Sunday, January 11, 2009

Erről Van Szó!

Last week’s post got me thinking about some of the strange, beautiful, and funny Hungarian words I have come across. I have compiled a brief, but by no means comprehensive, list of my favorites, in no particular order. For a guide to Hungarian pronunciation check here.

megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért: means because of your holier-than-thou attitude, and allegedly the longest existing Hungarian word, though I seem to remember a word that has to do with cabbage that is similar in length. Anybody dare to count the suffixes here? Ten?

pitypang, pünkösdirózsa: flower names are great in Hungarian. Dandelion and peony respectively.

vízicsikó: means seahorse. Of course, when translating seahorse into Hungarian for two young new students, I made the mistake of calling it a vízicsikló, which roughly translates as a sea-clit.

csecsebecse: one of the first words I learned in Hungarian, and I still get a kick out of saying it. Csecsebecse is the collective term for knick-knacks. Say it out loud, it's fun!

link alak: lazybones, good-for-nothing. Well understood in these parts.

ölni: Hungarians have few homonyms, but the ones they have are very telling. This is the verb for killing as well as the noun for one's lap. Ölel means to hug or embrace: dangerously close to the verb for killing. In the same category is paradicsom, which means both paradise and tomato.

arcátlan, szemtelen: literally faceless and eyeless, but both mean obnoxious or insolent.

lurkó, rajkó: the first is a street urchin, the later a Gypsy street urchin.

palimadár: a sucker bird, or just a sucker. There is one hatched every minute, I’m told.

csaj, csávó: slang adopted from the Lovári Gypsy dialect. Girl and boy respectively.

házisárkány: literally, a house-dragon; figuratively, a woman who is overly dominant around the house. Also in this category is the papucsférj, or slipper husband, a man who is henpecked. The papucsférj is quite the opposite of the házisárkány, but somehow they get along well together.

smárolni: slang, means to make out.

kolbászolni, lekenyerezni: two verbs created from food-related base words. Kolbász is sausage, but to kolbász, means to wander around. Kenyér is bread, but to bread somebody down, is to bribe them.

Elefántcsontpart: Even the Hungarian announcers at the last World Cup got a kick out of the translation of the Ivory Coast: literally Elephant Bone Coast. Even better: elefántcsonttorony, which is an ivory tower, or, an elephant bone tower. If that is not evocative language, what is?

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

If It Ain't Broke, Don't Suffix It: A Book Review

“It should be against the law to mock somebody who tries his luck in a foreign language.” So begins Chico Buarque’s novel Budapest. It’s a winning opening line, both disarming and knowing, especially when read by somebody who has tried to learn Hungarian, “the only tongue the devil respects.”

To learn a foreign language, especially one so different from English as Hungarian, takes a certain leap of faith, a willingness to participate in a mode of expression that appears to have been rearranged and, in many cases, dissected and reassembled. It takes a similar leap of faith to enjoy Buarque’s novel, in which stories unpack themselves like Chinese boxes, and realities and narratives are constantly shape-shifting, challenging and undermining whatever presumptions the reader has already anchored themselves to.

The story begins when the Brazilian narrator’s plane is waylaid in Budapest after a bomb scare. As a ghost-writer and linguist, he becomes immediately enchanted with the Hungarian language and Budapest itself. On the most simplified level, the story follows the path of the narrator, Jose Kosta, (Josef K?) on his path to fluency in Hungarian, after breaking with his wife and falling in love with his language teacher. But nothing is so easy in Budapest, as Kosta observes of the language, “he had no way of knowing where each one (word) began or finished. It was impossible to detach one form the next; it would be like trying to cut a river with a knife.”

Like Budapest’s körút(s), the language is circular: base words are stacked with suffixes and prefixes that hang off them like weights on an unwieldy barbell. The characters’ destinies run the same circular route: histories, texts, and relationships bleed into each other until the reader is not sure if Kosta can be trusted as a narrator, or if he is the narrator at all.

In one phantasmagoric sequence reminiscent of Victor Pelevin (who I have brought up before in this blog: he is the ‘thinking man’s’ Murakami), a night of drinking turns into a potential ménage-à-trois, then morphs into a game of Russian roulette, then a robbery, then back into a night of drinking. Buarque stays with the scene only long enough for us to think we have a grip on its reality before he pulls the rug out from under our feet. Buarque, a composer and writer, wisely keeps his actual observations and use of Hungarian to a minimum (which led me to suspect he doesn’t actually speak Hungarian, though perhaps he simply doesn’t want to confound the reader further with its utter strangeness). But then he floors you with an occasion description like the following, “Seeing Hungarian in words for the first time, I felt as though I was looking at their skeletons: ö az álom elötti, talajon táncol.” Or “I couldn’t distinguish the words, so I knew it was Hungarian.”

In the same way every New Yorker inhabits a different city, with its own individual, constantly changing landmarks and signifiers, Kosta’s Budapest is not to be taken too literally: he employs made-up names, cigarette brands, street names, literary societies, and hungaricum (perhaps accidentally-on-purpose referring to Tokaj wine as Tajok wine). We know to take it all with a grain of salt when Kosta is both ghost-writing poetry for a has-been Hungarian poet and correcting locals on their grammar. Kosta’s Budapest is not my Budapest, just as his story, in the end, is not even his story.

Because of Kosta’s occupation as a ghost-writer, ownership of the text is a theme that is constantly returned to throughout the book. Indeed, a writer for whom he has ghost-written a book uses that very book to seduce Kosta’s own wife away from him. Like Jim Crace’s Genesis, and to a lesser degree, Arthur Philips' Prague, or even better, like having a friend from out of town come visit, it is a thrill to experience Budapest through somebody else’s eyes, to see it reinvented, even if that invention does not conform to your own. Budapest is a pleasing, occasionally perplexing read: like the Hungarian language, it is potent and fluid, but then again, so is nitro-glycerin.

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.