In 1975, I co-edited a book entitled Pesnici Vojvodine (The Poets of Vojvodina). The purpose of the book was to present poems written in the languages spoken in Vojvodina: Serbo-Croatian, Hungarian, Slovak, Romanian and Ruthenian.
I may add that – along with Hungarians, Slovaks, Romanians and Ruthenians – Croats represent a minority within Vojvodina. Croatian poets have always claimed they were writing in Croatian – just as their Serbian counterparts have always insisted that they were writing in Serbian. Yet the two languages were – and are – very close, almost identical. Indeed, in 1975, the language was officially designated as Serbo-Croatian.) All poems were published in the language in which they had been written, as well as in English, French and Russian. In addition, poems written in the minority languages were translated into Serbo-Croatian. My task was to select Hungarian poems. I had to find a judicious balance between generations, and I weighed my options, consulted poets and literary critics. One thing was absolutely clear and obvious. I knew – and everybody I talked to knew – that Domonkos’s Kormányeltörésben (Rudderless) had to be included. The only issue was that of volume. The anthology had to accommodate poems in all languages spoken in Vojvodina, as well as translations into several languages, so we had to work within strict constraints regarding length. Had we decided to publish Rudderless in its entirety, it would have taken almost all the space allotted to Hungarian poets. In this way, we had to content ourselves with excerpts rather than the whole poem. And it worked: we succeeded, at least in part, to make this truly exceptional poem available in other languages. This was in 1975. The excerpts were translated into English by an Irish writer, Alan McConnell Duff. The unabridged poem came out in English 40 years later, translated again by an Irishman, Owen Good. In 2015, the English version was published along with translations into 11 other languages. The full English text is now reproduced in Hungarian Review.
István Domonkos wrote Rudderless in 1971. At the end of the poem, he identifies the place where it was written: Djuphult. I had not known such a place existed in Sweden before Domonkos ended up there. As far as I know, neither had he until a few months before he moved to this unfamiliar location.
In 1971, all of us at the journal Új Symposion believed in the call to shatter the paradigm, to write something “new” to make it real. I might as well say that Rudderless was one of these attempts, except that we all felt it was much more than that. And more intense. We had been questioning and assaulting the system of references that had sprung up around us. At his point, Rudderless brought us face to face with a dilemma: what if all frameworks of reference become undermined? As Beáta Thomka writes, “it is as if there were no longer any firm point, and the organic connection between the speaker, the things, and the events had ceased indefinitely. The episodic fragments do not connect with each other according to any kind of chronological logic, or causality, and thus we perceive the speaker as if in some sort of unfixed condition – floating.”
At the time, we did not shy away from searching for analogies. I recall one of us citing Camus’s L’Étranger as some sort of a model, but he soon gave up. To be sure, Camus lived on – but through others. Recently I read a book by the Arab writer Kamel Daoud entitled Meursault, Contre-enquête (Meursault, the Counter-Investigation), in which the author continues the investigation (in fact, a counter-investigation) against Camus’s protagonist. In the process, he hits upon a discovery: Je crois que je devine pourquoi on écrit de vrais livres. Pas pour se rendre célèbre, mais pour mieux se rendre invisible. (“I think I have figured out why real books are being written. Not to make the author a celebrity so much as to make him invisible.”) While this is certainly a fine aphorism one could substantiate by a number of examples, I believe that for Domonkos the contrary is true, for he never hides behind his poem. Reading Rudderless, you feel there is nothing between him and the developments, between him and the words, no shelter, no protective layer, no belief that would enhance or neutralise effect, no rhetoric to gloss over problems. There you have Domonkos, pure and simple.
One day in the eighties, when he was in Uppsala, he asked me to help him with his ongoing official affairs in Novi Sad. It was about royalties and tenement rights. I needed a power of attorney to act on his behalf, and I drafted a few standard lines in Serbian. Domonkos signed it, although he was evidently unable to simply subscribe to the words he knew well but now must have seen in a strange new guise. Nor could he bring himself to repudiate them, for that matter. Words always hit a raw nerve with him. This is why he supplemented the power of attorney with a very personal note in protest, zooming in on the words ovlašćujem, interesi, (authorising, interests) and the like. The words most irritating to him he would quote in the Serbian original. In English, it would go something like this: “Who the fuck am I all of a sudden to give anyone power of attorney, to have interests, and such things…?” And he continues: “I am authorising You? – unbelievable!” This was, of course, meant to be funny. And it was. But it was also a revolt against the intrusions of office into real life. It was so like him.
Emigration amplified Domonkos’s penchant for seeing people and events in their naked reality, stripped of all trappings and context. When countries, destinies, identities, fragments of loyalties torn off from here and there, are put next to each other things are seen more clearly. And when the sense of belonging is stripped from things, there will no longer be anything to defang or at least take away the edge from the question, “What on earth is this?” There are no everydays anymore, either. Therefore, things cannot melt into the routine of our daily lives. It’s all homelessness all around, and Domonkos rightly heeds the imperative to step outside the homey realm of correct sentences if he is to convey a sense of being deprived of a homeland. In lieu of properly conjugated verbs, infinitives, gerunds and participles remain, as in “me being… making of abroad portable homeland… this being poem… me standing on marble pedestal life standing on tiptoes slapping me in the face”.
It has been a few years since I last saw Domonkos, but we do talk on the phone, two or three times a month. So I am aware that he remains as unprotected as he always has been. He is not protected by either clichés, or tradition, routine, or blind professionalism. He is not shielded by the comforts of a familiar environment either, because, the environment he has been living in for decades, has not become a familiar one for him. In a manner of speaking, he has remained a poet to the hilt.
Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel