The uvre of István Örkény is characteristically described as absurd and grotesque. The description is accurate, yet the world he depicted is also quite familiar, rendered with realistic details that readers or theatergoers—particularly if they are Hungarian—immediately recognize. At his best, Örkény presented the absurd as he found it in real life and did not go out of his way to manufacture the strange and bizarre. His ars poetica argues for clarity and brevity in the service of the truth as he saw it. Rhetorical devices have little or no place in the works of his mature years. His characters are on the whole likable and sympathetic. Yet though they breathe with life, they straddle the border between the realm of flesh-and-blood characters, on one hand, and that of the stereotype and archetype, on the other. The figures that inhabit the world of Örkény are happy to the extent that they are in communication with one another, but as a rule they seem barely to elude one another’s reach. Nevertheless, the possibility of establishing and securing bonds between people is affirmed and reaffirmed by Örkény. By the same token, historical forces seem to act as determinants, making the balance that he postulated between man and the controlling environment very delicate and tenuous indeed.
Örkény’s earliest writings, which at most document the writer’s search for a voice of his own, do not offer interesting reading for anyone today but the specialist. In 1941, his first complete volume of short stories was published. Tengertánc (1941), named after the 1937 short story, signaled the arrival of a bona fide writer. The combination of realist and surrealist elements so characteristic of his mature years is already in evidence here. The collection is not without distinct left-wing political overtones, another recurring feature in Örkény.
Örkény’s next few works were written in prisoner-of-war camps in the Soviet Union. Voronyezs, Lágerek népe, and Emlékezk are clearly the works of a much maturer man than the Örkény who wrote “Tengertánc,” one who had since seen and himself suffered the hardships of war and prison. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, Örkény, who had in the meantime joined the Communist Party, produced writings heavily influenced by Socialist Realism. They were overly schematic and heavy-handed treatments of social and political issues that were, however, worthy of being addressed.
By 1956, Örkény had been writing seriously for two decades, yet he still found himself experimenting with subjects, themes, and forms alike. He had not yet found his own voice. In 1956—the year which saw a series of dramatic events in Hungary culminate in the earthshaking anti-Soviet revolt—important changes came for Örkény, too. Ezüstpisztráng, which appeared in that year, marked the beginning of Örkény’s truly mature period. This volume of short stories struck just the right balance between realism, on one hand, and the grotesque, on the other. It also signaled, according to Örkény, the end of a brief flirtation with colorful and rhetorical language and a return to the laconic and economical style of “Tengertánc.”
Örkény’s works of this period are all, in one way or another, reflections and commentaries on the peculiar conditions of post-World War II Hungary—indeed of all Eastern Europe—owing in part to, and characterized by, the peculiar “chemical reaction” of a fledgling socialism and a millennium of feudalism. This basically absurd world, fraught with terrible and seemingly irreconcilable contradictions, is starkly rendered by Örkény with language plain and direct. It is not merely the common rhetorical devices such as metaphor that Örkény shunned, it is essentially anything that might call attention to itself and distract the reader from the heart of the matter.
The world of Örkény seems at a glance too infected with humor to be taken seriously. Beneath the armor of wry wit, however, lurks a much darker dimension. Yet even this is a place less sad than it appears. Overcast though it may be, it is penetrated by a ray of hope. Örkény might well be called a realistic optimist. This basic orientation was, Örkény said, formed during his long tenure in the Soviet prison camps. It was there that he experienced how an apparently heterogeneous collection of people, comprising several different nationalities and social classes, can transcend the plane of mere coexistence to cohere into a genuine community. Örkény’s conviction that solidarity is the most that one can give to another derives from those years. Even in the contemporary world, where many writers seriously doubt whether real communication is possible, Örkény affirmed that true and lasting bonds can be formed.
As noted above, Örkény’s uvre is extremely varied; he wrote novels, plays, reportages, and novellas without seeming to show preference for one over another. Nevertheless, the last two decades of his career were particularly rich in dramatic works, ones that won critical acclaim abroad no less than at home. When he died in 1979, he left behind him a body of published work neither very big nor very small. The manuscripts of his unfinished and discarded writings could fill several volumes. In reviewing his entire uvre from beginning to end, particularly the works of his mature years, it is impossible not to notice the common themes, recurring motifs, and characteristic style that forge them into a grand unity.
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