The Rumpus International Rivers Interview #1: György Dragomán on the Danube

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Dragomán: For me writing is indeed very close to collection, but it is not a process of collection, much rather a way for cataloging your collection. I always begin writing by finding an object, an image, or even a sentence. I focus on it, and try to find the story behind it. I have a vast mental collection of objects I know I am going to use sooner or later. I enjoy going to flea markets but I never buy anything—I am just looking at the different objects there. What is interesting is that I never know what I am going to remember of the many things I see. It usually takes months until it is filtered so that only one or two or three objects remain. The process of remembering often changes the objects in minuscule ways—when this happens I usually know I am onto something.

Rumpus: Do you identify yourself as a “Hungarian author”?

Dragomán: I write in Hungarian so Hungarian literature is very important to me because of the language. There are many writers who are important for me: Ádám Bodor, Géza Ottlik, and Péter Esterházy to name a few. But I don’t think I would have become the writer I am without having read Kafka, Hašek and Hrabal. When I wrote my first novel I noticed that reading in Hungarian would make it harder to return to my own style, so I read mostly in English.

Rumpus: Like what?

Dragomán: There are two rather experimental writers I really love, Beckett and B.S Johnson. I learn a lot from their books about the different ways to structure a novel. I am very much a Faulkner fan, and for a while I really wanted to translate Cormac McCarthy—especially his early work.

Rumpus: What’s the current political climate in Hungary?

Dragomán: Hungarian politics is on the level of Hungarian soccer, (our team has not taken part in any world or European championship since 1986) with the difference that in soccer, at least we once had a chance of winning the world championship (we lost to Germany in 1954).

The two main parties (we have two main parties: the Socialists who are now in power, but seem very likely to loose the next elections, and the Fidesz, a conservative party the leader of which used to be young liberals at the change of the regime) did not do the necessary ideological groundwork to create new and valid definitions of leftism and conservatism—both are burdened by the past and neither seem to have done a very good job of confronting it. They do not have very clearly defined ideologies, and one quite often feels that both try to define themselves by differentiating themselves from the other. This has the unfortunate consequence of creating a great rift in the whole of Hungarian society, which is historically prone to an “ours-theirs” camp based mentality, and the country is somewhat paralyzed.

The most painful example of the paralysis is the fact that twenty years after the changing of regime, we still have not made public and transparent the files of the totalitarian secret services, and we still do not know who the informers were. As far as I know, we are the only country in this region where this did not happen, and I don’t think it ever will.

Rumpus: So little political progress has been made?

Dragomán: The most notable change in our somewhat frozen political landscape is the sad fact that radical extremism is on the rise. There has been a paradigm shift in extremist rhetoric: the traditional anti-Semitism has been replaced in the last few years by an anti-Roma ideology which I think is extremely dangerous, because aided by the economic crisis, it can very-well constitute the foundation of a new and charismatic extremism which might even transcend our borders.

Rumpus: The Danube shifts between a symbol of escape and terror in your book.  Could you elaborated on the roles the river played in the regional psyche?

Dragomán: I can’t really tell you how Romanians think of the river, but for most Hungarians the concept of the Danube is introduced by a nineteenth century romantic novel everybody has to read at school, The Man with the Golden Touch by Mór Jókai. The book starts with a lengthy and meticulous description of the Iron Gate region of the Danube, and it is described as a very wild and sublimely beautiful region.

Perhaps this was one of the reasons why for Hungarians living in Transylvania, where I grew up, the Danube was something exotic and far away. Most of the stories I heard about it had to do with it being the border to Yugoslavia. My father’s favorite story about this, which he would often repeat, was about his best childhood friend who had a rather obsessive father. One day after his twentieth birthday, his friend disappeared and no one knew anything about him. Months later he sent a telegram from Germany about having swum across the Danube. His father telegrammed back: “Fine, but where is your key to our apartment?” To which the son answered: “No worries, the key lies on the bottom of the Danube.”

Rumpus: Djata’s father is sent away to work on the Danube Canal. Did this give the river a dreadful connotation?

Dragomán: People usually just referred to it as the Canal, and it meant something like the Gulag would in Soviet times. So it would not necessarily mean working by the actual Canal, it could have been any of the many work camps in the region.

Rumpus: Can you describe the last time you saw the Danube?

Dragomán: I can’t think of Budapest without thinking of the Danube. The first time I ever saw the Danube was in 1988 when I moved to Hungary. I remember I was amazed by the size of the river, and by the way the city was built upon it.

I live in Budapest now, so I see it quite often. Whenever I cross the river I try to avoid the subway so I can look at the water. The best way to look at it is to go across the Margaret Bridge on foot. But the last time I saw the Danube I did not have time for this, I was crossing the Elizabeth Bridge by bus. We had some heavy rain the day before and the river was gray, full of small angry ripples.

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Rumpus original art by Ilyse Magy.


Michael Zelenko is a freelance writer and editor. He was most recently a writer for the newspaper The Reykjavik Grapevine in Iceland. Born in Murmansk, Russia, he currently resides in San Francisco where he is working on a children's book. More from this author →