Category Archives: cultural identity

Robert Zend – Part 5. Hungarian Literary Roots: The Budapest Joke and Other Influences

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Part 5. Hungarian Literary Roots:
The Budapest Joke and Other Influences

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          If we look at Zend’s oeuvre only in a Canadian context, we miss out on the rich cultural heritage in Hungary that shaped him as a writer. For although his writing came to maturity in Canada, the roots of his literary sensibility and philosophical outlook can be traced to Hungary.
          I’d like to discuss two of Zend’s literary characteristics that developed from models in Hungary. First, his themes tend to be cosmic and allegorical rather than realistic. His stories in Daymares and many of his poems and artworks draw on world mytholology and explore fantastical realms of infinity, dreams, the place of humans in the larger universe, and the cycle of creation and destruction.
          Secondly, at the heart of many of his works are humour and satire: a bio for a 1970 anthology states that

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in one of his previous lives — as he faintly recalls — he was a jester.1

          These traits of Zend’s writing and art were shaped by Hungarian forebears such as nineteenth-century poet Imre Madách and early twentieth-century writer Frigyes Karinthy.

Imre Madách (1823—1864):
Lucifer’s Time Machine

 
                                                            Our universe is a tree
                                                            on the leaf of existence
                                                            and then there is the forest . . .
                                                            ——Robert Zend, “Zoom-Out”2

MADACH COVER 180          Imre Madách is the Milton of Hungary. Just as the English-speaking literary world is well acquainted with Paradise Lost, almost every Hungarian is familiar with Madách’s The Tragedy of Man (1861), a long dramatic poem that takes as its starting point the story of creation and the Garden of Eden in Genesis (fig. 2).
          But the resemblance of The Tragedy of Man to Milton’s poem ends at the point that Lucifer, cast out from God’s realm, successfully tempts Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit of knowledge. Post-Fall, the narrative reads like Paradise Lost meets H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine meets the Faustian legend.
          The rest of the plot goes something like this. Lucifer brings Adam on a time-travel flight into humanity’s future. In the course of their increasingly pessimistic journey through destiny, Adam and Eve play various characters and explore the nature of free will, good and evil, and individuality versus collectivism. In ancient Egypt, Adam is a pharaoh and Eve is the wife of a slave; in ancient Greece, Adam is a tyrant and Eve his wife; during the Enlightenment Adam becomes Johannes Kepler; during the French Revolution, Adam plays Georges Danton to Lucifer’s executioner.
          Near the end of the time-travel, Lucifer transports Adam to the Phalanstery, a futuristic dystopia of soulless conformity and machines. Madách’s utilitarian nightmare anticipates such dystopias as Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The inhabitants of the Phalanstery regulate life mathematically, rendering families (and familial affection) obsolete. Childhood stories have been replaced with “higher equations / and geometry.”3 Any activity or object without functional value has been banished. I’d like to give some samples from this dystopic scene in order to give a taste of this Hungarian canonical work that is too little known in the rest of the world, as well as to show its influence on Zend.
          After Lucifer’s time travel takes him and Adam to the Phalanstery founded on cold science, Lucifer changes their appearance so that they can mingle inconspicuously among the residents, who might otherwise become suspicious and “lock [them] in a test-tube.”4 He then fabricates a story to a passing scientist that he and Adam are “student-scientists / from a thousand phalansteries away,” drawn by his renown to study with him.5 In a scene that predates that of the Ancient House in Zamyatin’s We by sixty years, the scientist takes Lucifer and Adam on a tour of a museum showcasing the “extinct species of antiquity / . . . the original specimens, / well stuffed and preserved”6:

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Here you see the very last rose that bloomed
on the surface of the earth. A useless flower.
Together with its hundred thousand siblings,
it took away space from the cereals;
it was a charming toy for grown-up children.
A peculiar phenomenon, indeed,
how people, long ago, enjoyed these toys.
Even the intellect brought forth such flowers:
the fantasies of poetry and faith.
While rocking in the arms of these delusions
and squandering his finest energies,
Man neglected the purpose of his life.
We are still keeping here as rarities
two such works. The first of these is a poem
whose author, living in a selfish age
when individuals wished recognition,
called himself Homer. In it, he describes
a world of fantasy, calling it Hades.
We disproved each line of it, long ago.7

Madách implies, of course, that in the dystopia of the Phalanstery, not only Homer’s epic but his own dramatic poem about a fantastic world would be censored.
          The second work is Agricola by the Roman historian Tacitus, which the scientist dismisses as “the laughable, yet / sordid concepts of a barbarous age.”8
          Of such sterile existence, in which material goods are created by machines and human life reproduces in test tubes, Adam observes that “there is no life, / no character which will survive its maker”, for how could a test tube baby

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                    inherit human features,
detached from the environment, from pain,
raised to consciousness in this tiny flask?
. . .
So, science too has disappointed me:
where I expected to find happiness,
I found only a boring kindergarten.9

          Among the inmates of this place are Roman senator Cassius, Plato, and Michelangelo. Each, called by a number, is reprimanded for his rebelliousness against the Phalastery’s scientific and utilitarian ideals. Michelangelo, known as “Number Seventy-Two,” is scolded because he left his workplace in a mess, to which he responds:

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Yes, because I was always making chair-legs,
and even those in a most simple form.
I begged for permission to modify them,
to let me carve on them some ornaments:
it was refused. So then I asked permission
to make the chair-backs, still to no avail.
It almost drove me to insanity,
so I left my torment, I left the workshop.10

As punishment for “breaking the rules,” Michelangelo is ordered back to his room. Adam, objecting strenuously to the “sanity” of the Philanstery and embracing the “madness” of humanity, suggests that “every great / and noble thing on Earth was such a madness, / unrestrained by cool rationality.”11
          Although the Phalanstery was loosely modeled after plans for utopian communities by French socialist Charles Fourier (1772—1837), contemporary readers might sense in Madách’s dystopia an eerily prescient indictment of life under Soviet rule. Thus it is not surprising that publication and performance of this classic of Hungarian literature and theatre were banned in 1950 by official censors, despite protests from Hungarian writers and other intellectuals. Zend was fortunate to experience it as a staged performance prior to the ban, and copies of the text, like many other censored works, were in circulation.12
          Perhaps Zend had not only the Soviet dictatorship in mind but also Madách’s Phalanstery when he wrote his dystopic short story “Chapter Fifty-Six,” which I briefly discussed in the previous installment. In that story, the totalitarian Romarmian forces use a form of mind-control to brainwash the citizens of Maletria into believing that they are living in a utopia. In reality, they have become conformist automatons doing the bidding of the dictatorship while living in squalor, their children taught by bureaucrats “with no imagination whatsoever.”13
          And Zend’s “The King of Rubik,” a dream-like tale with shifting layers of time and identity, may have also been roughly patterned after the similar premise of The Tragedy of Man. In this partly autobiographical story, Robert, who lived through the “raving, cataclysmic human mass-madness” that was World War II, is overwhelmed by Holocaust survivor guilt because his close friend, Peter, “starved to death in a Nazi concentration camp thirty-eight years earlier.” Like Madách’s Adam, Robert travels between past and future, and also changes identity. Within the shape-shifting nightmare, he discovers that he is Robert, father of Natalie; then Robert, friend of Peter thirty-eight years earlier; then Robert after Peter’s death, confronted by Peter’s mother, who resents that Robert survived and not her son. He later discovers that he has become the King of Rubik, in which the puzzle-cube determines destiny, but wonders whether he is actually “Haroun al Rashid, the ancient Persian Caliph who assum[ed] a different disguise every night,” or perhaps King Solomon or Oedipus. He is uncertain whether he is fifty-one, twenty, or seventeen, or whether he is in Budapest, Toronto, Tonto, Ronto, or Rubicropolis.14
          Both narratives are suffused with a deep sense of melancholy and pessimism, and whereas in Madách’s poem it is Lucifer who directs the journey through time and identity, in Zend’s story it is the Rubik’s Cube that seems to be manipulating the lives of Robert and his friends. Like Adam, Robert feels less and less in control of his life, identity, and destiny, and is powerless to counteract the evil forces that have destroyed the lives of so many. Both Zend’s and Madách’s narratives use history and identity to grapple with the nature of good and evil forces.
          The impact of The Tragedy of Man on Zend’s literary approach and themes becomes more evident when we consider Madách’s images of deep time and space, which offer a sense of the impermanence and ultimate insignificance of life, and an understanding of the earth as a tiny microcosm within the larger macrocosmic universe.
          One such striking scene occurs when Lucifer takes Adam on a flight into outer space, offering him a bird’s-eye view of Creation. They soar high above the earth, watching as the planet dwindles to an insignificant point in the vastness of the universe. Adam, marveling at the sight, exclaims to Lucifer,

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                    Just look back at our Earth:
at first the flowers vanished from our sight,
and then the forests with their trembling leaves;
the familiar landscape with all its cozy
corners turned into a featureless plain.
Even the mountains are reduced to pebbles;
the clouds, pregnant with thunder, harbingers of
divine wrath for the frightened sons of Earth,
are thinned into a miserable mist.
The infinity of the roaring oceans—
Where has it gone? It has become a great spot
upon the globe which mingles with the swirling
cluster of stars. This was once our whole world.15

Earth tries to lure Adam back home, but he ambitiously presses on to the outer reaches of space, only to feel himself perishing as he believes he has gone beyond the point of no return. Lucifer scornfully pushes Adam away from him and sarcastically rejoices:

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This puppet-diety can now rotate
in space, as a new planet on which life
will develop, but now, perhaps, for me.16

Adam revives, only to feel keenly the insignificance of his earthly goals, battles, and struggles, in the face of the vastness of the universe.
          Such scenes of time travel and of micro- and macrocosmic worlds fed Zend’s imagination, and images recur in his writing and art that echo Madách’s fantastical vision of zooming out to reveal the larger cosmos. In “Growth,” for example, a tiny dot expands until it becomes a huge sphere, which in turn becomes a mere snack for a giant:

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at first I was a dot but I
                    walked and walked and walked

then I became a line but I
                    grew and grew and grew

then I became a curve but I
                    rose and rose and rose

then I became a spiral but I
                    circled and circled and circled

then I became a sphere but I
                    swelled and swelled and swelled

then a giant came upon me
and held me in his hand

                    what a lovely little dot he said
                    I do hope you understand17

In the zooming-out effect, a microcosm grows into a macrocosm, but is in reality just a microcosm for a larger predator.
          “Madness,” a poem that explores a relationship that has failed to develop because one partner cannot shake the past, ends with a vision reminiscent of the outer space flight of Adam:

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Rushing into the future,
time takes us with it in two tiny coffins.18

          In another scene that evokes Adam’s space travel, a runaway elevator crashes through the building’s roof and

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                                        continues all the faster —
speeding through the dark sky on toward the moon —
on toward the moon and the planets and the suns —
beyond all the galaxies like a speeding
bullet . . . 19

          And in “Before Ascending,” a poem that would have been at home in Daymares, a person at the brink of death looks back on visions of fruitless existence before everything dissolves:

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Looking back he still sees
their little offices, where they scribble with important frowns,
their workshops, where they labour mightily on tiny things,
scar-faced gangsters, industriously rattling away at their
          machine guns,
soldiers heaving hand grenades with religious fervor,
priests directing the traffic up and down with formidable faces,
heads of families slaving to get what they weren’t given,
nudists trying to take pleasure in what no longer gave pleasure,
film producers inventing things and then believing in them,
capitalists piling up their money while they live in misery,
Communists acting as midwives to the future while murdering
          the present,
statesmen embracing the people in order to pick their pockets
          the better,
. . .
and he remembers
that a second ago — it now seems a thousand years ago —
he himself was one among them —
. . .
the whole thing starts to drift apart, pull away,
the way colours on a palette run together20

Although Zend uses such images to different effect in different works, at their heart is an understanding of impermanence and relative insignificance in the larger scheme of the cosmos.
          In addition to such correspondences, Lucifer’s parable on dust in The Tragedy of Man seems to have had a lasting impact on Zend. In ancient Egypt, Adam as a pleasure-seeking Pharoh asks Lucifer,

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Let me cast a brave glance into the future,
several millennia from today,
what will become of my fame?

Lucifer responds with a time-lapse vision of the inevitable ravages of time, with echoes of Shelley’s “Ozymandias”:

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Do you not feel the mild breeze which caresses
your face and sails away, leaving behind
a thin layer of dust where it passed by?
In one year, this dust will be a few streaks;
in a hundred, a few feet; one or two
millenia will cloak our pyramids,
bury your name under a mound of sand;
your pleasure-gardens will become a desert
where jackals howl and tribes of beggars stray.21

Lucifer telescopes time to reveal to Adam the layers of dust and sand that accumulate across deep time and bury the fame and supposedly permanent works of even the most powerful and wealthy. In his poem “Meeting,” Zend offers a similar vision of ephemerality:

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He tried to live each day as it came
and it came and he lived
and he died and became
dust again
dust in interstellar space and in the streets
dust
dirty dust
no more than dirty dust22

          Zend’s collages and typescapes also reflect the influence of Madách’s dramatic poem based on Genesis, such as the collage entitled Eden (fig. 3), and the typescape with the punning title Sexerpentormentor (fig. 4).

GARDEN OF EDEN AND SEXERPENTORMENTOR

          In other visual works, Zend depicts iconic images of trees and snakes from world mythology, imbuing them with a broader symbolic meaning. In Vivarbor (Tree of Life), for example, the complexly overlapping shapes in the pentagonal structures create a stylized representation of the primordial and widespread symbol for the interconnectedness of life and the common source of vital force (figs. 5 and 6).

ARBORMUNDI VIVARBOR AND DETAIL B

The text below the image reads, “The god-rooted tree of life, with its lightning-shaped pointing fingers transmits spirit into the brains of human faces each of which is part of the mirror within the sphere of existence.” The overlaid shapes and spaces suggest Gestalt principles of organization. The tree of life echoes the idea of the “sphere of existence” as well as the shape of a mirror on a stand. The human faces within the petal-like spaces look toward the central starburst directing life-force outward toward humanity. The dialogue among the overlapping shapes contributes to the layered meanings of the work.
ARBORMUNDI 2 250          And the typescape Uriburus (fig. 7) intertwines three images of the ancient serpent of world mythology in various stages of a cyclical process of beginnings and endings: “The first uriburu is hungry, the second is fulfilled, the third is eating its own tail.” Zend notes that the serpents symbolize “the universe — which constantly renews itself by destroying itself.”
          The overall effect of these concrete poems drawing on world mythologies harmonizes with Zend’s recurrent themes of commonality and universality: the Other within the I, and the endless cycle of creation and destruction.
MADACH COVER 250          Such was Zend’s admiration for Madách’s The Tragedy of Man that after he immigrated to Canada and became fluent in English, he wrote a translation of it, which he later edited with Peter Singer and illustrated with works by an unidentified artist (fig. 8). He wanted to create an English version with more contemporary language, as opposed to the British translations in somewhat outdated English that were available at the time.23 Although never published, Zend’s translation of The Tragedy of Man is one of his most remarkable accomplishments; the passages quoted in this essay are from his version.
          Unfortunately, Zend did not live to see his translation put to use, but during the fall of 2000, Q Art Theatre in Montreal produced the dramatic poem featuring translations by Zend and George Szirtes (fig. 9).

TRAGEDY OF MAN MONTREAL

Frigyes Karinthy (1887—1938)
and the Budapest Joke

 
KARINTHY 250          If Madách is Hungary’s Milton, then Karinthy is its Jonathan Swift (fig. 10). His sketches, stories, and novels are known for their satirical qualities, and he was an important science fiction/fantasy writer under the sign of Swift.
          Karinthy isn’t terribly well known outside Hungary, though Journey Round My Skull, his autobiographical account of being operated on for a brain tumor (with an introduction by Oliver Sacks), has consistently received excellent reviews and sold quite well. However, within Hungary he is regarded as one of the most influential and prolific writers of the twentieth century.
NYUGAT 180          Karinthy belongs to the generation known as “Nyugat” (West), named after the Budapest literary journal in which they were frequently published. Fig. 11 shows the Karinthy memorial issue of Nyugat, published shortly after Karinthy’s death in 1938. This issue also includes poems in a series entitled Postcards by Miklós Radnóti, a Hungarian poet and victim of the Holocaust, whose work Zend also greatly admired.24
          In the installment on Zend’s early life in Hungary, I related the story about his meeting with Karinthy. During their conversation, Karinthy encouraged him and called him his “spiritual son.” Many years later, Zend acknowledged his literary and personal indebtedness to his early mentor by naming him his “spiritual father.”25 He also paid homage to him in the title of his first book, From Zero to One, which is a phrase from one of Karinthy’s stories, which I quote here to give a flavour of Karinthy’s writing:

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Between one and two there is a series of road-signs like “Be Bright” or “Take Care” or “Look Ahead” or “Live and Learn” or “Stretch Your Legs According To Your Coverlet” or “Work as Long as Your Work Wick Burns” or “Be Prepared to Fight” . . . whoever follows them will safely reach the next station, and arrive from One to Two, from Two to Three, from Three to a Millon. . . .
          But between Zero and One, there are no such signs, and even if there were, they wouldn’t do any good. For instance, how could you stretch your legs according to your coverlet if you have no coverlet? And how could you work as long as your wick burns if you have no wick? On the road from Zero to One there aren’t even milestones, only millstones, here and there, standing here, fallen there. For between Zero and One is the “Well, there’s nothing I can do about it” and the “I’m sorry, I’m too busy now” and the “Unfortunately, the President won’t be able to see you,” for between Zero and One there lie murder and madness and impossibility.
          Between Zero and One is Horror and Desperation. Between Zero and One is Instinct and Religion, Evil and Salvation. Between Zero and One is the Discovery of the World.
          Yes, the mathematicians are wrong: the way from Zero to One is longer than from One to a hundred-thousand-million . . . it is about as long as the way from life to death.26

          Between one and two lies reason, the Apollonian principle of deliberate conscious planning and the comforting bromides that nudge us to achieve goals and give us the illusion of conscious order and control.
          Between zero and one, however, there are no yardsticks by which to measure or analyze, no logical progression of a life, for there is no progress, no goals. That infinite stretch between zero and one — which could be considered as subconsciousness, the vast chaos of unnoticed processes — can seem a nightmarish realm of “Horror,” “Desperation,” and “Evil.” On the other hand, it is also the source of creation, of “the Discovery of the World.”
          Karinthy’s passage must have appealed to Zend’s feeling for the fertility of subconscious processes, as the following excerpt from the introduction to Daymares suggests:

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There is a mysterious world stretching somewhere below the surface of the Earth (or below the upper layer of the cortex) that constantly whispers images, plots, and words to us; as many worlds as heads sitting on human shoulders — heads which during the day function according to the radiant commands of the golden god, Sun. But as soon as He sinks below the circular line of the horizon, another ruler takes over, Darkness, through whose empire the spiraling-straight lines hurled by the fiery sphere cannot penetrate. Darkness, floating and amorphous, vast and expanding. Her law is entirely different from that of the temporarily dethroned king: falling-apartness instead of coherent concentration; obscurity instead of distinctness; spaciousness instead of linearity; dispersion instead of fusion; overlapping instead of separateness; indefinity instead of explicitness; womb-like roundness instead of erect angularity.27

Karinthy’s writing, famously philosophical, fantastical, and humorous, inspired Zend to share in that legacy.
          Those who have not heard of Karinthy will more likely be familiar with the movie Six Degrees of Separation, whose premise is based on a short story by Karinthy, “Chain-Links.” In Karinthy’s story there are only five degrees of separation, perhaps owing to the smaller world population during his time. The concept behind Karinthy’s story is a kind of parlor game demonstrating the shrinking of the globe through modern transportation and the resulting interconnectedness of people around the world. The idea is to select a close acquaintance and any other

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person from the 1.5 billion inhabitants of the Earth. . . . [U]sing no more than five individuals . . . [one] could contact the selected individual using nothing except the network of personal acquaintances.28

The first sentence of that story opens with a philosophical question about whether the universe is progressing toward a teleological end or endlessly cycling back upon itself:

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We were arguing energetically about whether the world is actually evolving, headed in a particular direction, or whether the entire universe is just a returning rhythm’s game, a renewal of eternity.29

NEW YORK CAFE 250          The “energetic arguing” reveals something of Karinthy’s intellectual milieu in Budapest: the gathering of literati and their acolytes in cafés to debate, exchange stories, and hone their wit with verbal play. Douglas Messerli likens this café culture to that of the New York Algonquin writers, and states that Karinthy and other writers “held literary court at the famed Budapest New York Café” (fig. 12), where they “played sophisticated verbal games and satirized the leading Hungarian poets.”30 And László Cs. Szabó observes that Karinthy’s work “reflects the rich folklore of the city of Budapest, replete with puns [and] nonsense words.”31
          “Chain-Links” exemplifies the play of intellect and humour practiced by these Hungarian writers of the Nyugat generation. It also reveals another important characteristic of Karinthy’s writing that Zend inherited: the influence of the so-called “Budapest joke,” raised to an art form by Karinthy.32
          The urban joke that developed in nineteenth-century Budapest (then Pest) was a more “concise and abstract” version of the more detailed rural anecdote. This popular expression of urban humour was “born in East and Central Europe’s Jewish communities,” whose distinctive brand of entertaining wordplay was integral to their culture.33 Karinthy, a Hungarian of Jewish origin,34 gravitated to the witty verbal play of the “Pest joke” and developed its characteristics, including the essential punch line, into a sophisticated literary form.35
          The end of “Chain-Links” is a case in point. The speaker, sitting alone in a café, lost in a reverie about the “chain of connections between . . . random things,” is interrupted by a man who walks up to his table with “some trifling, insignificant problem.” The speaker then begins to develop a chain of associations with that interruption until he arrives at the fourth link, the destruction of the world:

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Well, then let a New World Order appear! Let the new Messiah of the world come! Let the God of the universe show himself once more through the burning bush! Let there be peace, let there be war, let there be revolutions, so that — and here is the fifth link — it cannot happen again that someone should dare disturb me when I am at play, when I set free the phantoms of my imagination, when I think!36

The paradox of the joke is, of course, that war, destruction, and revolutions might pose more extreme interruptions to his chain of thought than the trivial disturbance of a casual encounter in a café.
          Another characteristic of Karinthy’s writing that had a major influence on Zend is his exploration of alien, unfamiliar worlds, which blossomed into the fantastical fiction of two novels written under the sign of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels: Voyage to Faremído (Utazás Feremidóba, 1916) and Capillaria (1921).37 Voyage to Faremido describes Gulliver’s voyage to an alien planet of beings who communicate using a musical language. And Capillaria recounts Gulliver’s sojourn in an undersea realm where women rule over and cannibalize the diminutive male population.
          Karinthy’s interest in science fiction and fantasy, shared by many Nyugat writers, follows Hungary’s lineage of utopian and allegorical writing since the mid-eighteenth century, including, as we have seen, Imre Madách’s The Tragedy of Man. Significantly, Karinthy was also a prolific translator who introduced to Hungarian readers such writers of fantasy and science fiction as H. G. Wells and Jonathan Swift.38
          For all of the above reasons, Zend found in Karinthy a kindred spirit and mentor for the philosophical, fantastical, and humorous bent of his own writing. To begin with the ludic sensibility that the two writers shared, we have seen how Karinthy, one of the foremost humorist writers of his time, drew from the Budapest joke of popular culture. Zend had been reading Karinthy’s work since childhood, and through that influence and a natural proclivity for humour, developed his writing in a humorous vein. Like Karinthy, Zend absorbed the tradition of the Budapest joke in such works as “The Legend of the Axe”:

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          Once upon a time, when Iron was formed, the Forest began to worry, and its cries finally reached the heavens.
          “Oh, Lord, how can you be so cruel and underhanded? With your right hand you give life, with your left hand you sharpen a knife!”
          God shook his head sadly and said: “Your fear is groundless, Forest. Tell me, if you can, how could Iron harm you?”
          The Forest fumed: “Me, tell you! Do you mock me while putting me in chains? As the creator of everything, you must know the reason. I’m worried because that Iron will turn into an Axe, and with it man will lop me off!”
          God answered: “Only if you supply the handle.”39

Zend’s joke-like poem also has the feel of a fable or allegory, highlighted by the capitalization of “Iron” and “Forest,” by the anthropomorphized trees, and by God’s pithy axiom, which arrives like a punch line.
          Here’s another example, this time in a lineated poem, “Monday”:

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It took me decades
to learn
the basic principles
of wisdom

This is this
Now is now
Here is here
I am I

Nothing else is true
there are no harps in heaven
there are no turtles holding up the world
the best investment is a T-bone steak.40

The rationalist world view (a trait shared by Karinthy) is carried through to the absurdly comical punch line.
          In addition to humour, Zend’s love of fantastical dream worlds and paradoxes also clearly shows the influence of Karinthy and other writers of the Nyugat generation who wrote in the genres of science fiction and fantasy, rather than following the literary tradition of descriptive and psychological realism. It is likely that Zend was also exposed in his youth to the works of Wells, Swift, and other non-Hungarian writers of the fantastical through the translations by Karinthy and others. (It should be remembered that although Hungary’s authors wrote under the watchful eyes of censors, readers in Hungary had ready access to translations of a variety of world literature.)
          Starting with his first collection of poems, From Zero to One, Zend shows his penchant for creating fantastical worlds, as in “Variation” (which is, not incidentally, dedicated to American science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke):

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Somewhere in the empty reaches of space
there is a place where
dentists play pianos in caves
children with wrinkles on their faces
throw snowballs deep in tropical jungles
in garrets escaped convicts pen their poems in blood
mayors panhandle at streetcorners
butchers with green hair stand on their hands

At the end of this otherworldly description, we see god-the-accountant sitting at his desk:

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wearing his spectacles and well-worn corduroy jacket
god bends over his accounts
and when he balances it he sighs and mumbles:
“It could have been different,
but what difference would it make?”41

Zend’s creation of wildly absurd worlds illustrates the philosophical paradox of change versus permanence. The saying “the more things change, the more they stay the same” might succinctly capture the dilemma faced by the deity, figured here as a bureaucrat “bending over his accounts” and wondering whether, if creation had been different, anything would have really changed. God seems to lean towards that resigned view of change as static: despite the bizarre worlds he might have created, a feeling of ennui envelopes him as he comprehends that change will not really change anything at all.
        “Variations” succinctly encapsulates several aspects of Zend’s indebtedness to Hungarian literature: his interest in the story of creation, inspired at least in part by Madách’s dramatic poem, the creation of fantastical worlds and the humourous tone, revealing the influence of Karinthy.
            The most developed and eloquent expression of Zend’s fantastical works is in the stories and poems collected in Daymares. These works continually involute expectations about identity, time, and the distinction between reality and illusion. Some of the stories offer twists on religious mythology, including “The End of the World,” a comical revision of the Apocalypse in which the narrator scoffs, “Mankind, shmankind!” and boffs his neighbour’s wife as the four horsemen gallop toward the annihilation of the earth into smithereens — sort of.42 Others, such as “A Dream about the Centre,” explore the vastness of human cognition in the blink of a waking dream.43 One of the most moving stories, “My Baby Brother,” confounds time and identity in exploring issues of Holocaust death, survival, and the continuity of life.44
          The following is an excerpt from the Introduction to Daymares in which Zend’s mythical dream world merges ideas of creation, illusion, imagination, and the connectedness of life, reminiscent of the dream-worlds of Jorge Luis Borges as well as the fantastical fiction of Karinthy:

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Although the Sun declared it a false doctrine, we still secretly accept the creed of Darkness, which teaches us that the land of dreams is common for everybody: it is not three-billion individually enclosed lands, but one. It obeys not three-billion personal laws, but one. It is a common land where we all meet each other, and these meetings will be unremembered during the linear Sun-time, by the vertically erected individuals who intermingle on the curved, collective male-plane. We all believe — though we know it isn’t true — that the land into which we submerge (while our horizontal bodies rest, tossing and turning about) is real, as real, if not more, than that from which we sank down. Originally, we were all the sons and daughters of Darkness: that was our prenatal land, the Atlantis-womb before the ejaculating rays of the aroused Sun-lord fertilized it, generating us who grow and pop out into the light. We never lose our nostalgia for the cool, dank, soily shadow-shapes of the womb.45

Zend echoes Nietzsche’s Dionysian/Apollonian dichotomy of darkness and light, in which the Dionysian dream-world represents freedom from the imposition of order, and the Apollonian represents

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. . . the measured restraint, the freedom
from the wilder emotions, that calm of
the sculptor god [whose] eye must be
“sunlike” . . . 46

For Zend, the wordlessness of dreams is the ur-language, and translating dreams “with Sun-lit words gives rise to impenetrable jungles of misunderstanding in which sameness means difference; nearness, distance; flux, solidity; consecutiveness, simultaneity and repetition, comparison.” The language of dreams “informs us of the bankruptcy of words: its emotions provoke events and its abstract objects are expressions of solid symbols.” Zend acknowledges the need for “sun-lit words,” though his heart is with the “creed of Darkness,” the realm that permits creation with no constraints. However, true to the humour that informs his work as a descendent of Karinthy, Zend situates a winking laughter between the poles of this duality:

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[I]n the stripe-shaped no-man’s land between the two borderlines, another, a third god rises to existence, He who is an alien in both the land of Light and that of Darkness. His name is Humour. . . . This is the zone — His domain — in which I, pushed-around wanderer of depths and heights, decided to settle. . . . Thus, when I am approached with inquiries from either kingdom about the other, or about my true identity and idiosyncrasies, or about my loyalties and allegiances, or about my views of the universal nature of things, I can reply to all with just one, single, identifcal, common answer: laughter. I hope to be respected as a citizen of this no-man’s land . . . 47

In such writing of a philosophical, other-worldly, and humourous nature, Zend shows himself to be a true literary descendant of Karinthy.
          In some of Zend’s visual works as well, the originary influence of Karinthy is apparent, as in the collage below entitled Science Fiction.

SCIENCE FICTION 500

          In both his humorous, satirical approach and his fantastical bent, Karinthy’s influence on Zend is obvious. And although he was later influenced by many writers of science fiction and the fantastical (notably Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke), the origins of this interest are in Hungarian sources such as Karinthy as well as translations of English-language and other foreign literary works available in Hungary. Moreover, Zend’s Hungarian influence is not limited to such writers, but also extends back into traditions of Jewish and Hungarian forms of popular expression such as the Budapest joke.
          Zend’s literary roots were in Hungary, but it’s also true that in Hungary he encountered the works of writers of many nationalities. Budapest, historically a sophisticated and cosmopolitan urban centre, was home to publishing houses with a strong tradition of translating world literature. As we will see in the next installment, it was a similarly diverse situation with Zend’s literary “cross-pollination” after his move to Canada. He was influenced by many Canadian writers and artists, some of whom were born elsewhere.
          Zend’s literary exploration of illusions, the unreal, and the imagination would have been antithetical to the Communist Hungary’s demands for socialist realism during the years of Zend’s early adulthood. Stalin’s violent regime saw show trials, purges, and executions in Hungary, and during Khrushchev’s tenure the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 was brutally crushed. If Zend had stayed in Hungary and survived, it’s likely that such works would have been censored.

Next Installment: Part 6.
Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination:
Marshall McLuhan


Camille Martin

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Robert Zend – Part 3. Hungary: Childhood and Early Adulthood

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Part 3. Hungary: Childhood and Early Adulthood

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          Little has been publicly known about Robert Zend’s early years in Hungary, prior to the 1956 Uprising and his subsequent immigration to Canada. I’d like to begin the process of fleshing out this period of his life. Some of the biographical material from this period will help us to understand the shaping of his cosmopolitan outlook. In addition, some background on his life in both Hungary and Canada will help to contextualize my subsequent discussion of his international affinities and influences.
ROBERT AND STEPHANIE           Robert Zend was born in Budapest, the only child of Henrik and Stephanie. Most sources indicate that he was born on December 2, 1929. However, there is some uncertainty about the date. Henrik, the youngest among many brothers and sisters, married late in life, so that Robert’s cousins were ten to twenty years older than he.1 Thus during his early years, Robert was often in the midst of adults.
          Zend points out the irony of his given name. Henrik had wanted to call him James after his own father. But his brother-in-law Dori argued against it because it sounded so old-fashioned. Henrik didn’t like Dori’s suggestion of a common name for his son, who would surely be distinguished. Finally,

QUOTATION MARKS 7

Dori proposed to him the name Robert which in those times and in Hungary was a modern, but very rare, almost exotic name. My father readily agreed because his favourite composer was Robert Schumann. Had he known that I would spend most of my life in North America where every second male is called Robert (or even Bob!), he wouldn’t have compromised so easily.2

Zend wryly observes that had his father favoured a different composer, his name might have been “Johann Sebastian Zend.”
          Henrik, fluent in five languages, worked as a foreign correspondence clerk for a rice mill, and Stephanie was a homemaker.3 They were not well off, and after the birth of Robert, one month after the New York Stock Market crash of 1929, they faced economic difficulties and uncertainty. The ensuing global depression devastated the Hungarian economy: by 1933, Budapest had a poverty rate of 18% and an unemployment rate of 36%.4 Following a failed pregnancy, Henrik and Stephanie decided not to have additional children.5
          Zend wrote about the sibling that he never had in a poignant story entitled “My Baby Brother”: he dreams that his parents have come back to life, and even at their advanced age they bear a son, who he imagines “will be a better man than me, a second, corrected edition of me.”6 Other works develop the theme of existence foiled, as in “The Rock,” a story about a dreamed Jesus who has missed his chance to be born:

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Time was pregnant.
          It was predetermined that he was to be born. The day and the hour and the minute and the second had been decided. The land and the city and the house assigned. The father and the mother chosen.
          But something somewhere, something went wrong. His dreamer — in a higher consciousness — woke up with a start before dreaming his birth, and by the time he succeeded in sinking back into the dream again, the point was passed.7

And in “The Most Beautiful Things,” he ponders all of the art and life that remain in a limbo of unfulfilled potentiality:

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My most beautiful poems are never written down
I am afraid to commit them to a prison of twenty-six letters

In the same way
the most beautiful statues on earth hide
in uncarved rock

The most beautiful paintings
are all crammed together in tiny tubes of paint

The most beautiful people will never be born8

In such works, it is as though a parallel universe contained all the possibilities that never came to fruition. Yearning for the unborn baby brother was not the only experience to which one could ascribe Zend’s sense of what he elsewhere calls “historical unhappenings.”9 As we will see, it was one of other events to come that would mark him with an indelible awareness of thwarted possibilities.
          Robert’s early years held much promise. The foundation for his love of Italian culture and literature was laid in childhood. Henrik brought him to Italy at the ages of ten and twelve to stimulate the boy’s interest in learning the Italian language.10
ZEND AS BOY           Zend describes himself during childhood as a social misfit as he wasn’t interested in playing sports with other boys. As a result of his introversion, Henrik and Stephanie suspected that their son was socially stunted as well as intellectually slow, and planned to take him out of school after the fourth grade to apprentice with a carpenter. However, Robert began to display talent in languages and to demonstrate more than a superficial interest in literature. When he was seven, he impressed his teacher and classmates with his language skills. At the age of eight, the precocious boy recited from memory a 140-line poem by nineteenth-century Hungarian poet Sándor Petőfi.11
          After Robert finished the fourth grade, Henrik and Stephanie reconsidered the plan to withdraw him from school to learn a trade. Having observed his talents and listened to the entreaties of his teacher, they were convinced to cultivate the boy’s intellectual gifts rather than apprentice him to a carpenter.
          Robert began to play the piano by ear at the age of ten. Although he never learned to read scores, he excelled at imitating pieces he heard, such as Mozart’s “Turkish March,” and composing songs. Family and friends thought that Robert was destined to become a concert pianist, but even in early adolescence, Robert knew that he would be a writer.12
          When Robert was fourteen, his father placed him in Regia Scuola Italiana, the Italian high school in Budapest, so that he could become fluent in a second language; there Zend also studied Latin and German. One of his professors was Joseph Füsi, a prominent translator of plays by Luigi Pirandello. Zend describes Füsi as a personal friend who encouraged him to write and translate.13
          Childhood travels to Italy and studies at the Italian high school fostered in Robert an enduring love of languages. He went on to study literature in several other languages and twenty years later earned a graduate degree in Italian literature at the University of Toronto. His high school studies with Füsi likely influenced his decision to write about Pirandello for his master’s thesis.
          Robert seems to have had a happy childhood, nurtured by caring parents who assiduously looked after his health, well-being, and education. Although they could scarcely afford it, they sent him at ages one-and-a-half and six to the beach towns of Grado, Italy, and Laurana, Yugoslavia, respectively, to recover from rickets (a bone disease caused by a deficiency in vitamin D). His father took him on two more trips to Italy to expose him to a different language and culture. And when Robert was in the seventh grade, they hired a private tutor to help him with Latin when his grades in that subject flagged.14
          He remembers fondly that his mother spoiled him. However, she also tended to be over-protective, even accompanying him when he was fourteen to summer camp, where his father had sent him to gain a sense of independence. Teased about his hovering mother, Robert resourcefully wrote to her older brother, Dori, for help. His uncle understood the situation and quickly persuaded his sister to leave her son in peace. After her departure, Robert was able to bond with the other boys.15
          Reminiscences of his parents and childhood surface in some of his stories and poems. In “A Memory,” he tells of a humorous (in retrospect) coming-of-age incident involving his father:

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Once, at fifteen,
I made my poor
              old dad so mad at me

that he chased me
around the table
      till I caught him, finally16

And in “Madeleine,” he experiences a self-referential Proustian moment eating a madeleine and remembering himself at fifteen reading Proust in his parents’ “old apartment” in a “yellow house [on a] curvy little street.” He recalls the magic of his youth in Budapest, and “my mother, my father, my friends and my loves.” He decides to write his memoirs, to be entitled (in typical Zend brain-teaser fashion) In Search of In Search of Time Lost Lost.17
SIEGE OF BUDAPEST          However, the peace of those years was shattered with Hungary’s turbulent entrance into World War II. The years from 1944 to 1945 saw not only the Nazi takeover of Hungary and the deportation and murder of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews and others deemed undesirable by the regime, but also the Soviet invasion of Hungary (between October 1944 and February 1945) and its aftermath of rape, murder, and pillage. The Siege of Budapest by the Soviet military was one of the longest and bloodiest urban battles of World War II in Europe (fig. 4). The extraordinarily violent and chaotic transition from Nazi to Soviet control lasted about one hundred days and resulted in extremely degraded living conditions amid destruction, terror, disease, and starvation. Atrocities against civilians were committed by both Hungarian and Soviet forces. During the Siege, about 38,000 Hungarian civilians were killed. Thousands were executed outright by members of the Arrow Cross, the pro-Nazi Hungarian party.18
ZEND AND PARENTS          Tragically, Robert’s parents were among those killed during that brutal period.19 The shock and grief of his loss left a deep impression on him for the rest of his life.
          In the semi-autobiographical story “My Baby Brother,” Zend directly addresses his parents’ death, interweaving with that event an account of his brother who died before birth. As mentioned previously, the story tells of dreamer who learns that his long-dead parents have returned to life and immediately become pregnant with a boy. Although he is excited at the thought of having a baby brother, he also realizes that this sibling will replace him and accomplish all the things he was unable to, such as becoming a “great composer” because “internal and external forces prevented me from doing so.” Like a Twilight Zone episode, the dream keeps returning to the beginning, and the details of his parents’ demise shift: they died in a camp, they were shot, their apartment was bombed. And he learns of their last words: hopes for their son’s survival. And since their deaths, he says,

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they’ve been my guardian spirits, floating around me, saving me from death on ten or so occasions.20

The dreamer is trapped inside a tape loop, an endless rehearsal of variations on tragedy, not unlike the history of Hungary in the twentieth century. Finally, the dream ends with a scene of a tombstone whose inscription keeps changing. He’s not sure whose tombstone it represents: the baby brother he never had? Or perhaps the dead avenues of a life of foiled plans? The former emblematizes the latter, and from Zend’s multiple losses emerges the recurring theme in his writing of the “unborn child” who “knocks at the gates of existence,” “struggl[ing] to become,” but who ends up “freezing on the snow-fields of white non-existence.”21
          The end of the Nazi’s brief but barbaric chapter in Hungary’s history was following by a protracted Communist totalitarian regime with its own institutionalized system of cruelty and deception. And although life was not easy during Budapest’s long recovery from the destruction and devastation of the war, Zend was able to continue his education. In 1949, he was admitted to Péter Pázmány Science University, where he completed three years of study in Hungarian and Italian literature, and four years of study in Russian literature. In addition, he studied German, Finnish, and classical languages.22
          Soon after he began his university studies, he married Ibi Keil in 1950. Ibi and Robert had been drawn together by their love of classical music and literature. When they met, Robert was entertaining friends by playing a Mozart piano sonata. Ibi recalls that Robert was impressed by her ability to sing melodies from all of Beethoven’s symphonies. On one of their first dates, they attended a performance of The Tragedy of Man by Imre Madách, the famous nineteenth-century Hungarian poet whose long dramatic poem, as we will see later, deeply influenced Zend’s writing and art. And they also shared feelings of empathy for the tragic events of their youth: Robert had lost his parents to the war, and Ibi had lost her parents, younger brother, and other family members to the Holocaust. In 1944, at the age of fifteen, Ibi had been transported along with her parents and brother to Auschwitz. She managed to live through the horrors of Auschwitz and two other camps, but unfortunately her parents and brother did not survive.23
          Although apartments were hard to come by, the young couple, assisted by an uncle of Robert’s, managed to procure a small place. They settled into their new life together as Robert continued his studies and Ibi worked at a factory while pursuing her own education to become a librarian.24
          In 1953, Zend received a Bachelor of Arts degree as well as the official title of Literary Translator. One of his university professors was Tibor Kardos, who edited the literary magazine where from 1953 to 1956 Zend worked as a translator of Italian literature.25
HAMLET AND TREASURED EARTH 250          For four years, from 1948 to 1951 (between the ages of 19 and 22), he worked for the Press and Publicity Department of the Hungarian National Filmmaking Company, the state-controlled cinema during the Stalin regime, where he edited films, designed and produced dozens of movie posters, and wrote film reviews.26 Although many of these films appearing from the state monopoly were vehicles for political messages, for a brief time early into the Communist regime, a variety of more sophisticated films was allowed, as the poster produced by Zend of Hamlet (1948, starring Lawrence Olivier and Jean Simmons) attests (fig. 6). In the same year, he also produced a poster for Talpalatnyi föld (Treasured Earth), the first film realized by the newly nationalized film industry in Hungary (fig. 7).
          But working conditions were far from ideal, as many of the films approved by the state were monotonously devoted to praise of Communism and condemnation of its enemies. Moreover, Zend had to deal with narrow-minded and incompetent administrators at the Hungarian National Filmmaking Company. For Zend, the position was neither a creative nor a worker’s paradise. He made his job tolerable by entertaining friends with satirical reviews of the films with the most hackneyed ideological plots, and joking about the “waterhead” administration, so-called because “the department bosses seemed to have heads made of water.”27
          Someone as outspoken as Zend was bound to come into conflict with officials, and before long he was blacklisted by the Communist administration, which meant that he was effectively barred from securing full-time employment. The event that triggered the blacklisting might seem innocent enough. The government had set up a wall on which the public was invited to write constructive criticism of government services and other socialist functions. Zend had written a bitingly satirical criticism of food that was served at a political event. The officials were not amused, and Zend was fired and prevented from pursuing any kind of meaningful career.28
PIONEERS GUIDE BOOK           To earn sufficient income to help support himself, his wife, and in 1956 their newborn baby, he had to patch together a variety of short-term and part-time jobs. For four years, he worked as a free-lance journalist. In addition, he did writing and editorial work for children’s and youth magazines, edited books for the Young People’s Book Publisher, wrote reports and essays for a teacher’s magazine, wrote for the Hungarian Radio, translated poetry and essays from German, Italian, and Russian sources into Hungarian, and worked with illustrators, artists, and printing shops.29 One of his editing jobs, for example, was a 1955 guide book for the Pioneers, a socialist youth group (fig. 8).
          He loved writing for children, and a friend who edited the chilren’s magazine Pajtás (Pal) helped him to get paid for writing articles.30 Zend reports that his pen name, “Peeper,” was “extremely popular,” and he received fan mail from children all over Hungary.31 He also travelled regularly to visit schools around the country.32
          Zend was also developing as a poet. He wrote his first poems at the age of nine and thirteen and began writing poetry in earnest when he was fifteen,33. A meeting with his literary idol, Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy, made a lasting impression on him.34. During the 1950s, he continued to write poetry, in these earlier years verse of a lyric nature.35
          In 1956, Ibi fulfilled two dreams. After the loss of so many of her relatives to the Holocaust, she longed to start a family. After years of despairing that it might not be possible for her to have children due to the damage her body had sustained in Nazi labour camps, she finally became pregnant with a girl. In the same year that Aniko was born, Ibi fulfilled her long-time dream of becoming a librarian after passing her exams.36
          For the Zends, the years leading up to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution were not easy. Money was so tight that Robert wasn’t even able to afford a typewriter, which would have cost the couple three months’ wages. Something as basic to a poet as a typewriter was a “lifetime ambition.”37 In February 1956, Aniko was born premature, and Ibi describes her during the first eight months as “very thin, very pale, and undernourished,” as the baby didn’t have the proper food and vitamins to thrive.
          Discontent with Soviet rule was rampant, and during the summer and fall of 1956 it grew increasingly bold and vocal. Leafing through children’s books that she was placing back on the shelves, Ibi noticed that even the children were scribbling protests about the government’s hypocrisy:

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Wherever there was anything praising Communism, the Russian army or the Kremlin’s might, the little children had written in, “It’s not true . . . All lies . . . We don’t want Russia.”38

REVOLUTION BERN STATUE          In 1956, Robert was on the brink of publishing his first book, a collection of one hundred poems, with a dissident publishing company, when a landmark event in Hungarian history suddenly halted his plans.39 His and Ibi’s lives were forever and drastically changed as a result of the Hungarian Uprising against Soviet rule. Journalists and university students, encouraged by the June uprising in Poland against the Soviets, began openly to question and debate the future of Hungary. On October 23, students marched to the Parliament Building to voice their protest and list their demands for the sovereignty of Hungary, free elections, freedom of the press, and various individual freedoms severely eroded by Soviet rule (fig. 9). The demonstration ended in a massacre when government snipers and Soviet tanks opened fire on the crowd, leaving about one hundred students dead.
REVOLUTION SUCCESS          As a result of the massacre, widespread and violent protests erupted as outraged Hungarians witnessed the extent to which the Soviets were determined to maintain their grip on the satellite country.40 During the revolt, which lasted from October 23 to 28, 1956, Hungarians engaged in fierce battle with Soviet tanks and soldiers. Victorious citizens clambered onto captured Soviet tanks and waved the Hungarian flag with the detested hammer and sickle cut from its center (fig. 10).
REVOLUTION CHEST 2          By October 28, Hungarian fighters had suffered heavy losses but appeared to have been successful: the tanks withdrew from Budapest and the citizens enjoyed a few days of freedom from Soviet aggression. Ibi remembers the kettles that people placed on street corners to collect money for the widows and children of those killed in battle (fig. 11), and that there was a euphoric feeling of solidarity and mutual trust.41 As the Soviet government officially admitted mistakes in handling the uprising and announced its intention to negotiate with Hungarian officials regarding Soviet military presence, the prospect of a sovereign and independent Hungary, free from Soviet interference, was openly celebrated.42
REVOLUTION SOVIET TANKS RETURN          However, unbeknownst to Hungarian civilians, on November 3 Khrushchev approved Operation Whirlwind, a Soviet military invasion of Hungary involving sixty thousand soldiers. Early in the morning on Sunday, November 4, without warning, hundreds of tanks rolled into Budapest in a swift and brutal crackdown on the Hungarian Revolution (fig. 12), assisted by the AVO (Hungarian secret police). Many Hungarians actively resisted with guns and Molotov cocktails. It was an extremely perilous time: thousands of Hungarians were killed by superior Soviet power, and the dreaded AVO ruthlessly tortured their own compatriots whom they deemed to be enemies of the socialist state. The Soviet Minister of the Defense estimated that within three days the soldiers would have the city under control; in fact, the Hungarian insurgents kept fighting until November 11.43
          It was also a perilous time for Zend, who had been producing and distributing leaflets encouraging Hungarians to revolt.44 If he were discovered and arrested, he could have been severely punished as a traitor.
          Furthermore, Ibi recalls her feelings of anxiety when accompanying the Soviet invasion came a renewed wave of antisemitism with ominous slogans appearing on walls such as “Icig, Icig,45 most nem viszünk Auschwitzig!” (“Jews, this time you won’t even have to go to Auschwitz!”), intimating the possibility of a return to the days of the Arrow Cross terror of 1944—1945.46 Such threats, as well as serious antisemitic incidents, which were occurring in small Hungarian towns as well as in Budapest, sent a chill of fear through the surviving Jewish population in Hungary. In some cases, mobs roamed the streets of small towns attacking Jews and their homes and businesses.47 This danger as well as the Soviet invasion were factors in the Zends’ decision to leave Hungary.48
          Escape was possible if risky: if people walked all or part of the way, they faced the risk of hypothermia and exhaustion as it was the onset of winter; they were also in peril of being captured or shot by AVO border patrols. Hungary was bordered to the north by Czechoslovakia, and to the east by the Soviet Union and Romania. The main directions toward freedom were to the west, toward Austria, or to the south, toward Yugoslavia. The vast majority of the 200,000 Hungarian refugees fled to Austria.49
          Zend could envision the bleak and undignified future for writers and other intellectuals in Hungary. Indeed, after the Soviets regained control of Hungary, many writers were arrested and sentenced to many years in prison, and in January 1957, the Writers’ Association and Journalists’ Union were disbanded by the Soviet-controlled government.50 Zend did not want to live under a regime in which his every word would be scrutinized and subject to state censorship. As he writes in Beyond Labels, the refugee Hungarians crossed the Atlantic

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                                  to get away from the land
where there wasn’t enough room for us
      in the houses and on the streets —
where armies every decade changed their shirt colours
      and massacred us again and again —
where even the trees eavesdropped on us
      whispering behind our backs —
where at night what was left of our souls
      kept on trembling in fear —51

As to his own decision to go into exile, he states,

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I chose to leave my country rather than publish party-line poetry or publish dissident poetry and be jailed, or deported, or silenced afterwards.52

FAKE IDS          For a brief window of opportunity, he and his wife and eight-month-old baby had the chance to escape westward into Austria. A close friend, István Radó, had created fake identification papers for the escape of twenty to thirty persons, and invited Robert and his family to join the group. Fig. 13 shows the card he forged for the Zends, certifying that their apartment had been destroyed, rendering them homeless, and authorizing travel.
          Ibi still vividly recalls the events of their escape.53 She and Robert joined István’s group in a covered truck and hired driver. The mood was somber as she watched the cobblestones retreating through the fog as the truck drove the group of friends away from Budapest and toward Austrian border. They proceeded along back roads, taking advice along the way from fellow Hungarians about which routes were blocked by the Soviets.
LETTER TO SOVIETS          In the event they were stopped by Soviet soldiers, Robert and István had written a letter in Russian addressed to the soldiers (fig. 14), pleading with them to let them go on their way: “Dear Soviet Soldier, We are all ordinary Hungarian workers. Fathers, mothers, children, families, who lost everything—shelter and furniture, earned with hard labour. None of us fought against you. We are not fascists or partisans. We love you as you are also workers—providers for your families. We don’t like capitalists or imperialists. Our only wish is working in peace another twenty-thirty years. Our lives now are in your hands. If your hearts are opened up to love and you also love your family, you will help us and get our gratitude. We call on you, dear Soviet Soldier, help us! In the name of our children!!! Ordinary Hungarians”54
          Fortunately, they didn’t have to use the letter, as they made their way toward the border unchallenged. However, the driver, after having promised to convey them to the border, stopped a few miles short of it and refused to go any farther. Despite feeling betrayed, the group paid him the agreed-upon fee and were compelled to walk for a few hours the rest of the way through rain and mud.
          They had to face one last danger when, just before arriving at the Austrian border, they were halted by a guard, a young Hungarian who had been conscripted into service to prevent his fellow countrymen from escaping. Fortunately, one of their group managed to talk (and bribe) the young man into allowing them to go peacefully on their way, persuading him that their homes had been destroyed and reassuring him that when the situation in Budapest had calmed down, they would return to Hungary — after all, he reasoned with the guard, they were patriotic Hungarians and would not desert their country forever. The bluff and bribe together softened the guard, who allowed them to continue. Finally the group crossed the border, where Austrians approached them with words of welcome and led them to American and Canadian Red Cross shelters and warm food. Such was Ibi’s relief at their safe passage that she fell to her knees and began laughing uncontrollably.
          Canadian and American immigration officials were stationed at the refugee camp, conducting preliminary interviews. Although the Zends had a choice of immigrating to either country, their decision to go to Canada was determined during their interview with the Americans. In 1956, McCarthyism was still casting strong suspicion on any American deemed to be associated with the Communist Party, and thus the American interviewers wanted to know the Zends’ affiliation with and allegiance to the Communist Party of Hungary and the Soviet Union. Ibi, who had been raised in a poor family, was able to get a college education and become a librarian due to the assistance and subsidy of the Hungarian Communist government. If she were to lie, denying that Communism had helped her to achieve her dream, the Americans would accept her as a political refugee.
          But the flip side of life under Communism was a web of lies, a suppression of truth in order to maintain a façade of harmony and prosperity. Ibi, weary of such deception, refused to conceal from the Americans her gratitude for the benefits she had derived from the Communist educational program in order to satisfy them that she would be an acceptable immigrant. Thus Ibi’s sense of integrity sealed the Zends’ decision to go to Canada.
          From the border Red Cross camp they traveled by train to Vienna, along with other refugees, where they stayed until their immigration paperwork was processed and they were ready to travel to their destination (fig. 15).

1 IBI AND ANIKO REFUGEES
1 DONATIONS VIENNA          In Vienna, many voluntary agencies had quickly organized to provide relief for the refugees, such as the National Catholic Welfare Conference, the Lutheran World Federation, the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), the World Council of Churches, and the International Rescue Committee.55 Individuals also took the initiative to collect donations on the street to help the refugees (fig. 16).
1 ZEND VISA          At the Canadian Embassy, the Zends obtained visas to enter Canada (fig. 17). Before moving on, they stayed in Vienna for a few days, spending time with friends whom they knew they would not see for a long time, such as Skutai Ibolya, with whom Zend had worked at the children’s magazine Pajtás (Pal) in Budapest, and István Radó, who had organized the Zends’ escape and who was headed for the United States with his family (fig. 18). Zend would remain friends with Radó for the rest of his life, often flying from Toronto to visit him at his home in Los Angeles.

1 FAREWELL TO VIENNA FRIENDS

Taking the next step on their journey to a new country and home, the Zends gathered their few belongings in a cardboard box, took a taxi to the Vienna train station (fig. 19), and made their way to Liverpool. There, they boarded a Cunard Line ship, travelling towards a freer but uncertain future in Canada.

ZENDS IN VIENNA 250

Next Installment: Part 4.
Canada: “Freedom, Everybody’s Homeland”


Camille Martin

Robert Zend – Part 2. Dissolving Labels and Boundaries

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Part 2. Dissolving Labels and Boundaries

QUOTATION MARKS 7

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.1 —Robert Zend

          Robert Zend (1929–1985) was a Hungarian-Canadian avant-garde writer and artist. As a young man of twenty-seven, he escaped his native Budapest during the 1956 failed Hungarian Uprising against Soviet rule and immigrated to Canada as a political refugee. He settled in Toronto, where he lived until his death in 1985. So nationality-wise, his life was divided into two parts: childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood in Hungary; and the rest of his life in Canada.
          According to the convention of hyphenating nationality, Zend was indeed Hungarian-Canadian. However, considering his profound distrust of labels, the classification might have seemed an attempt to delimit him as a poet and human being. Because of his cosmopolitan outlook, I’ve come to think of him as a citizen of a realm expanded and enriched by his own generous sense of a borderless community of kindred poetic minds. And it is this generosity in his international affinities and aesthetic vision that I hope to develop in this essay.
          It could be said that Zend had a somewhat conflicted relationship with nationality. Arriving in Canada as a political refugee, he celebrated the freedoms that had not been available to him in Soviet-controlled Hungary. And as an exile, he explored themes of alienation, loneliness, loss, and nostalgia for his native country — not unusual for immigrant writers.
          On the other hand, having survived war-torn Europe, where totalitarianism and zealous nationalism had fostered a culture of xenophobia, racism, and hatred, and having seen the cruelties inflicted by the Nazi and then Soviet rule in Hungary, he understood all too well the catastrophic consequences of labeling people. He developed a distrust of boundaries, be they political, social, or aesthetic.
          During World War II, more than 500,000 Hungarian Jews died as a result of the Nazi regime.2 And the Soviet Union, for all its propaganda of unity and egalitarianism, often used xenophobic fears to control the population, and under Stalin promoted an antisemitic campaign of murder and persecution.3 As well, many thousands of Hungarians labeled as “imperialist enemies” of the state were imprisoned, deported to forced labour camps, tortured, and executed, to say nothing of the more than 2,500 Hungarians killed during the 1956 Hungarian Uprising.4 Zend’s experiences of these brutal regimes provided cautionary models of zealous nationalism and racial paranoia and hatred.
          One of Zend’s most poignant statements about labelling is in a speech for a panel on exile at the 1981 International Writer’s Congress. He speaks of totalitarian governments coming to power in Europe during the 1930s, which “began simplifying and polarizing the labelling of people”:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

All labels — whether they were dignifying or humiliating — were meted out to certain groups, not because they did something good or evil, not because they deserved a reward or a punishment . . . but merely for circumstances beyond their control . . . like having been born into a rich or a poor family, into an Aryan or a Jewish family.5

From his experience of that catastrophic era in European history, Zend had developed a strong conviction of

QUOTATION MARKS 7

the complete senselessness of labelling people according to nationality, place of birth, date of birth, religion, class, origin, sex, age, the colour of skin, the number of pimples, or whatever.6

So it’s not surprising that his life’s work dissolves boundaries, and in this essay I will explore three ways in which he did so.
          First, his outlook was international, starting with his high school and university studies of Italian literature and readings of world literature in Hungary. And after Zend’s arrival in Toronto, Zend sought not only Canadian affinities but also artistic and literary friendships and inspiration around the world, perhaps most significantly with Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges but extending to writers, artists, and traditions in other countries such as France, Italy, Belgium, and Japan. Zend, no respecter of cultural boundaries, enthusiastically sought out the literature and art of other nations.
          Indeed, Zend’s first poetry collection, From Zero to One, reveals something of his cosmopolitan openness. He shows his indebtedness to Canadian influences with poems dedicated to Raymond Souster, Marshall McLuhan, Norman McLaren, Glenn Gould, John Robert Colombo, and professors of Italian studies J. A. Molinaro and Beatrice Corrigan. The dedications of other poems demonstrate Zend’s affinities with cultural figures from the United States (Saul Steinberg, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke), France (Marcel Marceau), Belgium (René Magritte), Hungary (science writer Steven Rado, actor Miklós Gábor, and artist Julius Marosán), and ancient Greece (Plato). The title of the book comes from a poetic essay by Frigyes Karinthy, who, as I will explore in greater detail in an upcoming installment, was an important Hungarian literary influence. And the dust jacket bears an exquisite portrait of Zend by French mime artist Marcel Marceau.
          His tributes to writers and artists sometimes takes the form of collaboration, strikingly in the case of Borges and Marceau, and ekphrastic poems, as in his response to the paintings of Belgian artist René Magritte, Hungarian-Canadian artist Marosán, and Spanish-Canadian artist Jerónimo.
          Secondly, his writing thematically dissolves geographical, political, and social boundaries to explore humanity’s place within the cosmos as well as fantastical realms that often involve dreams and time travel. He writes more traditionally about such subjects as romantic relationships and the dilemmas that he faced as an immigrant, but many other works develop philosophical concepts about the connectedness of all persons to one another and to the universe.
          Thirdly, Zend was a polymath, and he used whatever materials were at hand to create works that are multi-genre and multi-media. During his twenty-nine years in Canada he wrote poetry, essays, fiction, and plays; created collages and concrete poetry; used found objects such as cardboard tubes for creating three-dimensional visual poetry; and researched, wrote, directed, and produced over a hundred cultural documentaries for the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC). He was also a musician, filmmaker, and self-described “inveterate doodler.”7 A multi-media artist and chess player, he designed a chess set to be presented by the CBC to Marceau during his 1970 visit to Canada.8 And some of his works defy classification, such as the two-volume multi-genre Oāb (1983, 1985).
          Zend’s cosmopolitan attitude is rooted in childhood and early adulthood experiences that nurtured in him an openness to cultural influences regardless of national boundaries. For Zend, love of city, region, or homeland, or of the culture associated with those places, is accompanied not so much by feelings of pride as by the desire to seek out affinities with writers and artists without regard (as he puts it) to “nationality, place of birth, date of birth, religion, class, origin, sex, age, the colour of skin, the number of pimples, or whatever.”

Coming Up . . .

          The next two installments of my essay will highlight some major events in Zend’s life, giving biographical context to what follows, as well as offer an overview of his published works.
          The last installments will be devoted to the heart of my endeavour, in which I trace some of Zend’s literary affinities and influences, with special emphasis on his roots in Hungary, his transplanted roots in Canada, and his alliances with writers, artists, and cultural traditions worldwide, with particular emphasis on Argentina, France, Italy, Japan, and Belgium. And in some of the samples from his writing, you’ll see some of his cosmic and fantastical concerns. As well, I’ll reveal ways in which his visual work crosses boundaries of genre and discipline.

A Note about Cosmopolitanism

          My use of the term “cosmopolitanism” refers to a historically situated discussion in Canadian culture that came to the fore during the 1940s. The debate between the proponents of a national, nativist literature and the advocates for a more cosmopolitan view intensified when A. J. M. Smith threw down the gauntlet in favour of the latter in his 1943 anthology, The Book of Canadian Poetry. Post-World War II, this debate defined two overarching trends in Canadian poetry criticism: the desire for a national literature rooted in autochthonous themes and imagery, versus a more cosmopolitan spirit of poetry aware of currents of thought in international modernism and embracing their influence. While it is not my purpose to enter into a detailed theoretical and historical explanation of these trends, I wish to set the stage for the strong view of nationalism that gained steam with the aftermath of the Massey Commission since the 1950s, as this is the historical period that Robert Zend entered when he immigrated to Canada in 1956. My use of the term “cosmopolitan” to describe Zend’s cultural outlook does not in any way denigrate regionalism or nativism in content or aesthetic approach (or imply that Zend did so); neither does it suggest that Zend, as a political refugee from Hungary, did not admire and absorb lessons from the literature and art produced within Canadian borders. I hope to demonstrate in my analysis quite the contrary.

Next Installment: Part 3.
Hungary: Childhood and Early Adulthood


Camille Martin

Robert Zend (1929-1985): Poet without Borders – Preface with Portraits

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Preface with Portraits

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All images of work by Robert Zend are copyright © Janine Zend, all rights reserved, reproduced with permission from Janine Zend. Family photographs are reproduced with permission from Janine Zend, Natalie Zend, and Ibi Gabori.

     Welcome to Robert Zend: Poet without Borders, my illustrated exploration of the life and work of the Hungarian-Canadian avant-garde writer and artist. The slide show above consists of photographs from Zend’s family and creative life as well as artistic portraits and self-portraits.
      This project is the result of several months of research, interviews, and writing. It has become very dear to me, and I hope that you will enjoy the results. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to post installments, including biographical sections about Zend’s life in Hungary and Canada, and sections about his Hungarian literary roots, Canadian cross-pollination, and international affinities and influences.
      I’ve had the pleasure and honour of speaking with members of the Zend family (Janine Zend, Natalie Zend, and Ibi Gabori) and of viewing texts, artworks, and other artifacts and memorabilia in the private collection of Janine Zend, for which I offer my deepest gratitude. I’ve also had the opportunity to research the extensive Zend fonds at the University of Toronto Library’s Media Commons. I’d like to thank curators Rachel Beattie and Brock Silversides, who had to put up with many a yelp of joy as I found such priceless artifacts as a photograph of Zend playing chess with the great French mime artist Marcel Marceau — on a chess set of Zend’s own design. These conversations and experiences have greatly enriched my understanding of the life, mind, and work of Robert Zend, for which I am very grateful.
     As I worked on this project, I became acutely aware of my limitation of not knowing the Hungarian language. There are works by Zend in Hungarian that are as yet untranslated into English, and many documents in the Zend fonds that are written only in Hungarian. Nonetheless, I am fortunate that so much was either written by Zend in English or translated into English by him, often with the assistance of John Robert Colombo and others. I sincerely apologize in advance for any errors or omissions in what follows, and encourage correspondence from anyone with greater knowledge on the subject than I. If what I have written stimulates interest in Zend’s life and work, then I will consider my primary goal to have been accomplished.
     The next installment, which will appear on this blog in a few days, will feature the premiere of Linelife, a previously unpublished visual work by Zend to be presented in digitalized form as a short animated film.

If you’d like to receive notification of these installments on Robert Zend, please use the email subscription feature to the upper right. And please kindly spread the word to anyone who might be interested. Your comments and feedback are most welcome.

LINELIFE DIVISION

Next Installment: Part 1.
Linelife: Premiere
of a Rediscovered Treasure


LINELIFE DIVISION

Acknowledgements

I am grateful for the kind assistance and generosity of the following:

The family of Robert Zend: Janine Zend, Natalie Zend, and Ibi Gabori

Rachel Beattie and Brock Silverside, curators of the Zend fonds at Media Commons, University of Toronto Library

Edric Mesmer, Librarian at the University at Buffalo’s Poetry Collection and Curator of The Center for Marginalia, and the other wonderful librarians of The Poetry Collection for their research assistance

Brent Cehan of the Language and Literature division of the Toronto Reference Library

The Librarians in the Special Arts Room Stacks at the Toronto Reference Library

The Librarians at Reference and Research Services and at the Petro Jacyk Central and East European Resource Centre, Robarts Library, University of Toronto Libraries

Susanne Marshall (former Literary Editor for The Canadian Encyclopedia)

Irving Brown

Robert Sward

bill bissett

Jiří Novák


Camille Martin

Eric Cheyfitz: the “grand hallucination that we are talking with others”

“Those of us who live within the privilege of Western patriarchy live in an increasingly narrow psychic and social space. For we cannot afford to enter most of the social spaces of the world; they have become dangerous to us, filled with the violence of the people we oppress, our own violence in alien forms we refuse to recognize. And we can afford less and less to think of these social spaces, to imagine the languages of their protest, for such imagining would keep us in continual conflict, in continual contradiction with ourselves, where we are increasingly locked away in our comfort. Terrorizing the world with our wealth and power, we live in a world of terror, afraid to venture out, afraid to think openly. Difference and dialogue are impossible here. We talk to ourselves about ourselves, believing in a grand hallucination that we are talking with others.”

Eric Cheyfitz, The Poetics of Imperialism

Camille Martin
http://www.camillemartin.ca

Poetry’s 49th Parallel: Canadian/American Shibboleths

Is this a Canadian poet?

Is this Canadian poetry?

          I photo-shopped the above image of myself because I’ve never taken such a staged picture of myself. And I’ve never really experienced an identity crisis of nationality since immigrating from the United States to Canada. But I have been thinking about nationality lately. When I was living in the United States, I never described myself as an American poet. And these days, a full-fledged citizen of Canada and a resident for almost five years, I don’t generally refer to myself as a Canadian poet. I’ve long harboured a fantasy of belonging to a city-state, and when I was in the United States, I referred to myself as a New Orleans poet, just as now, in Canada, I call myself a Toronto poet.
          I’ve had a love-hate relationship with both the United States and Canada. Canada: health care system rocks, winter sucks. United States: Obama rocks (most of the time); Homeland Security, the Patriot Act, and Total Information Awareness (remember that short-lived megalomanic agency?) suck. In New Orleans, at the height of terrorist paranoia and duct tape frenzy, I was threatened with arrest for taking photographs, on public ground, of well-known monumental sculptures in front of a bank. That sucked.
          But my identity was never very dependent on nationality. Especially since Desert Storm, I haven’t self-identified as American, but I have always defined myself in part as Cajun. For me, the local or marginal identity, determined by patterns of settlement, wins out over the relatively artificial boundaries of nationhood. Even so, although I consider myself Cajun, not only by virtue of my father being Cajun but also because I was steeped in Cajun culture since birth, I was at the same time always looking over the shoulders of the culture, to an extent experiencing it vicariously. In Cajun country, I’m a Cajun and something of an alien. And now I live in Canada as a Canadian citizen.
          Canada’s identity has historically been shaped, in part, by its conscientious differentiation from the cultural behemoth south of the 49th parallel: to generalize, collectivism over individualism, peaceful resolution over escalation and violent enforcement, diplomacy and compromise over chauvinism and autocracy. However, even though I’m more sympathetic to such professed Canadian ideals, I don’t feel a strong desire to differentiate my poetry by nationality. In matters of culture (not so much pop culture, in which a certain amount of American hegemony is guaranteed by television, film, and commercial culture), I’m all for cross-pollination. I’ve been influenced by poets from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Japan, Hungary, Iran, Australia, Portugal, Ancient Greece, Finland . . . and the list goes on.
          Yet the reality is that Canadian government grants do not generally encourage reading venues to invite American poets (though this might be relaxing a little). Customs duties and taxes ensure that one is far less likely to find American poets on the shelves of Canadian bookstores. And vice versa, I hasten to add. Some American poets I knew were hard-pressed to name a single Canadian poet. I plead guilty to having been fairly ignorant, with some exceptions, of Canadian poetry before my move here. And I continue to bridge the knowledge and appreciation gap.
          Another reality is the anthology by nationhood. The anthology of Canadian poetry is a recurring staple in the poetry publishing world and a vexed one because of issues of inclusion and exclusion (a nature of the anthology beast) as these issues collide with issues of ethnicity and political borders. To see how complex the issue can become, read George Elliotte Clarke’s essay “Must All Blackness Be American?: Locating Canada in Borden’s ‘Tightrope Time,’ or Nationalizing Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic.”
          I’ve yet to see the hybrid American-Canadian anthology. Have I truly crossed the border poetically when I’m included in a Canadian anthology? I was recently featured in a Canadian online magazine, ditch, as a Canadian poet. There I was, in the inner circle along with the true-blooded Canadians, born under the loving gaze of Queen Elizabeth. Never having switched countries before, this was a new experience. I felt as though my mask of Canadian-ness might slip off at any moment and I would be revealed as a poser.
          So am I a Canadian poet? I remember the first grant that I got, two years after moving to Canada as a Permanent Resident—a Work-in-Progress grant from the Ontario Arts Council. A couple of my Canadian poet friends expressed surprise that I was officially qualified to apply for such a grant. Obviously, for granting purposes, I was as Canadian as the true children of the True North.
          What about my poetry – is there anything “Canadian” (however that might be defined) about it? A good deal of my poetry stems from my experience in the moment, wherever I happen to be: walking through downtown New Orleans, riding the Métro in Paris, or sitting in my Canadian apartment gazing at Canadian clouds drifting across the northern skies. As soon as I moved up here, my surroundings crept into my poems: ice and snow, especially, but also street scenes and people.
          As my new book, Sonnets, which was written entirely in Canada funded by a grant from the Ontario Arts Council, is collected in libraries in Canada and the United States, it’s interesting to note that Canadian libraries use the classification for a Canadian poet, and American libraries use the classification for an American poet. That’s fine by me—I’m happy to be claimed by both countries.
          And what do/should I call myself? Am I a hyphenated Canadian? I’ve read a bit about the dilemma of immigrants regarding whether or not to hyphenate the old and the new countries: Somali-Canadian, for example. And some bemoan perceived racial overtones in the tendency to hyphenating all but native-English-speaking immigrants of European descent. “British-Canadian” and “American-Canadian” are less frequently heard expressions than, say, Pakistani-Canadian. And “American expat” is heard more frequently than “Chinese expat.” I hyphenated myself once recently—American-Canadian—for a bio, just to try it on for size. It felt odd. First, to me the hyphenation implies that one is retaining a connection to the cultural heritage from the country of origin, which doesn’t ring true to me. Maybe Cajun-Canadian would be more accurate. Also, there’s a part of me—the part that made me want to move here—that wanted to be just “Canadian.”
          I don’t think that I can give a straight or easy answer to the question of whether or not am—or feel—Canadian. “Canadian” to an immigrant might not be a fact so much as an assumed identity. Facts: I was born in El Dorado, Arkansas; I’ve lived most of my life in Louisiana; I came to Canada as a Permanent Resident in October 2005; I’ve lived in Toronto for almost five years; I’m now a Canadian citizen as well as an American citizen; my ancestors were Acadians in present-day Nova Scotia, then Acadie (and, interesting sidenote, until a generation or so ago, there were still older Cajun folk in Louisiana who referred—not without a tinge of disdain—to “les Américains” and who retained a distant memory of the Mi’kmaqs).
          I’m ambivalent regarding a sense of national belonging as an American or a Canadian. No doubt part of that lack of nationalistic pride or fervour stems from my friendship with anarchists in New Orleans and France for many years and my interest in anarchist critique, historically, of the nation-state. I’ve never been the patriotic type.
          But I do identify ethnically as a Cajun. And since making my recent “pilgrimages” to Nova Scotia, the land of my French ancestors, I’ve come to feel a sense of closeness to the people living in the remaining Acadian towns and villages of southwestern Nova Scotia, such as West Pubnico and Church Point. Talking with the Acadian descendants in Nova Scotia, I sometimes had the eerie feeling that I had been teleported to rural south-central Louisiana. It wasn’t only the French names and language, it was the gregariousness, the unreserved joking, the welcoming of strangers, the nicknames, the proclivity for satirical mimicry and for storytelling, the close-knit community.
          I suppose I am something of a poser. I pose as a Canadian poet for grants because I can legitimately do so—I have for several years now qualified for grants issued by the governments of Canada, Ontario, and Toronto. And I’m extremely grateful for the privilege to live in a country where the government actually encourages the arts. When I first moved to Canada, I was fascinated by the new currency (loonies and toonies: cool) and by something in very small print on the twenty-dollar bill that still jolts me into an awareness of Canadian difference. I was accustomed to symbols of authority, monotheism, and divine providence on American paper currency. On the Canadian twenty-dollar bill, I saw images of sculptures by Bill Reid, a Canadian artist depicting aspects of the Haida culture of Canada’s northwest coast and, in tiny print, the words of French-Canadian poet Gabrielle Roy: “Could we ever know each other in the slightest without the arts?”

   

Some might shrug and say, “lip service”—especially considering recent budget cuts to the arts in Canada. Nonetheless, that statement as well as the generous granting system (generous especially when compared to comparable government funding in the United States) tends to create an atmosphere in which the arts are valued.
          So as far as the government is concerned, I’m Canadian. And I pose as a Canadian poet for anthologies with the rationale that most of the poetry that I’m writing is born in Canada (does that make my poetic progeny second-generation Canadian?).
          I also pose as an American poet because, after all, my poetic lineage is largely and undeniably American since I wasn’t exposed to much Canadian poetry when I started writing poetry in earnest. And besides, my American/Southern accent is hard to hide. Try as I might to switch to “zed” and to learn the subtleties of interjecting “eh” in conversation, I’m not sure I’ll ever pass the Canadian shibboleth.
          And aware as I am of subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) manifestations of anti-Americanism, I trust that most people involved in the arts are enlightened enough not to harbour irrational prejudices against those Americans who have decided, for whatever reason, to leave the United States and embrace Canada. Surely attitudes have changed since the time when a Czech-Canadian painter was denied a grant by the Canada Council of the Arts because, as he was told by the panel, his work wasn’t “Canadian” enough. Following that rejection, he didn’t change his style but if you look closely, he has subtly worked into some of his paintings a maple leaf, as if to say with wry humour, ok, now is my work Canadian enough? Nonetheless, a Canadian press not long ago turned down a manuscript of mine because it was deemed to be “too American.” Is there a lingering bias against Canadian poets born in the United States? Does this reflect cultural protectionism, and if so, is there any place for this in decisions about grants and publications?
          The 49th parallel isn’t meaningless—of course, Canadian poetry has its own heritage, lineages, traditions, schools, tendencies, and so on. I’ve noticed a more prevalent concern with political issues—ecology, feminism, poverty, diversity—in both mainstream and avant verse. And there is an ongoing fascination among many Canadian poets, especially of the experimental persuasion, with conceptual poetry: oulipian gestures seem to thrive here among certain poets and readers. Molly Peacock, in her forward to Open Field: 30 Contemporary Canadian Poets, notes another difference and gives the following advice for Americans reading that anthology:

“Don’t panic if each poem doesn’t start with a bang. While American poets train for the high-diving board, jackknifing into the deep end of the pool, Canadian poets presume that readers will let them wade out until their feet no longer touch bottom. So if you are used to the fast splash of the American poem, a Canadian poem may seem as interminable as a raga is to the listeners of a pop song. In other words, you may feel yourself wondering when these poets will get to their points. In fact, there will probably be several points; Canadian time is time unwinding, not time in a flash.” (xiv)

I could say something similar (though probably not as eloquently as Molly) about some American poetry. Nonetheless, broad strokes are useful for conceptualizing cultural difference. And Sina Queyras has some trenchant observations, in her introduction to that anthology, of some of the characteristics and tendencies in Canadian poetry, especially regarding attitudes toward nature. Such anthologies, designed to introduce Americans to Canadian work that deserves to be appreciated, are needed to bridge the gap of ignorance on the part of American readers. That kind of cultural exchange can only be a healthy thing.
          The cultural differences between Canada and the United States are also reflected in daily life, and I can’t write an essay about being an American poet in Canada without commenting on such differences that I immediately became aware of when I set foot in Toronto in February 2004 to get a feel for the city where I wanted to relocate. Observing the advertising in the streets and subways, I noticed that the atmosphere of crass commercialism and materialism to which I was accustomed was a little toned down, and public service billboards were more frequent. The lack of racial tension on the streets was a refreshing change from the charged and often angry atmosphere in New Orleans, a city that still carries the baggage of historical racism. The rude, sexist comments by men in urban American streets were simply non-existent here. Once, as I was emerging from a Toronto subway station, a young man called out to me, smiling, “Looking good tonight!” It was sweetly appreciative; I smiled back.
          And I felt relatively safe in Toronto. I remember walking after dark with another woman to a poetry reading soon after I moved here. She decided to take a short cut through a park. I was terrified. “Are you sure it’s safe?” I asked. She just laughed and kept walking. I followed, looking around warily. I don’t think she realized the extent to which people in New Orleans are regularly mugged and even killed in parks. Tourists wandering into New Orleans’ famous parks and cemeteries are easy targets. “Another tourist shot in Armstrong Park” became an unfortunate cliche. New Orleans remains the murder capital of the United States—an extreme example, perhaps, but all major American cities struggle with similar kinds of problems—poverty, crime, racism, poor education, extreme divisions of wealth and poverty, and the ill-effects of decades of unaffordable or unavailable health care and other social services. Canadian cities struggle with some of these issues as well, but generally speaking, the problems are not as extreme as in the United States.
          I’m thrilled to be living in Canada, and I have come to love Toronto. I live downtown, in the heart of Old Toronto, in a cooperative apartment complex. The building is owned by a non-profit corporation; thus there is no landlord charging exorbitant rent while neglecting repairs. When I first moved here, I felt like Mary Tyler Moore in Minneapolis, ecstatically tossing her hat into the air (if you’ll pardon the American pop culture reference). After experiencing the demoralization of life in New Orleans, pre- and post-Katrina, I was elated to live in a city and a country with a different social ethos.
          As happy as I am to be here, I suppose I will continue to side-step the issue of Canadian-ness by simply saying that I’m a Toronto poet or to be even more neutral that I’m a poet based in Toronto. But I will also say that living in Canada has been extraordinarily good for me, and I wish I’d moved here years ago. I love many aspects of this country like I never loved the United States. I’ve come to admire many Canadian poets whose work I was never exposed to before I moved here. I’m here to stay.
          Am I masking, through my ambivalence, a secret desire to be Canadian, cut and dried, strong and free? No doubt. Part of me likes the idea of being Canadian. But I also know that the issues of nationality, ethnicity, and identity are a lot more complicated, for those born in Canada as well.
          My eyes are blue-green. Some days I see them as blue, other days as green. I can talk about the genetics of the colour, the lineage of ancestors from whom I inherited either colour, the factors that influence the colour that I perceive on a given day (such as the clothes I’m wearing, or my lover describing them as blue). I can talk a lot about those things. But deciding which side of the colour fence I’m on is just not something I’m very passionate about.

1 http://www2.athabascau.ca/cll/writers/english/writers/geclarke/locating_canada.php



Camille Martin