On the Danube-Concept of Thomas Kabdebo’s Novel Trilogy Danubius Danubia

 As I sat on the bottom step of the wharf,
A melon-rind flowed by with the current;
Wrapped in my fate I hardly heard the chatter
Of the surface, while the deep was silent.
As if my own heart had opened its gate:
The Danube was turbulent, wise and great.

Attila József: By the Danube(1)

“The fate of the Danube, flowing through the heart of Europe across Austria and Hungary in its watercourse that once was gouged, then stabilised and regulated, is to swallow up the discharge of its tributary streams so that eventually it swells to become the lower Danube. The fate of men and women living along its banks is frequently to be incarcerated between and beyond borders, also beyond Danube- borders, which is one of the most perverted things, except for the Dam(2) that is even worse than the border”, Thomas Kabdebo highlights in one of his Danube- lectures.(3)This two-sentence statement quite tangibly points out the tension between the concept that depicts the Danube as a silver, sometimes blue waterway connecting nations, peoples, cultures and languages with the actual reality that sometimes is in harsh discordance with the idealised and desired Danube-picture. To present this complexity with the means of art is quite a daring endeavour, and doing so using the language-bound medium of literature is a particularly monstrous challenge.

Thomas Kabdebo’s(4) roman-fleuve Danubius Danubia(5) takes on this challenge successfully, which makes it a unique work of contemporary Hungarian prose. The eight hundred page long novel trilogy, as István Tótfalusi rightly states in his review published in World Literature Today(6), is not only a roman-fleuve in the sense that the three novels constituting it add up to a “coherent story and recurrent characters, set within a not too limited frame of place and time”, but also a roman de fleuve, “a novel featuring Europe’s second-longest river as a main character”. This in itself would suffice to qualify the trilogy as an outstanding achievement by an ambitious writer, but Danubius Danubia brings more than this to the table. The main stream of the trilogy’s plot focuses on the life of 1956-er émigré József D. Szendrő (the letter “D” stands for Danubian), who after the fall of the revolution finds a new home in the small German town of Neuburg on the Danube, but embarks on a quest to reunite his family. This time plane of the work, ranging from the early fifties to the late eighties, in itself would provide ample material for a lengthy novel with its rich plot flavoured with political intrigues, murder attempts by communist secret police agents, Danube-travels accompanied by charming descriptions of nature, and a love story that never fails to maintain the involvement of the reader. But Kabdebo went far beyond these limits, as he tells a family saga of two centuries in the other time-planes of his work. The saga is told via a broad range of narrative devices that include diaries, memoires, letters and even a journey of the mind back into the 19th century that occurs only in the imagination of the main character, when he partially relives the life of one of his foremothers during a coma caused by a severe cranial injury. With the different branches of the Szendrő’s family tree various nations take their place in the typically Central-European mosaic of the family. It is important to note though that actually none of the characters travels through the whole length of the river. Its entire distance stretching from the source in the Black Forest to its outlet into the Black Sea is fully covered only if we see the travels of three different generations as one journey, due to which eventually the plot of the novel itself constitutes a symbolic journey on the Danube. Hence the trilogy can also be interpreted as a virtual journey that redefines the river, creating a symbolic rendition of the geographical landscape, which presents the Danube basin as a cultural unity, from a perspective that emerges far above the national narratives, even though it is displayed via the life stories of individual characters appearing in the novel.

In this sense, the richness of the subject matter constitutes the severest challenge for the novelist who strives towards presenting the mosaic-like diversity of the Danube basin in such a way that it just strengthens the sense of the cultural- geographical-historical unity it all adds up to. The river that once used to be a long-standing frontier of the first typically multicultural European superpower, the Roman Empire, now passes through or touches the borders of ten different countries, is inhabited by people the religious diversity of which incorporates Catholicism, Protestantism, Orthodox Christianity and, at least in Hungary, and further on towards the east, has a significant historical heritage linked to Islam too. The river has an essential role in the culture, self-definition and folklore of the nations dwelling along its banks, but, not surprisingly, in ways that vary from land to land. The Danube appears in the national anthem of four Central European nations, not counting Austria, in the case of which it is not called by its name but, none the less as an obvious reference, is dubbed as “the river”. Unity ends right at this point though, for the symbolic role of the stream differs from nation to nation: in the Hungarian anthem, alongside with its tributary Tisza it defines the geographical framework of the prosperity of the nation, meanwhile in the anthem of Croatia, being a symbol of Hungarian influence, it appears as a certain kind of an adversary of the country’s other emblematic river, the Sava. In Bulgaria’s national anthem the river plays a prominent role as a symbolic representation of the land’s natural beauty, whereas in the Romanian anthem Andrei Mureşanu mentions the Danube in the more political context of the Russian expansion that threatens the integrity of an ideal homeland uniting all Romanians, by stating that “the Danube has been stolen”. All in all, there is a vast complexity of national and regional narratives present alongside the Danube, and in the mosaic of the different truths along the river it appears to be an enormous challenge to accomplish what was described in the following way by Hungarian(7)poet Attila József in his poem quoted as the motto of this essay: “The great battle which our ancestors once fought / Resolves into peace through the memories, / And to settle at last our communal affairs / Remains our task and none too small it is.”

Kabdebo’s Danube trilogy does not ignore this diversity. The river not only provides a setting for the main hero József D. Szendrő’s life, but all the crucial changes redirecting his fate are connected to the river in one way or another: it is one of the bridges over the Danube in Budapest where he manages to find his way out of the police car, throwing himself into the flow over the railing, it is a boat on the Danube in which he manages to escape to Austria, and even his death occurs on his own motorboat on his beloved river, just to mention the most crucial examples. One of his treasured plans is to row down to the Black Sea with his son György (nicknamed Gyuró), and in the prison cell he strengthens his soul by reading the diary of his father, describing a journey along the upper Danube. When in a letter sent to György he recalls his ethnographical studies at the university, he praises the approach of those professors who presented the Danube basin as a unity of higher significance than simply the sum of the individual countries alongside the river. He is also daydreaming about founding a museum that would present the entire ethnographic landscape of the Danube basin in a holistic way, emphasising the continuity in the folk customs of the various ethnicities that originate in the same source or that the different groups borrowed from one another. Kabdebo comments his hero’s approach approvingly: “The Danube, as everyone can see or rather hear, speaks German, Hungarian, Czech, Serbian, Romanian, Bulgarian, also Russian and even Gipsy, and he, József Szendrő of the Danube, understands the mother tongue of the river.”

It would be self-deceit yet to claim that József Szendrő’s attitude prevails as a common approach in the Danube area. The novel brings numerous examples proving the contrary. To quote one expressive example, the uprising of Hungary against Austria in 1848–1849 “is a war of independence for the Hungarians, the defence of their empire for the Austrians, and the formation of their nation for the Romanians, Serbians and Croatians”. The differences, and the frequently contradicting character of national narratives is depicted with the subtle irony that is so much a characteristic of Kabdebo’s writing in the Donau Tagen – Danube Days chapter of the trilogy, which describes a Danube-conference ending up in complete chaos, due to the national sensitivities and the differences in the way the representatives of the various Danube countries tend to see their shared historical heritage.

The views of the individuals are, to more or less extent, inevitably biased (in extreme cases: fully determined) by their cultural and national background, and the characters of Danubius Danubia are hardly an exception. This circumstance must have led to one of the most challenging riddles Kabdebo had to solve when he was working on the concept of the novel trilogy, that is, the apparent conflict between the need to produce a narrative which works well as a “story” in the sense that its characters are flesh-and-blood human beings which the reader can easily relate to, and the novelist’s mission he committed himself to presenting the events also from the perspective of the historical, geographical and cultural unity of the Danube basin. Kabdebo found a brilliantly inventive solution to this challenge, by introducing a unique version of the omniscient narrator (which, as George Gömöri points out in his review,(8) is a “dying species” in our contemporary prose): the Secret Chronicle Writer. This narrator is timeless, unbiased, neutral, and, being the representative of the genius loci, the spirit of the place, sees the events form a much more elevated perspective than that of the individuals, or even nations. Accordingly, the Secret Chronicle Writer sees the entire Danube basin as one unity in regard of its historical continuity, and its synchronous diversity as well. To quote Kabdebo’s description of this omniscient storyteller: “The Secret Chronicle Writer hiding in the beech crucifix acknowledged all this with satisfaction. He (and the Good Lord above) found equally likeable the believers of any of the religions in the Danubian lands (horribile dictu: including even the agnostics), the citizens of any of its states, and its frogs and crickets croaking and chirping in any of its languages and dialects. His suspicion was that humans are not searching for heaven’s justice but for their own truth on earth, and they do not want to be heroes but survivors instead. The memory of the Secret Chronicle Writer, the nostalgia of the molecules making up the landscape recalled the times of Pax Romana, allowing him to believe that the obligatory concordance and make-believe harmony was once really the lifestyle of an era. Ever since feud, low tide, high tide, flood, rain, tempest, thunder, bloodshed and compromise ruled the life of most who dwelled here, even though they could have followed the example of the sunshine, that shone neutrally on all citizens starting from the hills of Schwarzwald to the fist-sized golden knob of the Saint Anna monastery’s church that was built here on the mountain of Orsova.”

Kabdebo’s Danube trilogy can also be perceived as a symbolic journey on the river, the purpose of which is to express this unity constituted by the cultural landscape’s diverse elements. In this sense the family saga of the roman-fleuve finds its visual equivalent in the mosaic mural constructed by one of the characters of the novel: Count Deggendorf. When depicting the tributary streams and the sights of the settlements along the Danube, the mural ignores the actual ratio of the objects and assigns their size according to their significance in the overall composition, similarly to the way Kabdebo is handpicking the events of history, apparently arbitrarily, but in fact based on their role played in the dramaturgy of the novel.

The most obvious proof for the trilogy also being both a symbolic Danube- journey, and also a means to outline the difficulties of seeing the Danube basin as a unity standing above nations, is the romance of József D. Szendrő’s son, György Szendrő, and Annamaria Danubia Fischer-Galati (aka Bia), the story of which creates the backbone of the plot of the third instalment of the trilogy. It has symbolic importance that the two youngsters are participating together in an archaeological excavation, which repeatedly creates opportunities to express the connections and also the tensions between history as the creation of human narrative and current reality. Bia for instance, being Romanian with some ethnic Hungarian background, sees the contradiction between the Hungarian and Romanian historical narratives as a challenge: the way the teacher in the secondary school and the ethnic Hungarian grandmother from Transylvania are presenting the historical past would hardly have anything in common. Bia’s solution is much in line with the eventual message of Danubius Danubia about the possible way of “settling our communal affairs”: “It does not matter whether my Romanian ancestors have been living in Transylvania continuously or not, and it does not matter whether my Hungarian ancestors populated a deserted area or a rarely inhabited one. I will deal with other questions.” The message in Bia’s conclusion is obvious: it would be misleading to interpret our present exclusively alongside historical narratives. What is more, history fails not only when one attempts to use it to resolve contemporary issues of national-political character, but even as a means to settle debates of ethnic nature referring to ancient times. As one of the archaeologists points out to Bia and Gyuró: “On this level physical anthropology is the most untrustworthy clue. Even the Roman soldiers might not here come from Italy, but from Albania and Gallia alike, or any part of what once used to be Magna Graecia. Two skeletons can tell us about many things: the age of the buried, how long they have been in their graves, the physical condition they used to have in the moment of death, the quality of teeth, the varieties of dental illnesses, the presence, the lack or the frequency of the pregnancies of the woman, the wounds that the man got in battles or during fistfights. There is only one thing they cannot tell us: whether the buried one was Pannonian or Roman.”

The moment when the romance of Bia and György finally gets fulfilled also represents an act of symbolic reunification of the male and female entities of the river. The key to understanding this is the scene when Bia and György are conducting the following conversation above the recently unearthed bones of the couple that used to live seventeen hundred years ago:

“‘Dominus danubius’, said Gyuró.
‘Domina danubia – domina danubiana’, added the girl, varying it a bit.
‘Homo, homini, danubius, danubiensis, pannonicus, mysicus’, they kept trying the different versions, each of which narrowed and altered the meaning a bit more. ‘Danubius, Danubia’, pinpointed Bia.
Until now they were thinking about and looking at the skeletal people, and now, at each other.
Szendrő György de genere Danubiana put his arms strongly around the shoulders of Annamaria Fischer-Galati, alias Bia, turned her breast towards himself, then kissed her lips.”

Danubius and Danubia, we shall note: these were the names the ancient Romans used to call the upper and lower sections of the river. Consequently the unification of the Hungarian–Romanian couple represents also the completion of the symbolic Danube that is constituted by the novel trilogy itself. It is important to note that in order to make the fulfilment of their love possible they both must break an oath that they had made long before their romance started. The injured Gyuró, waiting for his rescuers in a pit on Veranka Island, vowed to never ever cross the borders of his country, whereas Bia devoted herself to becoming a nun when she was worrying for the life of her father, who had been incarcerated by the Romanian dictatorship’s secret police, the Securitate. To obtain happiness eventually together, they both have to detour from the course that life seemed to set them on in a moment of the past. The symbol of the romance is completed by the closing scene of the trilogy: when József D. Szendrő’s life ends on his boat on the Danube near Bratislava, in the very same moment Bia’s and Gyuró’s first child is conceived near Nagymaros, and hereby also the symbolic Danube-journey of Danubius Danubia reaches its destination. The Romanian nation that inhabits the lowermost section of the river also finds its position in the ethnic mosaic of the family that lines up a long series of other Danubian nations – Germans, Slovaks, Hungarians – along its ancestors. This is the moment when the Szendrős become Danubians indeed – the family saga’s stream reaches its outlet.

Thomas Kabdebo in his massive novel trilogy unmistakably suggests that the similarities and the common interests of the peoples and nations living in the Danube basin should outweigh their historical differences. Just like Bia and Gyuró, the Danubian nations also have to reassess the extent to which they allow their past to define their actions taken in the present, in order to accomplish a common, shared happy ending (even though this happy ending apparently must be preceded by grief). This seems to be the main message conveyed by Kabdebo’s wholesome fleuve-roman, the novel trilogy Danubius Danubia, which is most probably the first Hungarian novel that keeps following the principles of the genre, and, by creating a consistent narrative, populates the realistically described river landscape with a multitude of characters that ranges from actual historical figures (such as Lajos Kossuth, István Széchenyi or Joseph Andrew Blackwell) to the imaginary, still quite typical everyday heroes trying to survive history on the banks of the Danube.

So it flows.

1  Translation by John Székely. In: Attila József: Poems, London, The Danubia Book Co., 1966. Edited by Thomas Kabdebo.

2  A reference to the controversial Gabčíkovo–Nagymaros Waterworks project, a large barrage project on the Danube that led to a still unresolved dispute between Slovakia and Hungary, after the latter had cancelled its participation in the project due to environmental concerns.

3  Kabdebó Tamás: Hármasság a Danubius Danubiában. (Trinity in Danubius Danubia.) The shortened transcription of the author’s lecture that he presented at the University of Miskolc, Hungary on 22 September 1998. In: Új Holnap, January 1999.

4  The author, who left Hungary after the revolution of 1956 and now lives in Ireland, publishes his works in Hungarian as Kabdebó Tamás and his works written in English under the name Thomas Kabdebo.

5  Kabdebó Tamás: Danubius Danubia. Folyamregény, Argumentum Kiadó, 2001, 2nd edition. The quotations from the novel trilogy appearing in these essay are translated by myself. N. H.

6  István Tótfalusi: Tamás Kabdebó: Danubius Danubia. In: World Literature Today, Winter 2000.

7  To highlight his view on his own Hungarianness more accurately, let us quote another section of Attila József’s poem: “My mother was Cumanian, my father / Half-Szekler, half-Rumanian or whole.”

8  George Gömöri: “Tamás Kabdebó. Árapály – Pezsdülés”. In: World Literature Today, Autumn 1996.

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