Friday, January 08, 2010

It's tough to be Hungarian

Back in college, we had a requirement to take a year of history of a non-Western region. Given later interests, I probably should have gone with China, but at the time I was open to whatever. I had heard the Eastern European history class was interesting. Rather than reading nonfiction narratives, we read novels as a way of understanding Eastern Europe. So we read Bridge On Drina (our professor tended not to use articles) to learn about the intersection of Christian and Islamic Europe in Bosnia. We read the Good Soldier Svejk to learn about the multiethnic Austro-Hungarian empire. And so on.

We didn't read a lot about Hungary though. I wonder if my professor, if he is still teaching (note: he is!) would include Miklos Vamos's The Book of Fathers on the reading list. It can be a little tough going, but it does shine a light on the often dark history of Hungary.

Vamos did some research on his own family in Hungary and came up with the idea of a history of a family passed down generation to generation by in a book (naturally the Book of Fathers). There is a element of magical realism in that the as they die, they become connected to the generations before them through the book. The deaths are important, as the chapters almost always end with the death of the main character. Since they are Hungarian Jews, the deaths are often less than pleasant.

In his notes at the end of the book, Vamos notes that Hungary has lost every war it has fought after the 15th century. So many of the stories involve terrible fates at the hands of invaders. As such it is not a terribly happy read, but it is an educational one. Thanks to Blue Dot Literary for the book.


Pour of Tor said...

This sounds like a fascinating structure for a work of fiction (and also something of a challenge to genre boundaries - is it a novel? a collection of short stories? something in between?). I will have to look into it. But meanwhile, it also sounds like a fascinating requirement that your college imposed. Many of us manage to get through our whole education barely learning anything about any other culture.

I remember taking a course in college on "Slavic Literature" that probably had a lot of overlap with your course - for me it fulfilled the freshman literature seminar requirement. Things looked very different then than they do now, when I am teaching required freshmen literature seminars.

Tripp said...

Well if you are teaching them yourselves you ought to send a note to Professor Kaminski and get his take on how he does it. I quite enjoyed the course.