Translation projects come about for various reasons, and these can include affinities with certain authors, artistic agendas or historical periods to name but a few. Wanting to raise the profile of a particular literary tradition is also a major motivator, and when this is coupled with the translator’s genuine passion for a text, then readers are likely to be in for a real treat. This is the case with the recent publication of a Hungarian classic: Nándor Gion’s Virágos katona (1973), translated into English as Soldier with Flower by Zsuzsa Koltay and published by Amazon in 2020. As Koltay confesses in an interview, when a friend asked her to recommend Hungarian novels in translation, she listed a few before stating that the one that she would most want to recommend was not available in English. She added that she was toying with the idea of translating this book one day, to which the friend replied: ‘Why wait?’, thus sending her ‘on a new adventure’ and, hopefully, kickstarting a wave of future Gion translations into English.
Already translated into a dozen languages, Nándor Gion (1941-2002) is a unique voice in the landscape of Hungarian literature. On the one hand, his work has received utmost recognition, including some of the most prestigious literary awards, but on the other, it has not been fully integrated into the canon and taught widely as part of the school curriculum. An important reason for this is that, hailing from the Vojvodina (Vajdaság) area of Serbia, Gion belongs to Hungarian literature in a trans-national and trans-border definition, often being classed as Hungarian literature from outside the (current) borders of Hungary. Gion’s entire oeuvre – a monumental tetralogy entitled He Played for Villains, too (Latroknak is játszott), of which Soldier with Flower is the first part – is set in this multi-ethnic universe, where Serbs, Hungarians, Germans, Roma and other ethnic groups have historically lived side by side. The political dominance of ethnic groups has changed repeatedly in the course of the last two centuries: Hungarians having the upper hand during the years of Austria-Hungary, and the Serbs taking over in the wake of World War I. Gion, who lived in Vojvodina until he moved to Hungary following the dissolution of Yugoslavia, documents precisely these radical shifts in the history of his immediate homeland, and brings to life a world that is not only historically distant but also culturally more diverse than contemporary Hungary.
In Soldier with Flower, the author’s real-life birth village (Srbobran in Serbian, Szenttamás in Hungarian) is not just an inspiration but also the very setting for most of the book, which also features a wide range of references to actual locations and real-life individuals. The Calvary chapel, with its paintings depicting a soldier with a flower, is as much of an actual prompt as are place names such as Tuk Hill or the mill that eventually sees the protagonist settle down and start a new life in the wake of the war. Coming full circle after the devastating experience of the first world conflagration, the novel engages with political, historical and personal upheaval through the lens of narrator Shaggy István Gallai. It is through his perspective that we witness these fundamental changes, and ponder on inter-ethnic tensions and the minority experience in the culturally pluralist world of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. Ultimately though, Gion is preoccupied with building bridges rather than divides, and focuses on the power of friendship and commitment as a prerequisite for happiness.
Even though Gion depicts rural life with unquestionable passion, he successfully steers clear of idealising it, offering instead a view that shows severe hardships alongside the benefits of living in symbiosis with nature. Through the different protagonists and a wealth of ethnographic observation, the author presents various mentalities and ways of being, and juxtaposes the alternative paths of active involvement and pragmatism alongside daydreaming idealism and non-commitment. Soldier with Flower is deeply preoccupied with the human quest for happiness and shows multiple attempts at achieving it, some of which are clearly outside the realm of social acceptability.
In parallel with investigating the mystical quality of happiness, this gripping novel is also a meditation on the possibility of transcending the horrors of history; in other words, it asks whether it is actually possible for anyone to get past these traumas, albeit on a momentary basis. A Koltay notes, Shaggy István Gallai (the narrator) and the social outcast Gilike follow a similar path when it comes to escapist strategies, and the novelist himself indicated that Gilike was his alter ego. Crucially though, Gilike’s intellectual impairment and early death prevent him from rejoicing in a confluence of sorts between reality and fantasy, such as the one experienced by the narrator as a result of his abilities to transport himself into a parallel universe by way of music, imagination, and in the end, personal bliss.
Gallai is a deeply inquisitive figure, who is widely read by village standards, and who genuinely wants to get to the bottom of things: ‘I decided to find out why the Soldier with Flower was happy. That’s why I started going to the Calvary regularly’ (Gion 28). Meanwhile, Gallai’s close friend, Shuffling Ádám Török could not be furthest from any attempts at understanding cause and effect; his raison d’être is to take matters into his own hands and act upon impulses, irrespective whether they turn out to be right or wrong in the long run. He is a rebellious character par excellence, whereas the most consistent protagonist, unafraid of tackling any challenge head-on, is the only female character of note, Rézi, whose pragmatic take on life is at the foundation of a fulfilment that cannot be taken away by external forces.
Even though Rézi is given limited scope for challenging her destiny at a time when women are still essentially their father’s and/or husband’s chattels, she does refuse an arranged marriage and continues to act as an agent of her own desires. Crucially, she supports herself and her family through hard work, both at the family mill and in Germany and the United States during a brief period of grace before the breakout of the war. Rézi is the epitome of caring, whose industriousness – often used as a parodic trope for Germans – is far more than mere acquisitiveness: it is a celebration of life and a means to redeem others when their previous avenues no longer can. As the soldier with flower abandons Gallai after the war, in a symbolic echoing of the collapse of an entire empire and way of life, Rézi takes over and it is her concern about her future husband that finally shows him a glimpse of the happiness he has been seeking all his life.
Writing in a seemingly effortless mode that intertwines realism with folkloric elements and symbolism, Gion is celebrated for his deeply engaging stories, anecdotes and lifelike characters, which transport us to a bygone era. Occasionally labelled as the Hungarian Marquez, Gion is generally considered the indigenous representative of magic realism, while the writer himself has called his own style ‘enriched realism’. As the translator observes, it was precisely this conversational style that represented some of the major challenges in the translation process, especially since her aim was to stay as loyal to the original as possible. To this end, she privileged accuracy in terms of content but decided to pare down some of the extended ‘run-on clauses’, with a view to meet the expectations of Anglo-American readers. This frequently encountered strategy certainly makes the reading of the novel more manageable and has the potential to attract readers who may have not encountered Hungarian literature before. I do wonder though whether these concessions are really necessary, seeing that with a touch more effort in following complex, arguably atypical structures viewed from the perspective of English syntax, readers might be rewarded with a more solid insight into the evocative flow of Gion’s writing.
In sum, Soldier with Flower is a delightful and moving novel that is borderline impossible to put down. It offers a little bit of something for everyone, as it is a very nuanced historical novel shedding light on the Great War from a fresh perspective; an adventure story taking in bar brawls and robberies; a novel about friendship; a novel about rivalry and conflict; a novel about finding love and contentment, and of course a novel about the search for happiness. Last but not least, it is a novel about growing up, a Bildungsroman of the most harrowing kind that leads the narrator to confront the fact that everything has irreversibly changed around him, but while his initial dreams may have vanished, he is left with the potential to rebuild his world anew.
Gion, Nándor. Soldier with Flower. Translated by Zsuzsa Koltay. Independently Published, 2020.
Jozefina Komporaly lectures at the University of the Arts London, and translates from Romanian and Hungarian into English. She is editor of the anthologies Matéi Visniec: How to Explain the History of Communism to Mental Patients and Other Plays (Seagull, 2015) and András Visky’s Barrack Dramaturgy: Memories of the Body (Intellect, 2017), and author of numerous publications on theatre and adaptation, including the monographs Staging Motherhood (Palgrave, 2007) and Radical Revival as Adaptation (Palgrave, 2017). Her stage translations were produced in London and Chicago, and recent translations include Mr K Released by Matéi Visniec (Seagull, 2020) and The Glance of the Medusa by László F. Földényi (Seagull, 2020). She has just contributed to the latest edition of Poet Lore, and is currently preparing the critical anthology Plays from Romania: Strategies of Subversion (Bloomsbury, 2021).