The Rumpus International Rivers Interview #1: György Dragomán on the Danube
György Dragomán is a Hungarian author of two novels to date: The Book of Destruction (2002) and The White King (2005). Dragomán has translated notable authors into Hungarian and won more awards and scholarships than can be listed here. My personal favorite of his prizes is the Best War-Themed Short Story, presented by the Hungarian Ministry of Defense, which I can only imagine was handed out in a terribly intimidating ceremony.
Translated into English in 2007, The White King recounts the life of Djata, an 11-year-old boy growing up in a totalitarian state similar to Ceauşescu’s Romania. In some regards Djata’s childhood shares a rough profile with Dragomán’s own. Through a series of intertwined episodes, Dragomán hurls Djata into an environment where the absurd rubs elbows with the terrifying: best friends try to break their legs to get out of trouble; a principle threatens to rip out the hearts of his students; and the grass of the soccer field may or may not be soaked with nuclear radiation. The book left me ill-at-ease and a second reading didn’t help.
The following interview was conducted in the spring of 2009.
P.S. — In the summer of 2009, in a random San Francisco locale, I overheard a man speaking with a thick accent and asked him his origin. He was, it turned out, from Hungary. Long story short, the man I met that day was a visiting professor at UC Berkeley and had once shared a flat with Mr. Dragomán. I now have credible testimony that Mr. Dragomán makes a pretty good housemate.
The Rumpus: Weren’t Dragomans a class of translators between the East and West during the Ottoman era? Do you come from that lineage?
György Dragomán: Yes I do, or my family does. On my father’s side our family is of Armenian origin. In the 16th century roughly one hundred Armenian families settled in Transylvania. They were slowly assimilated into the Hungarian culture; the generation of my great-grandfather was the last in which Armenian was still spoken. But we know that Dragoman was a sort of a diplomatic position in the Ottoman Empire; as far as I know in the Armenian tradition it denotes interpreters from Turkish. On my mother’s side I am Jewish, so I have a really mixed background.
Rumpus: Was it a challenge to grow up with that kind of background in communist Romania?
Dragomán: Transylvania was a very multicultural place, with many minorities (German, Jewish, Roma, Armenian) and religions coexisting more or less peacefully for centuries.
I grew up in a mixed neighborhood, many of my friends were Romanians and we learned each other’s language very early on. It often happened that you used the other’s language in a conversation, and your friends would be using yours out of courtesy. Beginning in the 70s, Romanian communism became more and more nationalist, the rights of the minorities were steadily reduced, Hungarian street names and signs disappeared, and the use of the minority languages was curtailed in schools and everywhere else. This led to a certain tension: concepts like revisionism, irredentism and chauvinism became words you had to learn early on. The Hungarian anthem and flag were forbidden, and this had some really absurd consequences, like having to learn in kindergarten which colors you’d better avoid while drawing. Also, you knew that your ethnic background would keep you out of certain positions and that you might be forced to work in the far regions of the country, away from your birthplace and family.
Rumpus: Does that experience seep into Djata’s story?
Dragomán: Djata’s account does not directly reflect this; at first glance it might not even be obvious that he belongs to a minority. I choose not to talk about this in the book because I have always seen this as artificially created. In school, where these issues were the most tangible, it led to a strange sort of unofficial segregation, and occasionally violence, but outside of school your loyalties lay with your immediate neighborhood, the street or low-rise you lived in and various groups were formed regardless of nationality.
In the book each story is a retelling of an immediate experience and there is no place for explanation. The issue of ethnicity is not one Djata would think about, even though it is something which would have been very important for him. He talks and talks, but there are many things he knows he should not talk about, and sometimes he does not, and this gives a subtle tension to the text.
Rumpus: But that tension ruptures repeatedly and very violently. Does the readers’ reaction to that violence change from country to country?