Where Words Fail

We cannot speak the language
that destroys the city we live in.

In a sequence from his 2009 poetry collection The Burning of the Books and Other Poems, George Szirtes retreats to childhood Budapest, memories shot through with sounds of shells and cries, and the terror of taking shelter during the failed uprising of 1956 against Communist rule. Szirtes senses words everywhere. ‘Out there a new language is being invented, / new aahs and ohs of grief’. He arrived in England from his native Hungary as a refugee aged eight, and has remained here all his life. Many of the poems in this collection, not least the title sequence, are acutely aware of how language can be used to construct a personal identity, but also to divide and oppose concepts of identity. They pay attention to how individual experience will inevitably fall into a narrative that can often enlarged to make retrospective sense of events, as the speaker comments ‘only later will we grasp its still-raw / grammar and interpret the inchoate roar / of its history’.

Sixty years on from the setting of this poem, a desire to impose narratives on cultural and national identity is rearing its head again in Hungary. In October 2016, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán ordered a referendum on new migrant quotas enforced by the European Union. Hoping to gain the support needed to reject the measure, his government ran a billboard campaign directed at the migrants themselves – with slogans such as ‘If you come to Hungary, you cannot take the jobs of Hungarians’ – written in Hungarian. A blatant use of language to isolate and alienate, they suggest a sealed cultural identity dangled in plain vision, marketed as painfully exclusive. The referendum billboard campaign is just one example of a Hungarian media world dominated by oligarchs close to Orban’s party Fidesz. A razor-wire fence constructed on the border with Serbia in 2015 still stands strong.

An untouchable language, and an identity forcibly defined in terms of opposites, terrorise Ferenc Karinthy’s 1970 dystopian novel, Metropole. Recently, a widespread revival of dystopian novels like Orwell’s 1984 has reflected the way we turn to stories to better understand and empathise with the events of our own time. In the case of those dystopias, we often know exactly what to expect. The careful construction of their internal worlds – their newspeak and doublethink – while acting as a touchstone of empathy, contrasts too with the necessary uncertainty of our on-going reality. Yet where a dystopian novel like 1984 may quite predictably invert our expectations, in Metropole the reference points feel almost impossible to decipher. The protagonist in Karinthy’s linguistic dystopia experiences the city as ‘an equation without known quantities’. First published in Hungarian in 1970, in 2008 George Szirtes translated it into English for the first time. It tells the story of Budai, a Hungarian linguist who is on his way to a conference in Helsinki, but somehow catches a wrong plane that brings him to a nameless, overpopulated city where absolutely nobody can understand him. Towards the end of the novel, the mob of people attempt a revolution that is swiftly crushed (perhaps reminiscent for contemporary readers of the 1956 uprising against Soviet rule) but whose purpose remains a mystery, as Budai wonders ‘what had happened? Was it a siege? A war? A revolution? Who fought whom and why?’ The narrative voice swarms with questions, questions on every page, every passing encounter raising countless more questions. Within this relatively short novel, Karinthy succeeds in building a suffocating and stagnant dystopia, a bleak move away from the power of language to build mutual understanding and empathy.

Writing in the Guardian earlier this year, Szirtes suggested that ‘the government of Hungary has sought for six years to narrow the vista of imagination for its citizens by creating ‘patriotic’ national libraries, ‘patriotic’ art, to increase cohesion on its own terms…it seeks to define some pure cultural core that is Hungary and Hungary alone.’ Reading the novel nearly fifty years after its publication, its sealed, floating world, often read now as timeless allegory, may feel uncannily familiar too. As the days merge together and Budai incessantly wanders the streets, the eloquence of his recollections of home – canoeing on the Danube and noticing the movement of the ducks on the river – becomes increasingly consumed by the present. His attempts to maintain a sense of proportion, of relation to a life beyond the hellish metropolis, are constantly undermined. ‘Perhaps he would make a discovery that would startle the world and the time would come when, all things being equal, he might think himself fortunate to have found his way here, to have stumbled on it like an explorer. On the other hand he might simply have been fooling himself.’ Trying to convince himself he is still on Planet Earth at all, Budai reminds himself that ‘there was an entirely recognisable way of life.’ Yet standing on the outside of this self-enclosed system, Karinthy delivers a depressing image of language as indecipherable, hiding secrets to happiness that can never be accessed.

Moreover, any possibility of translation or cultural exchange is flatly denied. At one point, attempting to use his professional skills as a linguist to decipher the written language, we are told that ‘even now he was enjoying this instinctive mark making – it was almost a pleasure working on a logical problem that meant pitting his solitary wits against the city’s million and more secrets.’ Yet in this dementedly cyclical novel, every such attempt fails: in a world where language can only be accorded an objective, technical value, Budai’s individual identity becomes increasingly fragile. The atmosphere of isolation is exacerbated further by the refusal of the third person narrator to move beyond Budai’s psyche. The only person with whom Budai makes some kind of meaningful connection, a lift operator at his hotel, is kept at a taunting distance. The woman, Epepe – whose name is printed differently every time – is instead constructed out of Budai’s own narrative imaginings. Like Budai, the reader has virtually nothing by which to test his story’s truth.

The power of language to shape our perceptions of other people – but also to deeply alienate us from others – works at the most extreme level of personal identity in Elif Batuman’s new novel The Idiot (2017), as Budai’s experience of being shut off from possibilities of cultural or personal identification is explored in the context of relationship between two people. Selin is an undergraduate in her first year at Harvard in 1995, who strikes up an email correspondence with Ivan, an older mathematics student. Selin is deeply aware of the shortcomings of language, yet constantly sees her life in terms of literary and narrative frameworks that inevitably disappoint her. Early on, she describes how ‘I believed that every story had a central meaning. You could get that meaning, or you could miss it completely.’ This is a philosophy that wreaks havoc as the novel progresses – though its ‘progression’ mostly revolves as a kind of suspended present, with little sense of plot in the traditional sense. Instead we are presented with a character constructing herself, spinning a narrative in real time, hopelessly blindsided by speculation as she devises a system of language only shared with Ivan. They communicate in coded, metaphorical discussions, through a shared economy of literary references like Pablo Neruda’s poem ‘Ode to an Atom’. Selin muses that ‘the things kept accumulating – the stars, the atoms, the pigs, and the cereal. It was decreasingly possible to imagine explaining it all to anyone.’ For every point of contact she thinks she makes with Ivan, there seems an absence or vanishing of meaning: ‘I felt dizzy from the sense of intimacy and remoteness. Everything he said came from so thoroughly outside myself.’ If the sacred language of Ivan and Selin feels beyond the reach of other characters that inhabit the novel’s (already quite insular) university setting, then this is an effect that diffuses outwards to the experience of the reader. Many elements of the novel – any hints at Ivan’s own perspective on the situation, for example, are simply inaccessible. The concrete plot points of the novel: Selin’s time at Harvard, her trip to Europe in the summer, and so on – exist in tension with the cyclicality of her hopes and aspirations, the narratives she is devising for herself in any given moment.

Outside perspectives on their relationship are sporadic and fleeting, heightening a sense of suffocating subjectivity. At one point however, Selin’s best friend Svetlana summarises it bluntly: ‘for you language is a self-sufficient system, a game…now there’s this special language that can control everything, and manipulate everything, and if you’re the elite who speaks it – you can control everything.’ Selin’s eventual shock at realising the story of herself does not have one central meaning – that its meaning can be redefined on an anarchic whim, by someone ‘thoroughly outside myself’ – perfectly captures a feeling of alienation from language, not unlike Budai’s sense of total expulsion from a world of indecipherable references. Preoccupied with life as it unfolds, Selin and others are rarely shown considering the practical reasons behind ways in which they interact. Yet, in a short but important fragment of the novel, on the phone to Svetlana, Selin suggests that ‘you and I can afford to pursue some narrative just because it’s interesting…But Fern has to work over the summer.’ Batuman admits a general self-centeredness and need for validation while implicitly acknowledging her characters’ economic and social privilege. She probes the dangers of creating a self in somebody else’s image, and of attaching total power to one version of experience and identity – yet as it explores the pitfalls and gaps of understanding that inhere in subjective language, the novel remains a hilarious celebration of the vitality of narrative and language too.

Patchy, imperfect, but essential narratives are at the heart of Szirtes’ collection The Burning of the Books. These are poems troubled by the way narrative can be used to impose upon and control historical and cultural identities, but that also view it as the solution. In ‘Consuming passion’, the painful physicality of language – ‘the word is angular and has sharp edges / that cut you’ – reminds us of the destruction it can wreak – ‘between abstraction and flesh/ there are oceans of blood’. In ‘Postscriptum’, the instantly recognisable and suggestive image of a book-burning is turned on its head. ‘We shall make them eat their words/ Cry the ringleaders, they shall speak with tongues of fire / They shall write on the page of the tongue, and we shall set wild cats/ on them’. In Szirtes’ poem, however, the menacing wild cats are blatantly and wonderfully written – wonderfully unreal. ‘The small print of their teeth gathering in the margin / The index of their jaws containing everything possible to be written’. The poem exults in malleability of meaning, and the persistent potential for stories to be rewritten – a truth that always hovers in the air above Selin’s imaginings, even when her mistake is to believe in a single meaning. –

Importantly, however, Szirtes also warns of the importance of responsibility in writing and language, whether representing an individual or an entire group of people. With ‘Bathing and Singing’, he contrasts the foreboding weight of a historical narrative with the simple image of an old woman. In the last lines of the poem, ‘her interpreters eddy / about her. Her unseen/ commentators stand by, notebooks at the ready.’ It is a frank acceptance of our impulse to recreate others for ourselves, as a way of seeking meaning. The horror that this might never be possible is that which strikes Budai in Metropole: ‘in a particularly feverish moment it even occurred to him that each one of them might be speaking his own language, and that there were as many languages as there were people.’ This dystopian, solipsistic image that we are somehow only ever speaking to our own thoughts is present in another of Szirtes’ poems, ‘The Translators’: ‘we carve/ images into clouds so we should not starve / for lack of company. We break / The silence into pieces, syllables of space. / We are translated into ourselves.’ Often, as in Metropole and The Idiot also, the poems in this collection imply a fundamental sadness around the limits of translation.

Yet, as George Szirtes writes more than fifty years after learning English, ‘Philip Larkin thought a thing could not be both a window and a fenêtre at the same time. In fact it is neither. It is, as any Hungarian would tell you, an ablak. And between the three words for the same thing there is a kind of shimmering. It is the light shining through the window.’ In another of his poems, ‘Canzone: On Dancing’, Szirtes beautifully explores the responsibility we have for extracting meaning for ourselves – for appreciating that language must always be measured with respect to its multiple other meanings. ‘So language too must dance / over a void between the figured cliffs / of meaning and nonsense, the rift between two cliffs / spanned by rope that trembles like a string / of the guitar when plucked…so we strike the string / and make music precisely by stopping string’.

Language is one of our greatest sources of difference, and mutual empathy. Several poems in this collection, like ‘No sooner can a child’ and ‘White Noise’, present the intimidating impersonality of language, an obstacle to wrench meaning from in a lone fight. But by focusing on how individuals persist and survive, these three texts vividly remind us our dependence on language and how, used responsibly, it can be empowering – not in spite of what may be lost in translation, but because of it.

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