Part 2. Dissolving Labels and Boundaries
Being a poet does not depend on the geographical location of the poet’s body, or on the political system under which the publisher functions, but on the linguistic and literary value of the poems.1 —Robert Zend
Robert Zend (1929–1985) was a Hungarian-Canadian avant-garde writer and artist. As a young man of twenty-seven, he escaped his native Budapest during the 1956 failed Hungarian Uprising against Soviet rule and immigrated to Canada as a political refugee. He settled in Toronto, where he lived until his death in 1985. So nationality-wise, his life was divided into two parts: childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood in Hungary; and the rest of his life in Canada.
According to the convention of hyphenating nationality, Zend was indeed Hungarian-Canadian. However, considering his profound distrust of labels, the classification might have seemed an attempt to delimit him as a poet and human being. Because of his cosmopolitan outlook, I’ve come to think of him as a citizen of a realm expanded and enriched by his own generous sense of a borderless community of kindred poetic minds. And it is this generosity in his international affinities and aesthetic vision that I hope to develop in this essay.
It could be said that Zend had a somewhat conflicted relationship with nationality. Arriving in Canada as a political refugee, he celebrated the freedoms that had not been available to him in Soviet-controlled Hungary. And as an exile, he explored themes of alienation, loneliness, loss, and nostalgia for his native country — not unusual for immigrant writers.
On the other hand, having survived war-torn Europe, where totalitarianism and zealous nationalism had fostered a culture of xenophobia, racism, and hatred, and having seen the cruelties inflicted by the Nazi and then Soviet rule in Hungary, he understood all too well the catastrophic consequences of labeling people. He developed a distrust of boundaries, be they political, social, or aesthetic.
During World War II, more than 500,000 Hungarian Jews died as a result of the Nazi regime.2 And the Soviet Union, for all its propaganda of unity and egalitarianism, often used xenophobic fears to control the population, and under Stalin promoted an antisemitic campaign of murder and persecution.3 As well, many thousands of Hungarians labeled as “imperialist enemies” of the state were imprisoned, deported to forced labour camps, tortured, and executed, to say nothing of the more than 2,500 Hungarians killed during the 1956 Hungarian Uprising.4 Zend’s experiences of these brutal regimes provided cautionary models of zealous nationalism and racial paranoia and hatred.
One of Zend’s most poignant statements about labelling is in a speech for a panel on exile at the 1981 International Writer’s Congress. He speaks of totalitarian governments coming to power in Europe during the 1930s, which “began simplifying and polarizing the labelling of people”:
All labels — whether they were dignifying or humiliating — were meted out to certain groups, not because they did something good or evil, not because they deserved a reward or a punishment . . . but merely for circumstances beyond their control . . . like having been born into a rich or a poor family, into an Aryan or a Jewish family.5
From his experience of that catastrophic era in European history, Zend had developed a strong conviction of
the complete senselessness of labelling people according to nationality, place of birth, date of birth, religion, class, origin, sex, age, the colour of skin, the number of pimples, or whatever.6
So it’s not surprising that his life’s work dissolves boundaries, and in this essay I will explore three ways in which he did so.
First, his outlook was international, starting with his high school and university studies of Italian literature and readings of world literature in Hungary. And after Zend’s arrival in Toronto, Zend sought not only Canadian affinities but also artistic and literary friendships and inspiration around the world, perhaps most significantly with Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges but extending to writers, artists, and traditions in other countries such as France, Italy, Belgium, and Japan. Zend, no respecter of cultural boundaries, enthusiastically sought out the literature and art of other nations.
Indeed, Zend’s first poetry collection, From Zero to One, reveals something of his cosmopolitan openness. He shows his indebtedness to Canadian influences with poems dedicated to Raymond Souster, Marshall McLuhan, Norman McLaren, Glenn Gould, John Robert Colombo, and professors of Italian studies J. A. Molinaro and Beatrice Corrigan. The dedications of other poems demonstrate Zend’s affinities with cultural figures from the United States (Saul Steinberg, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke), France (Marcel Marceau), Belgium (René Magritte), Hungary (science writer Steven Rado, actor Miklós Gábor, and artist Julius Marosán), and ancient Greece (Plato). The title of the book comes from a poetic essay by Frigyes Karinthy, who, as I will explore in greater detail in an upcoming installment, was an important Hungarian literary influence. And the dust jacket bears an exquisite portrait of Zend by French mime artist Marcel Marceau.
His tributes to writers and artists sometimes takes the form of collaboration, strikingly in the case of Borges and Marceau, and ekphrastic poems, as in his response to the paintings of Belgian artist René Magritte, Hungarian-Canadian artist Marosán, and Spanish-Canadian artist Jerónimo.
Secondly, his writing thematically dissolves geographical, political, and social boundaries to explore humanity’s place within the cosmos as well as fantastical realms that often involve dreams and time travel. He writes more traditionally about such subjects as romantic relationships and the dilemmas that he faced as an immigrant, but many other works develop philosophical concepts about the connectedness of all persons to one another and to the universe.
Thirdly, Zend was a polymath, and he used whatever materials were at hand to create works that are multi-genre and multi-media. During his twenty-nine years in Canada he wrote poetry, essays, fiction, and plays; created collages and concrete poetry; used found objects such as cardboard tubes for creating three-dimensional visual poetry; and researched, wrote, directed, and produced over a hundred cultural documentaries for the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC). He was also a musician, filmmaker, and self-described “inveterate doodler.”7 A multi-media artist and chess player, he designed a chess set to be presented by the CBC to Marceau during his 1970 visit to Canada.8 And some of his works defy classification, such as the two-volume multi-genre Oāb (1983, 1985).
Zend’s cosmopolitan attitude is rooted in childhood and early adulthood experiences that nurtured in him an openness to cultural influences regardless of national boundaries. For Zend, love of city, region, or homeland, or of the culture associated with those places, is accompanied not so much by feelings of pride as by the desire to seek out affinities with writers and artists without regard (as he puts it) to “nationality, place of birth, date of birth, religion, class, origin, sex, age, the colour of skin, the number of pimples, or whatever.”
Coming Up . . .
The next two installments of my essay will highlight some major events in Zend’s life, giving biographical context to what follows, as well as offer an overview of his published works.
The last installments will be devoted to the heart of my endeavour, in which I trace some of Zend’s literary affinities and influences, with special emphasis on his roots in Hungary, his transplanted roots in Canada, and his alliances with writers, artists, and cultural traditions worldwide, with particular emphasis on Argentina, France, Italy, Japan, and Belgium. And in some of the samples from his writing, you’ll see some of his cosmic and fantastical concerns. As well, I’ll reveal ways in which his visual work crosses boundaries of genre and discipline.
A Note about Cosmopolitanism
My use of the term “cosmopolitanism” refers to a historically situated discussion in Canadian culture that came to the fore during the 1940s. The debate between the proponents of a national, nativist literature and the advocates for a more cosmopolitan view intensified when A. J. M. Smith threw down the gauntlet in favour of the latter in his 1943 anthology, The Book of Canadian Poetry. Post-World War II, this debate defined two overarching trends in Canadian poetry criticism: the desire for a national literature rooted in autochthonous themes and imagery, versus a more cosmopolitan spirit of poetry aware of currents of thought in international modernism and embracing their influence. While it is not my purpose to enter into a detailed theoretical and historical explanation of these trends, I wish to set the stage for the strong view of nationalism that gained steam with the aftermath of the Massey Commission since the 1950s, as this is the historical period that Robert Zend entered when he immigrated to Canada in 1956. My use of the term “cosmopolitan” to describe Zend’s cultural outlook does not in any way denigrate regionalism or nativism in content or aesthetic approach (or imply that Zend did so); neither does it suggest that Zend, as a political refugee from Hungary, did not admire and absorb lessons from the literature and art produced within Canadian borders. I hope to demonstrate in my analysis quite the contrary.
Next Installment: Part 3.
Hungary: Childhood and Early Adulthood