscript like it and who were at a loss as to how to categorize it. One publisher wanted to “transform Oāb into an electronic sound-play,” which Zend turned down. Another told him that he would publish it if the 180 pages were “reduced to 48” and the “doodles, drawings, concrete poems [were] left out.” And another deemed “the text superfluous and want[ed] to keep only the doodles drawings and concrete poems.”
In 1972, Barry Callaghan published about thirty pages of the manuscript in Exile Magazine. Northrop Frye responded that “it is a piece of experimental writing to which I know nothing comparable in Canada, and its impact, if published, would be quite considerable.” Canadian experimental filmmaker Norman McLaren also saw it and wrote to Zend about “the affinity between Zend’s poem and his films.” Avant-garde poet Richard Kostelanetz was “‘floored’ by Zend’s ‘extended visual poem’ and stated that ‘nothing comparable to it was ever published in U.S. literary quarterlies.’” It was also praised by Isaac Asimov, John Updike, and Jorge Luis Borges. The latter told him, “Actually, I should have written Oāb.” Such was the buzz surrounding the manuscript that Robert Fulford for the Toronto Star called it “Canada’s Perhaps Best Unpublished Book.”
In 1979 Callaghan founded Exile Editions and told Zend that he wanted to publish the entire manuscript. After many delays and revisions, the two volumes were finally published in 1983 and 1985.57
After years of declining health, Zend succumbed to a heart condition on June 27, 1985, just two weeks before the publication of the second volume of Oāb. A few weeks later, he was to have read at the Toronto Harbourfront with fellow immigrant writers Josef Skvorecky and Robert Gurik. The event became a memorial reading for Zend, hosted by Northrup Frye. Rampike Magazine, which had published some of Zend’s works during the early 1980s, paid tribute to Zend in their next issue with excerpts and photographs from the memorial reading, which was also a posthumous launch of Oāb, and a poem that Zend had submitted shortly before his death.
Thanks to the efforts of Zend’s widow, Janine, several of his books were published posthumously: two in English (Daymares and Nicolette) and three in Hungarian.58
Daymares (1991), a collection of mostly short stories but also a few poems and concrete poems, selected by Janine, reveals Zend’s most extended and sophisticated expression of the fantastical, especially dream-worlds (fig. 24). Shape-shifting characters, dreams within dreams, anachronisms, and paradoxes keep the reader adrift in a fantastical realm whose often dark irrationality probes mysteries of humanity: uncharted cognitive depths, the burdens of history, and the continuities between self and other. These stories are akin to the mind-bending labyrinths and dreamscapes of Jorge Luis Borges.
Nicolette: A Novel Novel (1993) is an erotic avant-garde novel that Zend wrote in Hungarian in 1976 and translated into English (fig. 25). The temporally zigzagging narrative tells of a Toronto poet’s passionate and obsessive love affair with Nicolette, a woman half his age and the wife of a close friend, during visits to Paris and Florence. Not only is the chronology fractured, like a shifting, multi-layered dream, but also the chapters exploit a spectrum of forms and genres, playfully manifesting pieces of the story as haiku, Morse code, concrete poetry, a footnote, a play, epistolary narrative, Greek mythology, lyric poetry, censored text, and so forth. The novel also metafictively relates its own composition and birth: Nicolette from Nicolette.
A large part of Zend’s identity as a human being and as a writer arises from the dual geographical and political frames of reference that became a reality for him in 1956. His writing after his immigration to Canada reveals a process of attempting to understand the psychological rift and ambivalent emotions of being a writer in exile.
Life in Hungary had not been easy. The losses from the Nazi era were devastating, and living under the Stalinist regime was stifling and potentially dangerous. Poverty was a reality, and travel was severely restricted. On the other hand, Hungary represented continuity of language, culture, and the community of friends and relatives. For Zend, life in Canada reflected a mirror image of his ambivalence toward Hungary. Free from the climate of intellectual oppression and duplicity, and now able to travel freely (though not yet to his native Hungary), new possibilities opened up for expression and experience. But that newly-claimed freedom was tempered by intense feelings of nostalgia. In that nether-world of exile, of not being able to completely embrace one world or the other, difference was everywhere, and identity was nowhere.
The dynamic tension in Zend’s work often consists in the split between, on the one hand, his existence in the no-man’s land that characterizes exile and that leaves its mark of dividedness on the psyche, and on the other, his equally strong consciousness of a larger, universal humanity in which identity is defined not so much by national borders but instead by the erasing of boundaries separating self from other, tribe from tribe. Zend’s literary writing provides a space where historical and personal trauma, rather than being resolved or healed, opens a fertile arena for the drama of division and unity, of the impossibility of return and the possibility of embracing of a wider homeland.
Next Installment: Part 5.
Hungarian Literary Roots:
The Budapest Joke and Other Influences