|ONE heady afternoon during the Hungarian
Revolution of October-November 1956, I attended an
editorial conference of The Independent, the
flagship daily of the doomed anti-Soviet insurrection. I
was an 18-year old high-school dropout employed on the
paper as a cub reporter. József Dudás, our hugely
charismatic editor-in-chief, assigned the serious tasks
of the day to the senior correspondents. Then he turned
to me: “...and what can you contribute to the edition?“
I offered to write a poem. “Make it good,” he accepted, “and be sure not to miss your deadline.” My piece was ready on time, of course, although it could have been a tad less sentimental. The composition comprised three quatrains fuelled by some clever cross-rhyming and employing the odd repetition of lines to save time and trouble. It described a girl on the barricades shot while distributing bread to the warriors. Unlike its fictitious heroine, the poem has refused to die for more than half a century.
Dudás and 228 others were hanged by the Communists after the revolution, some of them even younger than me at the time. Thousands were sentenced to death and eventually reprieved, a form of torture. Tens of thousands were imprisoned. I left the country with a Westward flood of some 210,000 patriots, most of them young and educated, of whom only some 40,000 eventually returned.
I switched to English as soon as I could. I have spent the rest of my life as a freelance writer. I did my best during the early years to have nothing to do with my homeland – except for translating the Hungarian poetry of my betters into English in the hope to learning how to write English poetry.
The dead heroine of the poem also took on life in English through the translation of Western writers who read my effort in the columns of The Independent – although some of them, I am afraid, turned the girl into a boy. The most successful translation was done by the late Watson Kirkconnell, the great-grandfather of Hungarian literary translation into English, who was president of Acadia University in Canada where I read philosophy on a scholarship after the revolution.
In post-Communist Hungary, the poem is still being recited from time to time at public celebrations commemorating the revolution. It has just been included in a mass-circulation anthology by a state publisher, intended mostly for school children.
At last, the poem has seduced me. I recently edited its original Hungarian text (as indeed should have been done by someone on The Independent before publication all those years ago) when it occurred to me that, today, perhaps I can do better. So I have just written another Hungarian poem, this time about an old lady. I do not think that my voice has changed, but I have.
“Ha,“ observed a dear friend, a great English poet,“ all you now have to do is... write it again, in English.“ Quite, and that’s the easy part.