Ferenc Szijj and the little man lost in the intricate system

Ferenc Szijj is one of the most important figures of the post-regime-change generation of Hungarian poets, albeit he usually stays away from the spotlight.

Born in 1958, he is an Attila József Prize-winning writer, poet and literary translator. He graduated from the University of Szeged (then: Attila József University) in 1984 in Hungarian and German Studies. He worked as a teacher and librarian, and was the founding editor of the journal Nappali ház between 1988 and 1996. His first book of poetry, The Secret of Slow Life, was published in 1990 in a booklets series, and since then he has published thirteen more volumes, including a collection of short stories, fables and a novelistic prose collection, with the majority of his works being lyrical. His latest volume, Rare Events, was published by Magvető in 2022.

Known primarily as a poet, Szijj is also a prolific translator, having translated texts by Kleist, Kafka and Thomas Bernhard, among others.

The most important peculiarity of his poetry, as often mentioned by reviewers, is his precise and unadorned language which is pin-pointed and where there is no room for any unnecessary pomp or hyperbole. Humour is an important element of his writing, but it does not offer the reader a sense of self-deprecating laughter, but rather a predominantly absurd and grotesque quality and an ironic tone. His most recent volume consists of three volumes of ninety-nine short poems, which present an isolated place and, according to the author, the whole work can be read as a criticism of Hungary. He talks about this in an interview with Népszava:

“If I try to think back now, the starting point was madness (which is how the volume itself begins, textually): the illogical, confused, almost irrational communication of the authorities in Hungary, for example, on the issue of ‘migrants’ and the epidemic, and the equally irrational reaction of some people to real or unreal facts.”

Beatrix Visy’s review (Élet és Irodalom, 22 December 2022) says that the mood of the latest volume evokes the world of Kafka, in which the little man is lost in the intricate system of unknowable power and the grotesque situations of Örkény’s one-minute stories come to mind.

In Szijj’s poem, “The Resin Depository”, the workings of power are also revealed in an absurd situation.

Resin warehouse

I was assigned to work in the resin warehouse,
but what kind of work is it? Every morning
I count the crates, and then until the evening
I just stare at the wall. Once a week
a violinist comes, if any, or a violist, once a month.
Bass players have long been sent away, now
Now it’s the cellists’ turn. I’m full of
anger when I think that in the beginning
I conducted symphonies, and even later,
I was the one at the festive concerts
to push the piano on the stage.

On 24 April, Ferenc Szijj’s poems will be recited by János Gyuriska, the music will be provided by János Vázsonyi on saxophone, and the Lajos Jánossy will talk with the author. The editors of the evening do not promise light-hearted entertainment, fun and laughter, but rather a deep, meaningful and stirring experience.

Article: Anna Zöllner

Translation: Zsófia Hacsek