Category Archives: short stories

Robert Zend – Part 11. International Affinities: Italy (Leopardi and Pirandello)

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Part 11. International Affinities:
Italy (Leopardi and Pirandello)

Melancholy and Masks

          Zend’s father laid the foundation for his son’s cosmopolitan outlook by traveling with the boy in Italy during his childhood and sending him to an Italian high school in Budapest. Thus early on, Zend was reading Italian literature and studying with professors such as Joseph Füsi, a specialist in the works of playwright Luigi Pirandello. After Zend immigrated to Canada, he continued his formal studies of Italian literature by earning a Master of Arts degree in 1969 in the Department of Italian and Hispanic Studies at the University of Toronto, where he studied a wide variety of Italian authors and wrote his thesis on Pirandello.
          Two very contrasting Italian writers held a particular fascination for Zend: Leopardi, a lugubrious and cynical Romantic poet, and Pirandello, an experimental playwright who revolutionized international modernist theatre.

Giacomo Leopardi (1798—1837):
An Atom in My Ear-lobe

LEOPARDI 250          Zend describes Leopardi as “one of the greatest Italian poets; also one of the most pessimistic poets of world literature.”1 Leopardi (fig. 1), a poet associated with the Romantic era, lived much of his short life in a small town near the Adriatic sea. He’s best known for Canti, a collection of poems, and Zibaldone, diaristic prose writings on various topics. The voice that emerges from Leopardi’s oeuvre is a relentlessly melancholic outpouring from an alienated misfit contemplating humanity’s delusions and the absurdity of existence.
          Typical for Leopardi’s pessimism is his view that in the end, mankind, old and burdened, arrives

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where his way
and all his effort led him:
terrible, immense abyss
into which he falls, forgetting everything.
This, O virgin moon,
is human life.

Man is born by labour,
and birth itself means risking death.
The first thing that he feels
is pain and torment, and from the start
mother and father
seek to comfort him for being born.
As he grows,
they nurture him,
and constantly by word and deed
seek to instill courage,
consoling him for being human.

Parents can do no more loving
thing for their children.
But why bring to light,
why educate
someone we’ll console for living later?
If life is misery, why do we endure it?2

Zend shares with Leopardi the mindset of a misfit and skeptic contemplating the absurdity of life and death, albeit often with a more playful tone. The following minimalist poem, for example, compresses Leopardi’s outlook into two words:

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World’s Shortest Pessimistic Poem

Hope?
Nope.3

          And in Zend’s tongue-in-cheek “An Epistle to Leopardi,” addressed to “my dear dead friend, / Italian count, poet, philosopher and misfit,” the epistoler tries unsuccessfully to assume the bleak mood appropriate to the dread of death and (quoting Leopardi) its “dark tunnel,” “steep abyss,” and “annihilation.” Although everything dies, from “Universe [to] Quark,” he imagines an afterlife in which one of Leopardi’s “former atoms now resides somewhere / in one of my ear-lobes,” or conversely, “one of the molecules in my brain / was part of the white of [Leopardi’s] big toenail.”
          However, try as he might, he finds himself unable to experience the emotions that Leopardi associates with mortality: relief, remorse, unhappiness, and anxiety. As an antidote to Leopardi’s austere melancholia without the promise of paradise, he deploys an absurdly tautological argumentat to prove Leopardi’s obsessive theme to be meaningless: his problem is “not death, but existence,” “against which we have but one weapon: Life,” which, coming full circle, is in turn “solved by death.”4 In their own ways, Zend and Leopardi were religious skeptics or agnostics preoccupied with death, though Zend often takes a more ludic and absurdist tack in his version of existential pessimism. In the epistle Zend cannot help parodizing Leopardi’s gloomy thoughts. However, sometimes he explores the theme more poignantly, as in the following excerpt from “After I Die”:

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After I die
Time will be Space
and I will move back and forth in it
      every step a generation
      and I will watch
      the child I was
      the man I was —
            After I die
            “I” will be “he”

After I die
Now will be Then
and I will remember all who lived
      Napoleon and Socrates
      and Columbus and Leonardo
      and Moses and Gilgamesh
      and all the nameless ones
      will be like days in a long life —
            After I die
            “I” will be “they”

After I die
Here will be There
and I will expand or shrink at will
      the soul of atoms and their particles
      of suns and their planets
      of galaxies and their solar systems
      of universes and their galaxies
      will be my soul and they will rotate in me —
            After I die
            “I” will be “it”5

Even in his poems that are most focused on death, Zend transforms the almost solipcistic Leopardian mortal into a being who posthumously merges with others who have gone before him and with the cosmos.

Luigi Pirandello (1867—1936):
A meaning his author never dreamed of giving him . . .

PIRANDELLO          Luigi Pirandello (fig. 2) is an Italian playwright whose writing is perhaps closer in spirit to Zend’s work than the despairing Leopardi.6 Keeping in mind that in high school Zend studied with a prominent translator of Pirandello, and that Zend wrote his master’s thesis on Pirandello, it is not surprising that his work shares significant themes with the avant-garde Italian dramatist.
          Pirandello’s plays revolutionized contemporary theatre. Sometimes framed as metadramas, they create layers of illusion and reality that ultimately sabotage any attempt at epistemological certainty or truth. They usually contain elements of traditional realism, but the audience is soon entangled in a different sort of drama in which narrative fixtures of character, identity, conflict, development, discovery, and resolution are subverted, and nothing is certain.
          The plot of an early play, Right You Are, If You Think You Are, consists of the detective work of townspeople attempting to decipher the puzzling behaviour of a family living in their midst. However, that plot quickly spirals into a comedy of errors as the hubris of the busybodies leads them to make incorrect assumptions again and again regarding acts and motives. Each layer of supposed certainty is shown to be deceptive. Peeling back the mistaken reality reveals not ultimate truth but yet another layer of illusion.
          One character, Laudisi, serves as a kind of Greek chorus, a foil to the bourgeois characters steeped in a comfortable set of certainties regarding their perceptions. He points out the fundamental error of the amateur sleuths’ presumptuous conclusions:

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What can we really know about other people? who they are, what they are, what they do, why they do it?7

As Signora Ponza (one of the inscrutable family members) points out:

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I am . . . nobody. . . . I am whoever I’m thought to be.8

Signora Ponza is a “Pirandellian character” in the sense that she seems to have no fixed identity; instead, she is like a mirror reflecting the mask that others want to see in her, and which allows no assumption about her past history or motivations to stick.
          Zend wrote about such illusions of the self’s doubleness in his thesis on Pirandello’s characters:

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I am two – that is how Pirandello’s human being reveals himself . . . . the one who I am and the one who I think I am. I am two: the one who I think I am and the one who the others think me to be. . . . The mask, my second face, is for society because we are two: the individual alone and the individual in society. My mask can be so strongly attached that it will become my face and my face can be weakened under it so that it will be like a mask. Sometimes I have to wear it for a life-time, sometimes for one occasion. It is possible that my real self will break out for a minute and will be forced to retreat. . . . This is Pirandello’s man. It is like a tree which divides itself into two branches, each branch divides itself again into two smaller branches, and again and again.9

DIAGRAM DETAILZend, who had the unusual ability to visualize texts as diagrams or glyphs (as we saw in the installment on Borges), offers in his thesis diagrams showing the complex network of doubling among Pirandello’s characters, such as those in a short story in the collection Novelle per un anno (fig. 3).
          Less technical (befitting a thesis) and more playful (befitting a doodle) is Zend’s tribute to Pirandello in one of his sketches, capturing the sense of Pirandellian doubleness, of multiple characters within characters (fig. 4):

PIRANDELLO DOODLE 550

          In Six Characters Searching for an Author, Pirandello takes uncertainty and illusory masks a giant leap into the abyss and wreaks havoc with any pretense at the normalcy of a self-enclosed drama. Six characters, abandoned by their author, wander onto a stage being prepared for rehearsal. They are seeking a venue in which to flesh out their drama, using the director as author to “complete” their destined roles. The play-within-a-play device assumes a meta-narrative dimension fraught with questions of authorial control, of the knowability of identity, and of the separation of reality from staged illusion.
          Zend observes that “Pirandello’s art consists mostly of showing this frame within a frame in many ways”: as flashback, or forecast, or both: “the flashback for one who experienced it in the past might become a forecast for the other who will experience it in the future. . . . Pirandello plays a very strange game in these plays,” using “the big frame within the small frame” so that it becomes difficult to distinguish “which one is the mirror and which one is the mirrored.”10 In the end,

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the audience leaving the theatre will feel that their life is watched by an invisible audience somewhere and [that] they live on a stage, infinitely huge.11

Six Characters in Search of an Author creates just such a hall-of-mirrors illusion. It also explores the theme of humanity’s inability to communicate with one another. The characters reject early twentieth-century bourgeois society’s “complacent self-assurance [and] claim to superior knowledge and wisdom.” They are “beset by doubts about their identity, about the possibility of ever being able to communicate it to others, to establish a normal relationship with their society.”12
          One of the six, the father of a dysfunctional family, serves a dual role as both character and Greek chorus, interpreting the various layers of illusions to the director and the “real” actors. Here he explains the barrier between self and other:

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We all have a world of things inside of us, each a world of his own! And how can we understand each other, sir, if in the words I use I put the meaning and value of things as they are within me; while those who listen inevitably invest my words with their own meaning and value from the world within themselves? We think we understand each other, but we never do!13

Not only are other people like black boxes whose motives and identities can never be known with certainty, but subjectivity itself is illusive and indecipherable, due in part to the multiplicity of identities within the self, as the father points out:

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While every one of us believes he is “one,” he is instead “many” . . . in accord with all the possibilities of being that are within us: “one” with this person, “another” with that, all very different! And we have the illusion, meanwhile, that we’re always being the same for everyone, and always that same “one” that we believe ourselves to be, in each of our acts. While it is not true, it is not true!14

The father, who is himself a character at large, separated from his author, observes the phenomenon of characters (and, by extension, literary works) taking on a life of their own:

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When a character is born, he immediately acquires such independence even from his own author that he can be imagined by everybody in situations in which his author never thought of putting him, and takes on a meaning, at times, that his author never dreamed of giving him!15

All of these illusions, including Pirandello’s meta-narrative framework in Six Characters in Search of an Author, are at the heart of Zend’s two-volume multi-genre Oāb.
          The primary illusion in Oāb is that of the creator’s hubris, his blindness to the growing independence of the creation he gave birth to. Zėnd (a character in Zend’s creation myth — note the diacritical mark above the “e”) writes into existence a two-dimensional being made of ink and paper, Oāb. Zėnd believes that Oāb can never be more than him, that Oāb is entirely knowable because Zėnd has taught him everything, that Oāb is dependent upon Zėnd for existence, and that Zend is at the center of Oāb’s universe.
          Zėnd as god-like creator of Oāb believes that he can control his “written doll”:

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Look, I can force you to obey:
(since I am writing what you say . . .)16

Like a Pirandellian character unmoored from his creator and “tak[ing] on a meaning . . . that his author never dreamed of giving him,” Oāb assumes a life of his own. His bid for independence becomes painfully clear in his rebellious response to Zėnd’s questions:

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“Oāb, what are you doing?”
His voice was full of dignity, almost (isn’t it strange?) “Human dignity”: “It isn’t your business. Do you mind?”
“Not my business? What do you mean? Are you not mine? Didn’t I create you?”
“So what? Now I am. Whether or not you created me, I am I. I live my own life. And you cannot destroy me. Not even if you wanted to.”17

Like the complacent, self-assured amateur detectives in Pirandello’s Right You Are, If You Think You Are, Zėnd is blind to Oāb’s need for independence. Laudisi could have been speaking of Zėnd when he says of the busybodies:

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See these crazy people? Instead of paying attention to the phantom they carry around with them, inside themselves, they’re running, bursting with curiosity, after someone else’s phantom! And they think it’s a different thing.18

One of the biggest illusions of all in Oāb is that of Zėnd’s belief in his authorship, not only of Oāb the creature, but of Oāb the books. In reality, as Oāb points out, it is the reverse: it was Oāb who chose his creator, who manipulated his author (tricking him at times into getting what he wants), and who is the literary creator of his eponymous books:

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[Ïrdu:] But didn’t he write it, type it,
draw, design, and lay it out?
[Oāb:] Yes, but I led his hand, don’t ever doubt it!19

Similarly, in Six Characters in Search of an Author it’s not so much the author who writes the characters, but the characters who choose and create their authors.
          Unlike many of Pirandello’s “blind” characters, Zėnd does come to understand some of the illusions that have blinded him to his flaws. When Ardô, the creator of Zėnd, dies, Zėnd writes a eulogy that acknowledges Ardô’s many faces — in Pirandellian terms, the many masks making up “all the possibilities of being”:

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I see a firework of faces, each different,
yet all only variations of one face, yours,
a noble, still familiar, a proud, still tender face:
my oldest memory.
Your head daydreaming high above the clouds,
your feet firmly rooted in the ground,
your heart filled with forgiveness—
an inconceivable tangle of complex contradictions20

Such is the confusion of identity and authorship in Oāb, that Zend could have been referring to his own work and not Pirandello’s when he wrote of the narrative

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games . . . of mirrors and parallel and shadows and portraits and alteregos. And their plots usually end with a new start, making a spiral out of a circle:
 
PIRANDELLO PATTERN21

Oāb also ends with the genesis of book, authorship, and character cycling back on itself and starting creation anew with the perpetual cycle of death and birth (fig. 5):

OAB HOW I WROTE THIS BOOK

A Universe Disturbed

          Zend was drawn to the works of both Leopardi and Pirandello because of similarities with their philosophical and literary approaches. Yet his own work retains his own outlook that reveals to the reader a Zendian frame of reference.
          Not so thoroughly pessimistic as Leopardi, Zend saw in death not the bitter conclusion to a pointless existence. Instead, he found comfort in humour and in the view of death as part of a much larger narrative of matter and energy in the universe.
          And not so immersed in postmodern uncertainty and unknowability as Pirandello, Zend sees not a pessimistic prison of mirrors but a cosmic metanarrative in which creature creates his creator. In a reversal of time, the created being comes “from the petrified future into the fog of the past” and now carries the dead father to his own origins, “to the domain where there are no uncertainties, / where there are no words to be found, no decisions to be made, / no struggles, no doubts, no threats and no hopes.”22 In Pirandello, authorial hubris often ends in a stalemate of thwarted attempts to get the narrative on track; in Zend, authorial hubris becomes a generational tale of creation in which death may spell material dissolution, yet the energy of existence is conserved and perpetuated, and the universe is never the same for it.

Next Installment — Part 12.
International Affinities:
Belgium (Magritte) and Japan


Camille Martin

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Robert Zend – Part 9. International Affinities: Argentina (Borges)

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Part 9. International Affinities:
Argentina (Borges)

Introduction:
Belonging Nowhere but Humanity

          In the previous sections, I traced some of Robert Zend’s Hungarian literary roots as well as Canadian cross-pollinations. In this section, I’ll explore his affinities with artists, writers, and cultural traditions around the world, focusing on some of the more significant ones from Argentina, France, Italy, Belgium, and Japan.
          Zend openly expressed his admiration for writers and artists in many countries — one only has to look at the numerous dedications in his first two books of poetry. But on a deeper level, Zend’s tributes often took the form of collaborations of various types. He wrote ekphrastic poems (based on works by Norman McLaren, René Magritte, Julius Marosan, and Jerónimo, for example), absorbed lessons from the stories of Jorge Luis Borges, engaged in poetic correspondence with Marcel Marceau (for whom he also designed a chess set), and incorporated elements of Japanese traditions such as haiku and origami into his poetry and visual work. There’s a spirit of generosity in such collaborations, which are at once quintessentially Zend-ish and overtly otherly. Zend’s title of a draft for a collaboration with Czech-Canadian artist Jiri Ladocha captures something of that spirit: Zendocha-land.
          Zend wished to model his creative life after his Hungarian mentor, Frigyes Karinthy, in that

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[Karinthy] wasn’t willing to accept any label, either for himself or for others. . . . He didn’t identify with any group; he belonged nowhere, but this non-belonging meant for him an extremely strong belonging to Man, to Mankind, to Humanity.1

Many factors shaped Zend’s cosmopolitan outlook: the historically international culture of Budapest and its tradition of literary translation, his early exposure to Italian culture, his admiration of Karinthy, and his opportunities as a CBC producer to travel around the world interviewing writers and other cultural figures. Zend’s cosmopolitanism is part of his legacy to Canadian culture, and thus it is also part of Canadian cultural history.
          As I mentioned in a previous installment, certain literary tropes and approaches were part of the widespread influence of international modernism and postmodernism — for example, the proliferation of forms with which to question epistemological certainty, and the avant-garde experimentation with typewriter art and concrete poetry. In Zend’s case, however, the relationships and influences are more often than not revealed through collaborations or by specific allusions and acknowledgements. Thus it’s possible to draw meaningful literary and artistic connections between Zend and some of those world-wide others.

Argentina — Jorge Luis Borges

 
                                        Now I know why you came here
                                        from the other end of the world.
                                        Actually, I should have written Oāb . . .
                                        — Borges to Zend2
 
ZEND BORGES 4 250          The reader of Zend’s short stories in Daymares is likely to notice that they are on a similar wavelength as the fantastical fiction of Borges. Using surreal, mythical, or dream-like settings, both explore philosophical and metafictive concepts, toy with notions of infinity, expand the limits of human cognition, and posit labyrinthine or paradoxical quandaries, leaving the reader with a feeling that there is a mystery at the heart of existence and the universe that will not yield to rational analysis. Zend was already writing in a fantastical vein when in the early 1970s he began reading Borges and working on a CBC Ideas program entitled “The Magic World of Borges.” Lawrence Day, a member of the chess club that Zend frequented, describes how the idea came about:

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As a chess player he was about 1600 but as a thinker he was easily a Grandmaster. Borges came up in a conversation. He got interested. A month later he was in Buenos Aires interviewing him for the Ideas program. Nice job eh, fly around the world interviewing people with ideas and get paid to do it!3

ZEND BORGES 1 250          Zend indeed took full advantage of the opportunities afforded him by his role as producer at CBC by traveling around the world interviewing persons who made important contributions to culture and science. And by doing so he made a lasting contribution to Canadian intellectual life. In Hungary, his travel opportunities had been limited and closely monitored for signs of the intention to defect. After he finally escaped and immigrated to Canada in 1956, it was as though his pent-up desire to travel the world and meet other writers were suddenly given the freedom and means to be fulfilled.
          Spending two weeks with Borges in Buenos Aires in 1974 not only benefited the CBC’s Ideas program, but it also proved a tremendous encouragement to Zend as a writer. After his visit, he began to write more stories exploring the fantastical, inspired by what he had learned from Borges to translate his own experienced, dreamed, and imagined worlds into the complex, multi-layered, and sometimes self-reflexive forms congenial to their narrative content. His visit was documented with some remarkable photographs, which I’ve uploaded to this installment, including one of Zend strolling with Borges through the latter’s family mausoleum, and another sitting in a Buenos Aires café with Borges and his secretary (figs. 1, 2, 6). His conversations with Borges are also commemorated in a remarkable collaboration between the two, “The Key,” published in Exile Magazine in 1974.

The Key to the Labyrinth:
A Zend-Borges Collaboration

 
                                        “It should be written by the Table!” I said.
                                        “It is written by the Table,” Borges said and laughed.4
 
          Zend’s meetings with Borges offered him the opportunity to cultivate in the older writer an important mentor for his narrative work. In him, Zend found a master of precisely the kind of writing that appealed to him and that he had been exploring in some of the earlier stories posthumously collected in Daymares. During their conversations, Borges talked about his fascination with keys. Zend suggested writing a story combining the idea of the key with Borges’ long-standing interest in labyrinths. Borges was delighted with the idea, but offered it back to Zend, who had originally proposed it, to develop into a narrative. Zend accepted the offer and began to take notes for what he expected to be a more or less linear story about a person’s search for the key to a labyrinth in which to become lost. However, on his return to Toronto, the papers he mailed back were delayed. Moreover, the editor at Exile Magazine, interested in publishing Zend’s work arising from his visit to Borges, proposed, in place of the linear narrative, a metanarrative take on the origin and evolution of the story’s premise.
          The idea appealed to Zend, who set about writing the narrative even before his notes arrived from Argentina. “The Key” ended up being composed of five footnotes appended to the (absent) linear story originally conceived. In these footnotes, Zend recounts a labyrinth of decisions and thwarted goals, at the heart of which is the absence of the actual intended story originally discussed with Borges:

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What I wanted to write is not the story entitled “The Key,” it isn’t even the story of the conception of the story entitled “The Key,” but it is the story of the conception of the story of the conception of the story, entitled “The Key.”5

In other words, to write the story of the conception of the story would be (on one metanarrative level) to relate his conversations with Borges and with the editor of Exile Magazine. The layers of the metanarrative further removed (in the footnotes) consist of Zend tracing labyrinthine mental associations with his decisions regarding “the story of the conception of the story.”
          In one such associative footnote, Zend tells of his involuntary habit since youth of distilling “abstract ideas into structures.” He illustrates some of the visual narrative patterns suggested to him by the fiction of various authors or works. The three patterns in fig. 3 below display the idiosyncratic patterns he visualizes for Dante, Shakespeare, and Borges:

THREE STORY SHAPES

STORY SHAPE TRISTRAM SHANDY 250 W          This type of visualization of a narrative line or pattern is reminiscent of Laurence Sterne’s illustrations of meandering lines in Tristram Shandy to render visible the novel’s digressive texture (fig. 4). Interestingly, in both works, the visually reflexive gestures serve both as digressions within a digressive story and as further deferrals of the novel’s professed autobiographical subject. Shandy early in the novel sets his metanarrative cards on the table: “digressions are the sunshine; — they are the life, the soul of reading!”6
          Such laying bare of narrative process is echoed in Zend’s explanation of the evolution of his typewriter art in “Type Scapes: A Mystery Story”:

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For the honest artist, no borderline lies between the finished product and the process. The essays of Poe, Dante, Wagner, Pirandello, and Kosinsky are “finished products” which describe the “process” . . . and vice versa: the Cantos of Ezra Pound, some short stories by Borges, the Sweetheart-book by Emmett Williams, etc., reflect a continuous “process” although they appear to be “finished products.”
          For me, the division makes no sense. How can an artist — being an unfinished, imperfect product himself — create anything finished or perfect? Or rather: how can he sincerely believe that he did so? Maybe that’s why Goethe never felt Faust was finished, or Leonardo that the Mona Lisa was finished smiling . . . For me (as my wife said, taking a Marshall McLuhan tone), “the process is the product.”7

ONE STORY SHAPEAs part of his exploration of the process of “The Key,” Zend displays his visualization of the story’s metafictive pattern as an Escher-like paradox (fig. 5). Any two angles of the triangular sculpture constitute a logically possible shape; the addition of the third angle makes the form impossible as a three-dimensional object. Although Zend does not explain the corresponding irrational concept of the meta-meta-narrative of “The Key,” he is clearly, in works such as Oāb, fascinated by other such topological conundrums as the Klein bottle and the Möbius strip, which don’t lead anywhere but their own infinitely repeating surface. Somewhat similarly, the irrational triangle creates an endlessly iterable and labyrinthine path, corresponding to the journey of the story that never reaches its supposed destination (the planned narrative about a key to a labyrinth), but instead becomes the labyrinth itself for which the reader must search for a key within her- or himself.
          In addition, the image of the labyrinth symbolizes for Zend the network of influences by which writers and their works come to be, referring to the joint authorship (triple if we include the editor of Exile Magazine), but also questioning the very notion of literary originality. In a pivotal passage (itself a footnote), Zend explains the lineage of the foregrounded footnote:

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Writing footnotes as organic parts of a fiction is not my innovation, I am merely imitating Jorge Luis Borges who imitates DeQuincey who probably also . . . Borges openly imitates innumerable writers innumerable times since he doesn’t believe in originality — everything was said and done before, he thinks. This is quite an original philosophy of writing, at least nowadays: in the Middle Ages it wouldn’t have been. Thus, although writing footnotes on footnotes had been done, yet writing footnotes following a blank page had not been done, and I consider this to be my innovation in this present piece of writing: however, it is possible that I do so only due my lack of cultural awareness.8

Although Zend is the one who actually wrote the story, not Borges (or the table, for that matter), the gesture of acknowledging Borges as collaborator emphasizes Zend’s indebtedness to his mentor, which, as we have seen, is characteristic of Zend’s customary expression of gratitude to his “spiritual fathers and mothers.”9 It also recognizes the phenomenon that authorship is never original but is dependent on a myriad of influences.

Parallel Dream-Sons: “Circular Ruins” and Oāb

          Borges himself also recognized his literary kinship with Zend in their respective explorations of dream-worlds and golem-like creations:

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You created your dream-son the way my magician in “Circular Ruins” created his dream-son. You consider me one of your masters, yet you were my pupil even before reading my work.10

Borges is referring to the relationship of “Circular Ruins” to Zend’s two-volume graphic poem, Oāb, most of which Zend wrote during two weeks in May 1970. Borges’ words to Zend seems to confirm that the latter created Oāb prior to being exposed to Borges’ writing. As Borges observes,

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Both you and I are inspired by the same themes. Now I know why you came here from the other end of the world. Actually, I should have written Oāb . . . 11

A comparison of the works reveals that the two writers, despite stylistic differences, were indeed tapping into mysterious realms of dreams and the subconscious, ideal matter for shaping mythical tales that leave the impression of mirrored infinity.
          “Circular Ruins” is such a story with its “dream-within-a-dream” premise. Borges tells of a magician with a mission:

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He wanted to dream a man: he wanted to dream him with minute integrity and insert him into reality.12

The magician travels by boat downstream to the ruins of a temple. Within a succession of dreams, little by little he creates a living being and teaches his dream-child “the arcana of the universe and of the fire cult,” in order to prepare him for his priestly role “in a temple further downstream.” The magician believes that his son would “not exist if [he] did not go to him” in his dreams. Sometimes the magician is troubled by feelings of déjà vu, as if “all this had happened before.” But he forges ahead fashioning his dream-son, who is finally ready to be born. His newly-minted priest travels to the temple downstream to practice rituals “and give glory to the god.” Only fire and the magician will know of his existence as an illusion and not flesh and bone.
          Later, the magician hears that his dreamed “magic man . . . could walk upon fire and not be burned.” He fears that his son will thus realize that he is “a mere image” and will feel the “humiliation” of being only “the projection of another man’s dream.” The aging magician prepares himself for death as fire mysteriously arrives to engulf him, but he is startled to find that like his dream-son, he too is unharmed by the flames. In an epiphany he understands that his déjà vu experience was actually a glimpse into the cycle of creation, in which he was not only creator to his dream-son, but also himself “a mere appearance, dreamt by another.”13
          In outward form, Borges’ six-page short story could not be more different from Zend’s two-volume, 237-page graphic poem with its scores of concrete poems, photographs, and drawings. Borges’ story has the quality of a myth whose rather ornate descriptive language is akin to magic realism. By contrast, Zend’s language in Oāb is plain and conversational. Oliver Botar, a Canadian art historian who has translated some of Zend’s poetry into English, observes that Zend’s poetry is “written with an almost sparse economy” and “directness of language,”14 chracteristics that lend themselves well to paradoxes and twists of logic. In Oāb, this rather porous linguistic quality is appropriate to the multi-dimensional story whose theme of creation plays out on biblical, generational, and authorial levels. The playful and childlike dialogue between the creators and their naive beings gradually transforms into language reflecting deeper levels of experience and the painful knowledge of their own diminished role in the cycle of creation — while still retaining the work’s hallmark simplicity of language.           Despite the differences between the narratives of Borges and Zend, both spring from similar concerns with illusion and reality, dreams within dreams, and beings who create other beings only to learn that they in turn are being fashioned by a being in a higher dimension.
          Similar to Borges’s magician in “The Circular Ruins, in Oāb a character named Zėnd writes a son, Oāb, into existence as a blank slate; thus his “written doll”15 is all potential, and like Borges’ magician-teacher, Zėnd tutors his written son in human knowledge and three-dimensional existence.

QUOTATION MARKS 7

he lives in my verse / it’s his universe.16

But Oāb begins to take on a life of his own, first through his own dreams and later by creating a being of his own, Ïrdu.
          Zėnd plays tutor to Oāb, all the while keeping him subservient to his own wishes and dependent on him for existence, as we wields his pen-nib above the “while soil” of Oāb’s paper world and observes him with the “blue suns” of his eyes.”17 Oāb, aware of the power dynamics but determined to cultivate his own world, in turn teaches Ïrdu everything he learns from Zėnd. Zėnd believes that he is at the top of this chain of creation and that a being named Ardô is his friend on equal footing with him. But (similar to the magician’s realization of his own illusory existence) in reality Ardô is a higher-level being who created Zėnd.
          Each generation is convinced of its own god-like superiority in relation to its “written doll.” For example, Zėnd believes that he is the only “real” being and that Ardô, who thinks that Zėnd is “merely a figment / of his imagination,” is only a “braggart.”18
          Like jealous gods, each generation is in turn suspicious and of the growing independence of his created being and resentful of the time he spends on his own offspring. Zėnd inculcates in Oāb that Oāb cannot become independent like him because “you are a part of me. / I contain you.” But Oāb rebels and becomes his own god, in effect. Like the biblical God who says “I am that I am,” Oāb boasts, “I am myself . . . self-contained . . . independent.”19 And when Ïrdu, Oāb’s son, in his turn rebelliously asserts his independence, Oāb balks. And Zėnd, conceding that there are things in Ardô’s four-dimensional world that he cannot comprehend, ultimately comes to realize that, far from being his friend on an equal footing, Ardô is actually his creator.
          Each over-possessive creator in turn becomes vengeful, threatening to destroy his dream-son. However, once Oāb and later, Ïrdu, are out of the bag, they cannot be “unborn” or destroyed, for like ghosts floating in the infinite memory of the universe they would haunt their creators until reborn. And each creator is helpless to stop his creature from taking on a life and identity of his own. Agency is further denied the creators when Oāb, now a fully-fledged being in his own right, explains that it was not Zėnd who willfully created him, but the reverse: it was Oāb who had to be born:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

“I had to come to life. I was an absolute must. Time was ripe for me.”20

It was Oāb who found and chose Zėnd, led him around, and in fact authored Oāb: “I led his hand, don’t ever doubt it!” he says to Ïrdu.21
          In the end, the four generations come full circle. Ardô create Zėnd who created Oāb who created Ïrdu. Finally, in a repetition of the scene of Oāb’s creation, Ïrdu hears Ardô’s “name calling from the darkness,” and thus “the middle-aged Ïrdu gave (re)birth to Ardô.”22
          Zend’s story is more overtly a metapoetic exploration of authorial creation than Borges’ story of the dreaming magician. Moreover, while Borges’ magician learns in an instant’s epiphany the truth of his own origin in dream, Zend’s characters (Zėnd, Oāb, Ïrdu, and Ardô) come to this realization gradually and communicate their discovery amongst themselves in subtle psychological detail. However, both Zend’s and Borges’ narratives share the sense that creation is an endless cycle in which one’s works, and perhaps also one’s self, are never totally knowable or controllable. In Oāb, each generation of creator experiences the humiliation of discovering that he is not in control of his creation. It is in reality the creations who tutor their creators and claim agency over their formerly god-like beings who dispense life and destiny, pen in hand. And in “Circular Ruins,” the magician’s paternal feelings of love and protectiveness for his dream-son cause him to worry that the son will discover that he is not as real as his magician father, when in fact the magician himself is a figment of another being’s dream.
          In other stories, Zend uses the Borgesian dream-world to poignantly explore pain and loss in Hungary during two brutal regimes: the Nazis and the Communists. During Nazi Germany’s two-year occupation of Hungary, more than 500,000 Jews lost their lives to the Holocaust. And Stalin’s regime exacted a high price in human life in Hungary as well: of the hundreds of thousands of Hungarians sent to forced labour camps in the Soviet Union during the late 1940s, an estimated 200,000 died due to poor living conditions or were murdered outright.23
          In “The King of Rubik,” one such story exploring a Holocaust theme, the speaker is

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sitting here again, in Peter’s room, talking to him just as if he hadn’t starved to death in a Nazi labour-camp, thirty-eight years ago.23

Throughout the story, a magic Rubik’s Cube creates dream-like shape-shifting identities and time-frames, and orchestrates remembrance and forgetfulness in a tale of guilt, regret, and loss.
          Borges’ “The God’s Script” contains a succinct statement of the idea of the “tireless labyrinth of dreams” epitomized in “The King of Rubik” and Oāb:

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You have not awakened to wakefulness, but to a previous dream. This dream is enclosed within another, and so on to infinity, which is the number of grains of sand. The path you must retrace is interminable and you will die before you ever really awake.24

Borges’ image of life as an infinite cycle of dreams, suggesting that humans live in a labyrinth of illusions and that unknowability is the inevitable nature of existence, is also explored in a poem by Zend entitled “The Dream-Cycle,” a dizzying zoom-in view of Creation that begins in nothingness and ends in awakening:

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The Dream-Cycle

Nothing dreams Something
  but Something is mostly Void

    Void dreams Matter
      but Matter is mostly Vacuum

        Vacuum dreams a Universe
          but the Universe is mostly Ether

            Ether dreams Galaxies
              but a Galaxy is mostly Space

                Space dreams Solar Systems
                  but a Solar system is mostly Sky

                    Sky dreams Celestial Bodies
                        but a Celestial Body is mostly Hollow

                          Hollowness dreams Beings
                            but a Being is mostly Empty

                              Emptiness dreams Consciousness
                                but Consciousness is mostly Sleep

                                  Sleep dreams Wakefulness
                                    but Wakefulness is mostly Irrational

                                      Irrationality dreams Knowledge
                                        but Knowledge is mostly Chaos

                                          Chaos dreams Existence
                                            but Existence is mostly Nothing

Nothing dreams Everything
before it is ready to awake25

ZEND BORGES 2 250          Considering the literary kinship of Borges and Zend, their friendship and mutual esteem is not surprising. Zend didn’t hesitate to fly thousands of miles to meet a writer whose work resonated with his own. He realized that Borges’ fiction could serve as inspiration, and indeed, the spirit of Borges’ can be seen in Zend’s fantastical work that blossomed in the stories, poems, and artworks of Daymares, a good portion of which were written following his meeting with Borges.
          To conclude this section, Zend’s typescape Awakening seems apropos as a cul-de-lampe (fig. 7).
AWAKENING FROM A DREAM

Next Installment — Part 10.
International Affinities: France (Marceau)


Camille Martin

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

TITLE WITH BUSINESS CARD IMAGE AND BYLINE

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

MACRO MICRO 1 WHITE 400

          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:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

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,

QUOTATION MARKS 7

                    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

Robert Zend – Part 4. Canada: “Freedom, Everybody’s Homeland”

TITLE WITH BUSINESS CARD IMAGE AND BYLINE

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

ZENDS ON CARINTHIA 250

          Robert Zend and his wife, Ibi, and eight-month-old baby, Aniko, escaped Hungary in mid-November 1956 when the Soviets crushed the Hungarian Revolution. After receiving Canadian visas in Vienna, they traveled by train to Liverpool, where they boarded an ocean liner headed for Halifax (fig. 1). In Canada they could start a new life free from government repression and terror. They had fled along with a huge exodus of other Hungarians also eager to leave before the Hungarian borders were completely locked down. By 1957, about 200,000 Hungarians had escaped, among which 37,000 immigrated to Canada as political refugees.1
          The official Canadian response to the humanitarian emergency was slow at first, and there was even a decision in the early days of the refugee intake to admit into Canada only those who could pay for their own transportation. Public pressure from Canadians to respond to the crisis with generosity gathered impetus and had its intended effect on immigration officials. By the end of November, Canadian Minister for Citizenship and Immigration J. W. Pickersgill was persuaded to ease restrictions. He traveled to Vienna to announce the cutting of bureaucratic red tape and to offer free transportation to the refugees. Even so, old prejudices resurfaced when the director of immigration issued a caution that “those of the Hebrew race . . . in possession of a considerable amount of funds” might attempt to take advantage of the Canadian resettlement program. In spite of the initially conservative official response, the bureaucratic wheels gained momentum, and by mid-December about one hundred Hungarian refugees were arriving in Toronto every day.2
CARINTHIA          The Zends, who had been living at subsistence level in Budapest and in fleeing lost whatever meagre possessions they owned, benefited from the new, more lenient and generous refugee policies. On December 11 in Liverpool, along with 106 other Hungarian refugees and hundreds of regular passengers,3 they boarded the newly-built luxury liner Carinthia of the legendary Cunard Lines, courtesy of the Canadian government (fig. 2). Their journey to Halifax took twice the normal time due to stormy weather and rough seas, causing Ibi to suffer from seasickness. But the amenities of the Carinthia must have helped somewhat to ease the discomforts of the ship’s heave and sway (fig. 3).

CARINTHIA BROCHURE 450

The Zends also befriended some of their fellow Hungarian passengers seeking asylum in Canada and the United States, documented by some poignant photographs on the ship by Zend (fig. 4).

FELLOW REFUGEES ON SHIP

CANADA LANDING CARDS 300          Finally they arrived in Halifax on December 22. On their landing cards (fig. 5), Zend indicates his profession as reporter-journalist, and Ibi as librarian. Their religion is noted as Presbyterian. Considering the Nazi terror that Hungarians had experienced, it’s not difficult to understand the concealing of Ibi’s Jewish background, also keeping in mind that antisemitism was not limited to its long history in Europe but was also present and indeed institutionalized in Canada during the 1950s, as we have seen from the prejudice of the Canadian director of immigration. In addition, Jewish quotas and stricter admission standards were in place for universities such as McGill and the University of Toronto.
SNOW FROM TRAIN          In Halifax, they boarded a train for Toronto. From the photographs Zend took from the train, his fascination with the vast stretches of snow, punctuated by a cluster of houses every few hours, is apparent (fig. 6). He and Ibi joked wryly that the landscape might well be Siberian — except of course for the occasional church steeple rising above a village.4 It was not an idle observation but one with ominous overtones, since after 1945 the Soviets had transported up to half a million Hungarians — among them poet György Faludy and writer György Gábori, survivors of the Gulag — to forced labour camps. Many of those camps were in Siberia, where a high percentage of inmates perished.5
ZEND BY CAR          The Toronto population mobilized to provide housing and jobs for the new refugees to help them get started. From January to March 1957, a couple in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke gave the Zends a place to live in exchange for Ibi’s labour as a live-in domestic (fig. 7). Meanwhile, Robert put his experience in the Hungarian film industry to use when he found work at Chatwynd Studios editing film and doing odd jobs while he learned English. Soon thereafter, Ibi was able to find a job in her field as a librarian at the Toronto Public Library. Robert and Ibi were pleased to find that even on their low income during the first few years in Canada, they were able to afford things that were out of their reach in Hungary because either supplies were short or they couldn’t afford them. Aniko, who was born premature and who was sickly and undernourished the first eight months of her life , received the special nutrition she needed to flourish.6
1 A DIFFERENT PLANET          And for the first time in his life, Robert was able to afford a typewriter. In Hungary, it would have cost three months’ wages, but in Toronto he only needed to put a dollar down and pay affordable installments.7 He couldn’t know it then, but years later the typewriter was to become the instrument of an important body of his work in the categories of concrete poetry and typewriter art.
          Zend describes the move to Canada as a “rebirth” and the new country like “a different planet” (fig. 8).8 And in important ways, life for the Zends had indeed improved. However, although remaining in Hungary would have placed Robert at great risk from the harsh reprisals of the Communist government, uprooting himself and his wife and baby from their native Hungary came with its own set of dilemmas and emotional trauma. He relates that his first five years in Toronto were “wretched,” and that for the next twenty he “felt like a man without a home” and a “misfit.”9
          Zend’s unforeseen and precipitate departure from Hungary meant relinquishing his material possessions as well as his beloved Budapest and his friends and mentors. As he later quipped, “I lost everything except my accent.”10 As well, he had left behind all of his writing and personal mementos, which he had entrusted to a friend who stayed in Hungary. He later found out that his papers had disappeared or been destroyed when their apartment was ransacked in the chaos following the failed Uprising. He had been on the brink of publishing a one-hundred-page poetry book with a dissident publisher. The crushing loss haunted him for the rest of his life. 11
          He revisited his family’s escape in “Chapter Fifty-Six,” a thinly-veiled autobiographical short story that posits an alternative history, a recounting of the rebellion of Maletrian citizens and its quashing by Romarmian forces. The protagonist tries unsuccessfully to escape with his family, but they are stopped at the border and are compelled to return to their home. He discovers the cause of the robotically compliant behavior of the citizenry following the brutal invasion: the Romarmian military had installed a “dream broadcasting centre” in the Ministry of Cultural Affairs to brainwash the people. Unlike actual history, the outcome is positive as he blows up the Ministry and the people are able to think freely again.12
          More often, however, the sorrow of exile from his homeland echoes throughout his writings during these early years in Canada. Loneliness and alienation are common themes, as he tells of feeling like a person with no country, acutely aware of his “solitude among a thousand people”:

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This is the real solitude bearing the whole world within
Consuming colours and sounds and growing big with them and
          choking with them
Strangers have locked all the doors around me
Ghosts are stalking the desolate corridors
the walls are tense and about to explode13

SPLIT ZEND 200 H          In addition to writing of feelings of alienation, Zend, profoundly affected by the sudden and unexpected immigration, wrote “about the change, the culture shock, the homesickness, about the schizoid emotions of an exile between two worlds.”14Much later, during a trip to Budapest in the 1980s, he drew a sketch, “Split Zend,” showing his divided self — perhaps in reaction to experiencing once more the shift within himself that started in 1956 (fig. 9). He succinctly expresses the ambivalence of being mentally split between Budapest and Toronto in his poem “In Transit”:

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Budapest is my homeland
Toronto is my home

In Toronto I am nostalgic for Budapest
In Budapest I am nostalgic for Toronto

Everywhere else I am nostalgic for my nostalgia15

          As late as 1981, in a prose poem entitled “Fused Personality,” he writes that “[t]he deepest regions of my soul don’t seem to accept that I split myself and my life in two, in 1956.” He recounts a dream of living in a city at once Toronto and Budapest, sitting in a café having a stimulating conversation with Canadians Margaret Atwood, Glenn Gould, and Northrop Frye, as well as Hungarians Frigyes Karinthy, Béla Bartók, and Zoltán Kodály. He then leaves to find a table to write alone:

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I write a poem for the excellent literary magazine called Search for Identity. I write down the title in Hungarian, but I realize that my English readership won’t understand it, so I cross it out and write it down again in English, but now I think about my oldest childhood friends who won’t be able to read it. My right hand holding the pen freezes in mid-air while I ponder the problem . . .16

At his idealized café table in a blended city, Zend assembles a dream coterie of Hungarian and Canadian cultural icons, who reach across anachronisms and language barriers to engage in brilliant conversation. But paralysis sets in when he must choose to write in one language or the other. The symbolism seems quite clear, yet it poignantly brings home the depth of the impression made by the culture shock of 1956 and the ongoing dilemma of identity, not only for Zend but for many thousands of refugees.
          The title of the magazine, Search for Identity, is perhaps also a reference to the Canadian quest for cultural identity and cohesiveness. In Zend’s humorous piece entitled “An Interview with a Newborn Baby,” an interpreter translates the babytalk response to the question, “How do you like Canada?”:

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Canada is a country that is engaged in an unrelinquished search for its “Identity,” and — due to this fact — it is quite impossible to determine whether one likes it or not. How can one like or dislike a territorial unit which doesn’t even know whether it exists or not and if not, why, and if yes, why not?

Zend riffs on the pop culture question pointing to the ongoing identity complex of a country perennially striving to distinguish its culture, especially from that of the United States. Zend, who explores in his writing and concrete poetry his own troubled and ambivalent feelings about cultural identity, settled in a country having an identity dilemma of its own. He felt the irony of that situation, which in “Interview” he resolves by pointing out (via the babbling baby) a basic fact of human universality:

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Canada as such is not very different from any other country in the world. After all, they all have newborn babies who are starved and need instant breast-feeding.17

And in a short poem ending his speech on the evils of labeling people, he comments, tongue firmly in cheek:

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In a country
where everyone
is searching for
identity,
I am
an alien
for I’m already
identical.18

The play on “identity” and “identical” creates a paradox because of the ambiguity of the latter. Again, Zend’s solution is to embrace the commonality of basic human needs. As he wryly notes in a journal, pointing out the inherent contradiction in the quest for Canadian identity:

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Why search for Canadian identity? We found it. Anybody who searches for Canadian identity is a Canadian. Consequently: He who has found his Canadian identity is not a true Canadian.19

BUDAPESTORONTO 270          Some of Zend’s concrete poetry such as “BUDAPESTORONTO” (fig. 10) graphically epitomizes his complex and conflicted feelings about the two cities: Budapest, cosmopolitan and cultured yet also a place where intellectuals were censored and oppressed, and sometimes in danger for their lives; versus relatively “prosaic” Toronto, as Zend puts it in “Return Tickets” — “huge, clean, and functional.”20
          He also faced an uncertain future as a writer in a country whose language he had not previously studied. Arriving in Canada with his wife and baby, he quips that the first English word he learned was “diaper.”21 Magyar does not have Indo-European roots; neither does it share with English the etymological origins and grammatical structures (he describes Magyar as “extremely condensed” compared to English)22 that make it relatively easy to gain fluency within the closely-related Romance languages, for example.
          In a short fantastical prose piece entitled “The World’s Greatest Poet,” Zend writes of Granduloyf, a poet who moves from Uangia to Obobistan and has difficulty learning the new language, which underscores for him not only grammatical but also cultural differences. His inability to reconcile the cultural with the linguistic occasions the poem:

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While his people had no words for human character, but only for changing moods, the Obobs could not recognize changes in individuals. They thought of themselves as impenetrable iron bricks. . . . Like migrating birds, guided by ancient instinct, circling aimlessly over the ocean waves searching for Atlantis, the sunken destination of their migration, his pen circled aimlessly over the white paper and could not descend.23

Here Zend uses an image of paralysis similar to that in the dreamed café poem. The pen, like a migrating bird searching for a lost civilization, is unable to land words on paper. The poet as well as his language are exiled. Zend creates an artificial alphabet in a concrete poem to represent his perception of the differences between the two languages (fig. 11).

WORLDS GREATEST POET 500

The poet’s initial awkwardness with the new language appears in the angularity of its alphabet as opposed to the graceful curves of his mastered native tongue. Zend’s own language barriers on arriving in Canada show through the veneer of fiction as he expresses the poet’s frustration of not being able to “ask for a packet of cigarettes without making himself look ridiculous.”
          In addition to the challenges of learning a new language, Zend felt himself to be linguistically and psychologically “in limbo because I wasn’t a Canadian citizen yet, but I was no longer a Hungarian either.” He felt torn between writing and publishing in English or in his native language. He couldn’t yet write in English for Canadian publications, but neither could he write for Hungarian journals or presses because, “having illegally left the country, [he] was considered an enemy.”24
TORONTO MIRROR 250 WIDE          And his decision of whether to publish in Canada or Hungary was fraught with catch-22’s. At that time, there were no Hungarian ethnic literary publications in Canada. So for about a year in 1961, he published his own Hungarian literary monthly, The Toronto Mirror (fig. 12). However, his advertisers, “unable to think but in labels,” wanted to know whether his publication was for “leftists or rightists, for Catholics or Protestants, for Jews or Gendarmes, for junior or senior citizens.”25 Zend had felt himself to be a “misfit” in Hungary, and that had not changed in Canada. Canadian publishers also were in a quandary about how to categorize him, wanting to know whether he was famous in Hungary.
          In the 1960s, Hungarian exiles were allowed to return to Hungary as tourists (once the government, needing “hard currency . . . changed our labels from ‘Counter-Revolutionary Hooligans’ to ‘Our Beloved Fellow-Country-Men Living Abroad’”). Zend seized the opportunity to fly to Budapest and meet with Hungarian publishers, only to be asked whether he was famous in Canada. Once again, Zend was faced with a lack of sympathy due to nationalistic labels. They asked, “If you are a Hungarian poet, why do you live in Canada? If you are a Canadian poet, why do you want to publish in Hungary?” One Hungarian publisher suggested labeling him as a Canadian poet whose poems had been translated into Hungarian, telling him that he had “never published the original Hungarian poetry of Hungarian poets living in exile, in Hungarian, in Hungary! We just cannot start a new trend!” Zend’s assertion “that being a poet does not depend on the geographical location of the poet’s body, or on the political system under which the publisher functions, but on the linguistic and literary value of the poems” did not convince any Hungarian publisher.26
          Realizing the need to publish in English in order to establish himself as a writer in Canada, he decided to learn the language to the point that he could write poetry independently in it. His linguistic talents and his mastery of Italian and study of Latin and German no doubt helped him as he gained fluency in the new language. By 1964 he was writing poems in both Hungarian and English. He also worked closely with John Robert Colombo, a literary scholar and poet in Toronto, on translating the poems originally written in Hungarian and published in his first two poetry collections: From Zero to One (1973) and Beyond Labels (1982).
          Determined to write his poems effectively in English, Zend took pains to transfer his musical feeling for his native language into his adopted one. Revisions of poems written in English during the 1960s shows him trying multiple versions, taking care that the language be musical and that the rhythm mesh with the content. In “No,” for example, he writes of honing the rhythm to achieve a percussive beat to reflect the knocking on a door of an unborn being, and towards the end of the poem creating a rhythm that “widens and calms down to annihilate” as the being becomes “lost / in the snowy fields of non-existence.”27 It’s not surprising that Glenn Gould calls Zend “unquestionably Canada’s most musical poet,” high praise from one of Canada’s greatest musicians.28
          Finding employment in Toronto proved to be a huge setback for Zend. He worked at a series of menial jobs in order to support his family. In From Zero to One, he expresses frustration at having to restart his career with such labour “at the dreadful place where the supervisors / imagine themselves prison guards,”

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where we have to put on cards
our comings and goings
and every moment of lateness or early leaving
has to be accounted for
but if during the eight hours we redeem the world
or just twiddle our thumbs
no one cares —29

          In addition to such frustrations, Zend relates that his experience with labels did not end upon escaping Communist Hungary and immigrating to Canada: “the free world didn’t deliver me from evil labels.”30 In a story published in the Toronto Star in 1992, Ibi relates an encounter with antisemitism soon after the move to Canada, when they were living with the couple in Etobicoke:

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Until one night the couple noticed the Auschwitz identification mark on [Ibi’s] arm. “You mean you are Jews!” said the husband. Next day they were sent packing.31

Also, Zend relates being subject to denigration due to his country of origin: a supervisor at work called him a “bloody Hungarian.” With typical good humour, Zend responded by telling him that he should call him a “bloody Canadian” since he had just become a citizen.32
PORTRAIT 13           On the positive side, life in Toronto was relatively peaceful and stable, and provided a safe haven for Zend to continue his development as a writer (fig. 13). In a 1959 letter to Pierre Berton, he professes that with some reservations, he “likes Canada very much. Not because I am living here and this has become my second homeland,” but because it represents freedom, which is his “first homeland” for which he was “homesick . . . already in Hungary.” As much as he loved the land and language of his birth, it was also a country scarred by history and suffering under an oppressive regime intolerant of free expression. In a letter to the editor soon after his arrival, he writes that in the Soviet Union and its satellite countries,

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It’s not allowed to notice the low standard of living. It’s dangerous to joke about party-leaders. It’s inevitable to adore the altars of their living Gods or applaud rhythmically at meetings and to smile happily while applauding. Also for listening to the radio of free countries you’ll get punished. What’s more: it’s quite risky to follow faithfully the party-line – if it is changed, you’ll be punished. That is: deported, jailed, exiled or tortured to death. No one is allowed to think of the enemy’s victory. To think means to hope. To hope means to wish. To wish means that you are a spy.

And although he realized that Canada was not without its historical baggage of discrimination and that he would face difficulties adjusting to profound changes in his life, he also understood that “life is not much without freedom,” that

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freedom is everybody’s homeland — only secondarily the house, the city and the country where we were born.”33

          To ease his feelings of isolation during his early years in Toronto, he held weekly house parties.34 And since he was a chess aficionado, he created a circle of friends when he joined a chess club. An anecdote related by Toronto chess champion Lawrence Day, in which Zend is jailed for unpaid parking tickets, shows his sense of humour in putting relatively minor inconveniences into perspective, considering his experience with totalitarian regimes in Hungary. Zend and others in the chess coterie had devised a system for serving the least possible amount of time in jail for parking tickets:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

In those days serving three days in jail wiped out all parking tickets so the game was to get as many as possible and then turn yourself in at 11:30 Friday night and get out at 12:30 AM Saturday which added up to three days since Sunday was free.35

When officers caught on to this game and arrived at dawn to haul Zend away to jail to serve his sentence, he took it cheerfully. His friends asked whether he didn’t feel “paranoid with the cops after him.” He responded,

QUOTATION MARKS 7

[I] survived Budapest under the Nazis and the Commies — then was tragedy, this was comedy.36

          Employment conditions for Zend soon improved. He began working for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1958, advancing from shipper to film librarian, film editor, and ultimately radio producer of close to a hundred literary and and other cultural documentary programs for the series Ideas.37 Over the years, his work for the CBC gave him the invaluable opportunity to meet with many leading figures in world culture, including Northrop Frye, Glenn Gould, A. Y. Jackson, Norman McLaren, Marshall McLuhan, Harold Town, Isaac Asimov, Robert Easton, Richard P. Feynman, Andrei Voznesensky, Jorge Luis Borges, and the Dalai Lama, some of whom became long-term friends.38
          Two of these friendships proved especially conducive to creative collaboration. In 1971, Zend contributed to a CBC Ideas program featuring Marceau on the concept of the mask. Zend’s creative exchange with Marceau began with his designing a metal chess set to be presented by the CBC to the mime artist, and culminated in a correspondence of art and poetry between the two. And in 1974, Zend spend two weeks with Borges in Buenos Aires, providing himself with an important mentor for his fiction and leading to a collaboration on a postmodern narrative entitled “The Key,” on the subject of the search for the key to a labyrinth, written as a series of footnotes. Both collaborations will be explored in future installments.
PORTRAIT 18 250          In 1967, Zend decided to continue his studies in Italian literature by pursuing a Master of Arts degree at the University of Toronto. First, however, he needed to give evidence that he had earned a bachelor’s degree in Hungary. Returning for the first time to Hungary since 1956, he was able to retrieve his university diploma. While he was studying toward his degree, he continued working at the CBC in Original Film Editing, again making use of the skills he had learned in Hungary. After passing his oral examinations In Medieval Italian Literature, Italian Lyric Poetry from Petrarch to Marino, nineteenth-century Italian Poetry, and Luigi Pirandello, he graduated in spring 1969 (fig. 14).39
          That summer, he was accepted into a Ph.D. program within the Department of Italian and Hispanic Studies.40. His program of study was international trends in twentieth-century Italian poetry with special emphasis on Palazzeschi, Ungaretti, Montale, Quasimodo, and Pasolini.41 A few months into his program, he decided to write his dissertation on the poetry of Piero Bigongiari.42 One of his minor areas of study was the Italian language, and the other was fine art, which he later changed to Marxist philosophy.43 His intensive study of Italian literature was an important influence on his work, and will be documented in an upcoming installment on Zend’s Italian affinities. During his graduate studies, he continued to write and publish his own poetry as well as translations of Italian poets.
          In fact, the 1970s was a decade of creative flourishing for Zend, as he hit his stride with several important publications, including poems and stories in a number of anthologies and magazines. In 1970, his poems were included in New Poems of the Seventies: An Anthology of Canadian Poetry edited by Douglas Lochhead and Raymond Souster. And in 1971, twenty-one pages of his poetry appeared in Volvox: Poetry from the Unofficial Languages of Canada . . . in English Translation. In addition, Exile Magazine published 136 pages of several longer works, including “A Bouquet to Bip” (his collaborative correspondence with Marceau), “The Key” (his collaboration with Borges), “Type Scapes: A Mystery Story” (his creative essay illustrating the evolution of his typewriter art), and excerpts from Oāb (his two-volume multi-genre work published in 1983 and 1985).
FROM ZERO TO ONE 200 WIDE          Seventeen years after his first poetry collection was to have been published in Hungary but instead tragically perished in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of 1956, Zend’s first collection of poems in English, From Zero to One, was published in 1973 by The Sono Nis Press in British Columbia (fig. 15). These poems were written between 1960 and 1969, and as he was still making the transition to writing poetry in English during that time, they were written in Hungarian and translated into English in collaboration with Colombo. In his first major statement as a poet we can already sense his cosmopolitan openness evidenced by the international influences in the poems and by his dedications to writers and artists from several countries (I’ll document these influences in greater detail starting with the next installment). Zend explores most of the major themes that would preoccupy him for the rest of his life: exile, science-fiction and fantasy, the metapoetic idea of the writer as creator, romantic love, and the cycle of birth and death. Evident throughout is his philosophical bent and his sense of irony and playfulness.
PORTRAIT 14 250 WIDE          By 1972, Zend had finished his coursework for the Ph.D. but stopped short of completing his dissertation. His personal life was in a period of transition around this time with the dissolultion of his marriage with Ibi and his starting a new family with Janine Devoize, who had immigrated from France to Canada in 1964 and whom he married in 1970 (fig. 16). For her part, after the divorce, Ibi married writer George Gabori, a fellow Hungarian survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, whom Zend had introduced to her. Gabori was also a survivor of Soviet labour camps and wrote a remarkable autobiographical account of his experiences, When Evils Were Most Free (1981). A friend relates that on the occasion of their marriage, Zend thought it “wonderful that his and Ibi’s daughter, Aniko, now had two fathers.”44
PORTRAIT 15 250          In 1972, a daughter, Natalie, was born to Robert and Janine (fig. 17). Natalie remembers her father as devoted, and one of her happiest memories is of the bedtime stories he would tell her from the time she was two years old. She recalls being delighted with tales that he gradually unfurled in series that lasted months, including a fantasy novel about Atlantis, Bible stories, world history, and stories from his childhood.45
          Feeling the pressure of working for the CBC while at the same time preparing his dissertation, Zend decided not to continue in the PhD program. He also took early retirement from the CBC in order to work as an independent radio producer for the CBC Ideas program. Among the programs to which he contributed are Perception and Prejudice in Science, The Magic World of Borges, The Five Faces of Norman McLaren, Inscape and Landscape (on ecology), The Lost Continent of Atlantis, The Mask, Humour, Man and Cosmos, Ideas on Evil, and Japan. He continued working for the CBC until 1977,46 thereafter contributing to programs as a freelancer. Because of the scores of cultural documentaries that he researched, wrote, directed, and produced, his contributions to intellectual life in Canada are immeasurable.
          Zend, having long ago shed the introversion of childhood, was very much a social animal, and in the home he shared with Janine in the Hillcrest neighbourhood of Toronto, the couple entertained many poets, artists, scientists, chess champions, and CBC colleagues. They also collected works by artists whom Zend had befriended socially or through his position at the CBC.
          In 1973, the same year that his first book came out, he suffered a heart attack. It was only the first episode in a prolonged period of ill health involving heart troubles and strokes, and culminating in his early death in 1985. He had been making arrangements to embark on a major CBC project on the myth of Atlantis. However, his plans were put on hold while he recovered. When he was well enough, the project offered him over the next few months occasion to travel to England, Morocco, Spain, the United States and France, where he taped forty-eight hours of interviews with scholars of world mythology such as Robert Graves and Immanuel Velikovsky.
          Although the research and writing was a source of excitement and satisfaction to him, it was ultimately also the source of tremendous stress due to the CBC’s decision to air only one week of a planned three-week program. He believes that the disappointment of this decision, along with what he felt to be “deterioriating working conditions,” contributed to his decline in health.47 He also knew that his long-term smoking habit was not helping matters but was unable or unwilling to quit. On October 31, he had a stroke and was hospitalized for three weeks. Shortly thereafter, he had another traumatic cardiac event, which was diagnosed as inflammation between the heart and the heart sac.48 And in 1976, he suffered his second heart attack. During his recovery, the program on Atlantis aired from January 3 to 7, 1977; he was gratified to receive hundreds of enthusiastic responses from listeners.49 His decision to stop freelancing as a radio producer for the CBC that year allowed him to devote himself more fully to his writing and art as well as to avoid the stressful conditions that had exacerbated his health issues.
          In spite of continuing episodes of serious illness, including two additional strokes and chronic arthritis, the period from 1978 until his death in 1985 was one of extraordinary productivity in his collaborative work as well as in his poetry, fiction, essays, and visual art. One of the most remarkable stretches of intensely concentrated inspiration occurred in 1978, when, during a span of two and a half months, he developed a unique process for making typewriter art, from relatively straightforward beginnings to a complex and sophisticated art form (fig. 18).

ORIENTOPOLIS

          He created these self-described “typescapes” by superimposing characters on a typewriter to form shapes and textures. The meticulous execution, often involving overalpping forms and figures, achieves an effect of delicate intricacy. At the areas of intersection of these shapes, the effect is far from being muddied or heavy. Instead, they retain the delicacy that is characteristic of the whole.
          In the beginning, the process was not easy:

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I had to tame the typewriter . . . patiently, very patiently . . . one careless movement, and I had to start all over again. Several times, the typewriter forced me to alter my original plans and finish the picture as I was able. It wasn’t the same as typing a letter or a poem. I had to re-learn typing.50

The beauty of these concrete poems is that out of a slow and painstaking process of planning and creation using paper inserted into a clunky manual machine emerge visions of airy lightness and subtle movement.
            Although Zend didn’t invent typewriter art, he did seem to have created it without knowledge of forebears in that genre, in the days before computer graphics software. He relates the evolution of the typescapes in a fifty-page account, the aforementioned “Type Scape: A Mystery Story” in Exile Magazine. This brief “period of fever, or inspiration, or obsession” produced a variety of interconnected works, including an amazing volume of typewriter art as well as work in other genres, all of which he describes as interrelated associations stirring in his subconscious mind:

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I typed 27 Type Scapes, drew 58 plans for new Type Scapes, new concrete poems, 10 normal (?) poems, 2 short stories, and drew about 60 new self-illustrating word-drawings. All of them were connected, parts of the chain reaction.51

He describes his obsession with his newly-discovered art form: every morning,

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after getting up, instead of taking a shower, I staggered to my typewriter promising myself that I would just finish this one, and then . . . there was no way. One thing led to another, one type scape led to a cartoon, one word led to a new title for which a drawing was needed, and so on. I was walking through wife, child, people, friends, business affairs, as a ghost walks through walls: I wasn’t really there or they didn’t really touch me, there was only one reality: the typewriter—there was only one happiness: to go home and play on it.52

Toward the end of this brief, intense time, he complains to a friend,

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“You don’t know what a curse it is for me to live with my brain. It doesn’t leave me alone, it never lets me rest. I would like to sleep like others, work from 9-5 like others, be a quiet man, play with my daughter, go to movies, read books, but I can’t. I am constantly whipped by the scourge of this non-stop brain. I am the prisoner of Zend! How could I escape?”53

ARBORMUNDI 1 200 WIDEEventually, the obsession subsided, and the typewriter wasn’t “a musical instrument any longer: it was a boring grey piece of metal mainly for correspondence. . . . I was fed up with paper and scotch tape, with scissors and shapes, with typing and patterns. I was fed up with my aching back and my strained eyes.” But during this brief period he had mastered his techniques and produced an astonishing number and variety of typescapes that are so beautifully executed as to leave the viewer surprised that such work was possible before the digital age. Zend collected and published some of the most polished of these works in Arbormundi (Tree of the World) (1982), a portfolio of sixteen typescapes (fig. 19).
          Another satisfying and fruitful project grew out of Zend’s friendship with two other Toronto poets during the early 1980s. He began collaborating with poets Robert Priest and Robert Sward, forming a group they eponymously dubbed The Three Roberts. Together they gave poetry readings (in Toronto at the fortuitously-named Major Robert’s Restaurant) and in 1984 published three thematically-inspired poetry chapbooks based on their readings: Premiere Performance, On Love, and On Childhood (fig. 20).

THREE BOOKS 475 W

          In addition to his readings and publications with Priest and Sward, Zend collaborated with artists such as Jerónimo, a Spanish-Canadian with whom he published a collection of silkscreens and poems entitled My friend, Jerónimo (fig. 21).

JERONIMO X 3 500

He also paid tribute to artists in ekphrastic poems, notably in response to oil paintings and ink drawings of Hungarian-Canadian artist Julius Marosan54 as well as to paintings by the Belgian surrealist René Magritte. And he generously assisted fellow poets such as Peter Singer (Ariel and Caliban, 1980) and Mary Melfi (A Queen Is Holding a Mummified Cat, 1982) by editing and introducing their work.
          In 1981, he attended the International Writer’s Congress, which that year was centered around the topic of “The Writer and Human Rights” in aid of Amnesty International. At a panel discussion on exile, he gave a talk entitled “Labels,” a moving and eloquent statement about the potentially catastrophic consequences of labelling people.55 He included the text of his speech in full as a preface to his second collection of poetry, Beyond Labels.
          Zend was also active on the reading circuit in Canada. Among other events, in 1981 and 1982 he was a resident poet at the Great Canadian Poetry Festival in Collingwood, Ontario, a scenic town on Georgian Bay, and in 1983, he gave a reading tour including stops in Saskatoon, Regina, and Edmonton.56
          The years 1982 to 1985 were especially fruitful for publications: during that span three important collections appeared: Beyond Labels (Hounslow Press) and Arbormundi (blewointment press) in 1982, and the two volumes of Oāb (Exile Editions) in 1983 and 1985.
BEYOND LABELS 200 WIDE          Zend wrote the poems in Beyond Labels (fig. 22) over a twenty-year span between 1962 and 1982; most were originally written in Hungarian and translated into English with the assistance of Colombo. They extend the theme of displacement, and in addition to including poems of a personal nature, he continues philosophical and cosmic concerns with poems about the universe, time, and dreams — as in one about an hourglass with infinite top and bottom. He also branches out formally with some early experiments in concrete poetry that he called “ditto” and “drop” poems. In dedications and influences, as well as the Magritte-inspired cover by John Lloyd, Beyond Labels continues the cosmopolitan flavour of his first collection.
OAB COVER 200 WIDE          Zend’s magnum opus is generally recognized to be the two-volume Oāb, published in 1983 and 1985 (fig. 23). Oāb is a multi-genre fantasy about authorship and creation, involving autobiography, metafiction, concrete poetry, drawings, and doodlings. “Ze̊nd,” a character in Zend’s own creation myth, writes a being named Oāb into existence and gives his progeny the “Alphoābet” to play with. And Oāb proceeds to do just that, in comic-book frames that show his growing knowledge and abilities. Oāb in turn creates a being named Ïrdu. Together they romp across the pages like children on a playground, creating a compendium of games and puzzles using the letters in their names to create shapes and explore their universe. The effect of this alphabetic creation is encyclopedic.
          Although the two volumes were published in the mid-80s, Zend relates that he wrote the bulk of it during a rush of inspiration during two weeks in May 1970. The long saga of his attempts to have it published is partly a story of the bewilderment of publishers who had never seen a manuscript like it and who were at a loss as to how to categorize it. One publisher wanted to “transform Oāb into an electronic sound-play,” which Zend turned down. Another told him that he would publish it if the 180 pages were “reduced to 48” and the “doodles, drawings, concrete poems [were] left out.” And another deemed “the text superfluous and want[ed] to keep only the doodles drawings and concrete poems.”
          In 1972, Barry Callaghan published about thirty pages of the manuscript in Exile Magazine. Northrop Frye responded that “it is a piece of experimental writing to which I know nothing comparable in Canada, and its impact, if published, would be quite considerable.” Canadian experimental filmmaker Norman McLaren also saw it and wrote to Zend about “the affinity between Zend’s poem and his films.” Avant-garde poet Richard Kostelanetz was “‘floored’ by Zend’s ‘extended visual poem’ and stated that ‘nothing comparable to it was ever published in U.S. literary quarterlies.’” It was also praised by Isaac Asimov, John Updike, and Jorge Luis Borges. The latter told him, “Actually, I should have written Oāb.” Such was the buzz surrounding the manuscript that Robert Fulford for the Toronto Star called it “Canada’s Perhaps Best Unpublished Book.”
          In 1979 Callaghan founded Exile Editions and told Zend that he wanted to publish the entire manuscript. After many delays and revisions, the two volumes were finally published in 1983 and 1985.57
          After years of declining health, Zend succumbed to a heart condition on June 27, 1985, just two weeks before the publication of the second volume of Oāb. A few weeks later, he was to have read at the Toronto Harbourfront with fellow immigrant writers Josef Skvorecky and Robert Gurik. The event became a memorial reading for Zend, hosted by Northrup Frye. Rampike Magazine, which had published some of Zend’s works during the early 1980s, paid tribute to Zend in their next issue with excerpts and photographs from the memorial reading, which was also a posthumous launch of Oāb, and a poem that Zend had submitted shortly before his death.
          Thanks to the efforts of Zend’s widow, Janine, several of his books were published posthumously: two in English (Daymares and Nicolette) and three in Hungarian.58
DAYMARES 200 WIDE          Daymares (1991), a collection of mostly short stories but also a few poems and concrete poems, selected by Janine, reveals Zend’s most extended and sophisticated expression of the fantastical, especially dream-worlds (fig. 24). Shape-shifting characters, dreams within dreams, anachronisms, and paradoxes keep the reader adrift in a fantastical realm whose often dark irrationality probes mysteries of humanity: uncharted cognitive depths, the burdens of history, and the continuities between self and other. These stories are akin to the mind-bending labyrinths and dreamscapes of Jorge Luis Borges.
NICOLETTE 200 wide          Nicolette: A Novel Novel (1993) is an erotic avant-garde novel that Zend wrote in Hungarian in 1976 and translated into English (fig. 25). The temporally zigzagging narrative tells of a Toronto poet’s passionate and obsessive love affair with Nicolette, a woman half his age and the wife of a close friend, during visits to Paris and Florence. Not only is the chronology fractured, like a shifting, multi-layered dream, but also the chapters exploit a spectrum of forms and genres, playfully manifesting pieces of the story as haiku, Morse code, concrete poetry, a footnote, a play, epistolary narrative, Greek mythology, lyric poetry, censored text, and so forth. The novel also metafictively relates its own composition and birth: Nicolette from Nicolette.

A Wider Homeland

          A large part of Zend’s identity as a human being and as a writer arises from the dual geographical and political frames of reference that became a reality for him in 1956. His writing after his immigration to Canada reveals a process of attempting to understand the psychological rift and ambivalent emotions of being a writer in exile.
          Life in Hungary had not been easy. The losses from the Nazi era were devastating, and living under the Stalinist regime was stifling and potentially dangerous. Poverty was a reality, and travel was severely restricted. On the other hand, Hungary represented continuity of language, culture, and the community of friends and relatives. For Zend, life in Canada reflected a mirror image of his ambivalence toward Hungary. Free from the climate of intellectual oppression and duplicity, and now able to travel freely (though not yet to his native Hungary), new possibilities opened up for expression and experience. But that newly-claimed freedom was tempered by intense feelings of nostalgia. In that nether-world of exile, of not being able to completely embrace one world or the other, difference was everywhere, and identity was nowhere.
          The dynamic tension in Zend’s work often consists in the split between, on the one hand, his existence in the no-man’s land that characterizes exile and that leaves its mark of dividedness on the psyche, and on the other, his equally strong consciousness of a larger, universal humanity in which identity is defined not so much by national borders but instead by the erasing of boundaries separating self from other, tribe from tribe. Zend’s literary writing provides a space where historical and personal trauma, rather than being resolved or healed, opens a fertile arena for the drama of division and unity, of the impossibility of return and the possibility of embracing of a wider homeland.

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


Camille Martin