Author's page

Pál BÉKÉS
( 1956 - 2010 )

Biography

1956 born in Budapest
1975-80 studies Hungarian, English, and Comparative Literary History at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest
1974-75 interviewer at the Mass Media Centre of the Hungarian Radio and Television Corporation
1980-84 teaches English
1984-94 freelance writer (fiction, drama, radio plays, film scripts) and translator
1992-93 Fulbright scholar at Columbia University in New York
1994-2000 director of studio at the Hungarian Radio and Television Corporation, editor of programs featuring literature and the theatre
1997 guest of the International Writing Program at Iowa University (Iowa City)
2000 freelance writer, member of the PEN Club, the Writers' Association, the Belletrists' Society, IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People)
2000 Hungarian president of the IBBY
he died on 28th Marh, 2010 in Budapest

His prizes include:
1981 Zsigmond Móricz Scholarship, 1984-85 Vígszínház Scholarship (for theatre), 1988 Soros Foundation Scholarship, 1988 New Hungarian Radio Plays Prize, 1988 László Wessely Prize for translations, 1991 The Holmi's Short Story Contest Prize, 1998 The Juvenile Book of the Year Prize, 1998 Tibor Déry Award, 200X Soros Foundation Scholarship, 2000 Attila József Prize, 2005 Prize of the periodical Mozgó Világ, 2006 Order of Merit of the Hungarian Republic, Knight Cross, 2006 Sándor Hevesi Prize, 2009 Sándor Márai Prize,2011 Honorary Citizen of the XIII. district (posthumous)

Tribal Conditions
1990

In these autobiographical stories spanning the time from childhood to young adulthood, Pál Békés describes how the world is discovered and seized by the child. He advances towards punchlines with excellent anecdotal skills and economy. The greatest joy to read are the stories from early childhood, in which the naive child-narrator conveys a meaning he does not understand himself, for instance about the tunnel drilled through the middle of the Earth, or later about young pioneers collecting ballots. (Although only a single name appears on the ballot, even the invalids have to be visited, because the elections are general and secret.) The cruelty and the balance of powers are modified from age to age and reach into the adult society.

The Fearing-Being
1991/2001

Unfortunately, monsters are impossible to overcome but they can be kept at arm's length. Thus both children and adults will discover in this wonderful, unique piece of children s literature. Our main character, Little Wood, has not yet been harassed by monsters. This inhabitant of the Hollow, a veritable bookworm, will not read from his books to his acquaintances; he has locked his door; he has given up reading and lives in fear. His name forgotten, and he is now called the Fearing-Being . Even his best friend, Csatang, has discovered that the world belongs to monsters, and it is best to join them. So far the Fearing-Being's library kept them away, but now they are approaching. The Fearing-Being gives in and goes to the Monster Admission Committee, where he passes the necessary trials, but in the end decides not to sign a statement of entry. When he learns that Csatang has burned his books, he gathers his courage and denounces his former friend as a traitor. He goes back to Little Wood, drives the monsters out and starts to tell the stories in his books from memory he recalls them all! The world of Little Wood is saved, and there follows a miracle: the old oak jumps up from the ground. Békés raises tension by delaying the introduction of the protagonist. Here is a children s book that is exciting, funny and filled with puns. It even includes a small monster-taxonomy!

And the Pink Plush Elephant Keeps BEATing the Drum
1999

This autobiography recounts the Békés’s experiences in the USA. In an easy tone and with deadpan humour, Békés relates his adventures (noting along the way the lack of epical credibility of an American story in Europe), while classifying the experiences of his first American journey in the 1980s and the changes he found in the 90s. In the second half of the book he describes many of the extraordinary people he met at the International Writers’ Program and sets some comic scenes (for instance, taking his temperature with a thermometer marked according to the Fahrenheit system, all the while being helped by a collection of people of different native languages, and this during a black-out).

Chicago
2006

332 pages An author of short stories, novels and children's stories, Békés defines his volume as a "gang" novel (see below), though in truth the work is more a garland of short stories than a novel proper. Links are created between the individual "chapters" by repeated motifs and figures, with the main characters of one story becoming secondary figures in the next, and the adventures of several generations building on one another. The defining backdrop throughout is provided by the area of Budapest's Seventh District known locally as "Chicago"; a large housing estate near the Eastern Railway Terminal that was built during the massive economic boom of the end of the 19th century. Not only is the "Chicago" of the title ambiguous, but "gang" also has a double meaning in Hungarian, originally being a term of German origin which refers to the outside corridors (roughly "gangways") around an inner courtyard that are characteristic of older tenements and blocks of flats in Hungarian cities (a character called Goldie is known as "queen of the gangway", for example), but also, and of course more familiarly to English readers, denoting the mobs of Al Capone and his like. This is meant not purely in a metaphorical sense, as one of the heroes of the book, Frederick Shumin (brother of Vendel and lover of the latter's wife Goldie) is a man who, to escape the White Terror of the early 1920s that followed the collapse of Hungary's abortive Soviet Republic of 1919, temporarily fled to Chicago in the USA, where he was in contact with the world of criminal gangs. Among the strange figures that we encounter in the Budapest "Chicago" are a newspaper vendor with a mysterious past, a railwayman who was once condemned to die, market stall keepers, boozers and barflies, even a young Russian soldier who first saw Hungary only during the revolution of 1956, despite the fact that he has a Hungarian mother. Through the fates of these and other typical figures of Budapest life, we trace the history of Hungary over the last century, from the golden era of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, through the Second World War and the 1956 revolution, up to the Kádár era of the Seventies and Eighties. "The individual pieces are always meticulously crafted and rounded off, not unlike the footwear of master leatherworker Vendel Shumin; a definition of the "gang" novel : an open-ended type of prose fiction, composed of small units with loose overlaps in motifs, which is, or can be, enriched ad lib by varied reprises." -Sándor Bazsányi, Élet és Irodalom "His novel is a surrogate legendry." -Judit N. Kósa, Népszabadság

No Worries
2007

Pál Békés Semmi baj—régi és újabb bélyegek és novellák (No Worries: Old and Newer Stamps and Short Stories) Palatinus, Budapest, 2007. 315 pages While reading Pál Békés’s short stories the reader may form an impression that this is just the place where one will come across that tweed-jacketed uncle who, year after year, gives one exactly the same present and yet, year after year, one is still thrilled to receive it. No Worries is a collection in which previously published short stories (which Békés refers to as stamps) are rounded out with newer ones. The structure that emerges resembles the skeleton of an autobiographical novel. Which, once the fate (or fatelessness) of grandparents and parents has been outlined, launches into the narrator’s life in 1956 (Békés was born in March of that year). The infant reacts to the fall of Hungary’s revolution at the end of that year with a silent revolution of his own: he buttons up completely, only to start bawling the moment the Soviet troops (which never left the country in the first place) regroup on the border to attack Budapest again. The family is unable to defect, so the boy grows up in what is then the Kádár era. The outdoors skating rink in City Park, school camps, the “Prague Spring” and happening to be in a Czechoslovak holiday camp when the Warsaw Pact forces invaded on 20 August 1968; vacation jobs in factories as a student; a contract to look after an elderly Jewish lady in return for which he will inherit her flat after she has died (a common arrangement in the Eighties); night shifts, telephone boxes and subways; a security cop in the café; a get-together with ex-classmates; and news of deaths. The stamps are in some cases fixed to some life event, at other times draw attention to some absurdity or other of the ways of the world or history. The model for the shorter prose pieces is openly admitted to be the elliptical “one-minute stories” pioneered by István Örkény in the mid-Sixties. Békés also has the knack of being able to tell a story well and pithily; how to think in story terms. It is a style of writing characterized by the pragmatism and unpretentiousness of the Anglo-American prose literature of which he has shown himself to be a superb translator. The title chosen for the collection is a trenchant summary of the world picture of the stories: this or that may come at a bad time, one piece of bad luck may come after another, the situation is hopeless but not critical. Never mind the stamps. Never give up!

Sentimental Journeys Through Central Europe
2010

This new edition of Pál Békés’s book was published one day before the author’s death. Written in 1987 and originally published in 1991, when Hungary was still embroiled in the dizzying changes that accompanied the fall of communism a year earlier, Sentimental Journeys Through Central Europe was practically ignored both by contemporary critics and by book distributors. Indeed, the book’s own history reads much like an absurdist piece of writing by the author himself. Békés once summed up the matter as follows: “Four hundred copies wound up in bookstores, and the other 3,600 were taken out to a warehouse on the outskirts of Budapest. This was that particular, colossal storage facility which, amid a skirmish between book distributors, caught fire quite by chance.” This story also serves to illustrate the critical reception that, until recently, has greeted the works of Pál Békés. Born in 1956 (when else?), Békés began publishing early on. His novellas and novels first appeared in the years when Hungarian prose literature was turning in a new, postmodern direction. Békés was immediately the loser in this seismic shift; for both in his chosen genres and in tone, he carried on the grand traditions of Frigyes Karinthy (1887–1938), Iván Mándy (1918–1995), and István Örkény (1912–1979). That is to say, his narrative imagination centered on the grotesque and the absurd as revealed in everyday situations, in workaday embitterment; he expressed his solidarity with the little worlds in big cities by portraying them with irony. His work was indeed richly populated by oasis-like little parks set amid tower-block housing complexes, long interior balconies winding their way around and over the courtyards of old apartment buildings, telephone booths, stranded trolley cars, onetime classmates, sad lovers, and silent old people. Those literary critics of the time who commanded the greatest influence and who were busily establishing new canons failed to notice Békés’s flair for word play, his narrative innovations. But Békés was not put off by this. No, he wasn’t about to alter his identity as a writer. Not only did he come to be ever more at home within his own genres (short short fiction, feuilletons, story collections), but he also discovered theater in the meantime. His dramatic works are characterized by playfully absurd situations, vivid language, and a social sensitivity rendered with surgical precision. Children’s drama marked his greatest successes on this front. A fundamentally playful turn of mind; a never feigned, always sincere empathy; and a propensity to take children seriously together yielded wonderful plays and stories, such as The Magician with Two Left Hands (A kétbalkezes varázsló) and Cringing Creature (A Félőlény). By the turn of the millennium, his narrative voice had ever more matured, and it seemed that now that readers had discovered him, the critics weren’t far behind. Chicago (Csikágó), which Békés published in 2006 and which plays out on the interior balcony of an urban apartment building, is a masterful meeting of the short story collection and the novel that might be called his magnum opus. It is the realist mythos of a particular district of Budapest. Meanwhile Békés took to editing his ever expanding store of short stories into a quasi biography. No Problem (Semmi baj, 2007) is one man’s story and more; the history of a family and even a century unfolds from these stories. With his death, a remarkable human being and a born fiction writer who’d entered his finest stage of literary achievement has parted from the scene. It is not by chance that the title of Sentimental Journeys Through Central Europe reminds us of Laurence Sterne’s colossal novel, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy. Anglicist that he was, Békés sought to rewrite his favorite novel, albeit with the originality and humility that marked his own prose. (It is a staggering coincidence that Sterne himself died but three weeks after the publication of his book in 1768.) Békés’s semiautobiographical protagonist-narrator, András Jorik, winds up in various countries in the course of his trip through Central Europe in 1987 that a few years later were to exist on paper only. This is what renders Békés’s anachronistic literary game into a bona fide historical work. In describing the various adventures along the journey, Békés seems to have had plenty to choose from to ensure that just the right amount of the “real” absurd wove its way into the poetic absurd. Indeed, to the reader’s delight, he aptly spiced up his travel journal. Take the pair of Czech-Slovak Siamese twins (what a bilateral allegory!), the golem, the “seacoast of Bohemia” out of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, and, yes, Békés’s irresistible brand of melancholic humor—all this and more enriches and expands this singularly subjective, picaresque novel.

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