Emigration and labyrinth
(East Central European forms of existence and consciousness)
In today’s world literature, those authors can expect the people’s interest and approval who build on the experience of co-existence of different cultures and linguistic traditions. The emigrant authors of the East Central European region became aware of the universality of this experience, namely that mutual understanding can help bridge over the gap between their own and other peoples’ culture.
It still might not have been
fully realised as to what extent the life and works of Jan Amos Komenský represent
the consciousness, situation evaluation, and fate of the region called East
Central Europe, Central Europe (in a certain historical period, with good
reason: ‘in-between’ Europe). Not only the fact is expressive that he carried
out a significant proportion of his activity in three ‘central’ countries
in the East Central European and Central European area, that is, in Bohemia,
Hungary, and Poland, but also that his influence-history is a decisive
part of the cultural history of the region. In fact, primarily not because
he only experienced being an emigrant in his life and as it is revealed in
his works, but he turned this to be an organic part of his work and influence-history
as well. Secondly, because he could see the labyrinth-like character of the
region in a way, which is valid even today. He expressed the essence of this
labyrinth in his Baroque novel, entitled Labyrint světa a Ráj srdce
(Labyrinth of World and Paradise of Heart). The powers managing the fate of
Europe forgot about the region which, in the course of its history, existed
as an involuntary part of multiethnic empires – as Komenský found this out
painfully upon hearing about the peace treaty ending the Thirty Years War
– or if the opposite happened, they sought to establish a new order and sawed
the seeds of new disputes and conflicts; thinking in sectors of influence,
they cared much neither about the interests of the peoples and nations of
Central Europe nor about the suitable methods of their integration into Europe.
Not even his European fame could save Komenský from experiencing – as if sharing
the allegoric fate of the allegoric wanderer of his Baroque novel – what the
centuries to come would verify: the exoduses (first of all political but also
economic ones after the end of the 19th century) become organic,
unavoidable parts of national history. Moreover, although ‘experiencing’ life
as a labyrinth becomes thematic primarily in literature, this literature has
an outstanding value in the sense that at the same time it personifies the
20th century impersonalisation of alienated personalities who (not
the least) are constrained to endure an emigrant existence. The influence-history
can be considered significant not merely in Czech and Slovak literature; the
first German translation of his novel was prepared in 1783 and the Hungarian
one in 1805. Its translator, István Rimány was active as a Calvinist pastor
‘These people who nowadays come from behind the Iron Curtain, all insist on accents. They start shouting in Bagnoli, in the offices where the documents are issued, for the return of the accent. Accent is important in these countries, so it appears. They have all kinds of marks and accents on their names, in their documents, on their vowels, and there are accents even on their consonants. Or a mark sort of like an accent. Hungarians, Czechs, and the Polish have separate diacritical signs. They cling to them. (...) It looks as though they had nothing any more and one day they recognised that they were not exactly the same in the world without the accent what they used to be when they still had possessed their accent. (...)
It is possible. (...) Accent denotes our personality.’
We can switch back to Franz Kafka, and primarily to his novel The
Castle at this point. We would like to point out that part of the researchers
assumed a direct connection between the Fortuna castle of the Komenský work
A thick anthology can be compiled entitled ‘the literature of exile’
from among the literary works of our region (maybe also the aforementioned
examples proved this) and to such an extent that e.g. the Hungarian, but also
the Czech and the Polish as well have a separate ‘entries’ in the national
literary histories. This must have had various reasons and consequences. It
is scarcely necessary to elaborate in length on the evident political-censorial
causes, or at most in so far as they influence the literary-aesthetic reasons
taken in a stricter sense. Although the Czech-Hungarian-Polish ‘literary’
exile came about because of ‘political transformations’, we can connected
to that also the difference apparent in the views concerning the function
and existence of literature. In brief: dictatorships and occupying forces
are not very fond of experimenting and the so-called ‘uncommitted’ artists
or those, who side with others. For this reason, we can detect considerable
differences in the structure and hierarchy of domestic and emigrant artistic
‘canons’. The literature of exile had only marginal significance in the literature
interpretation of the one-time authorities if the official critiques happened
not to keep silent about it at all. At the same time, not only the freedom
of experimentation is granted to the authors of emigration, but also the possibility
of throwing light upon their situation nakedly and build upon labyrinth-existence
of the 20th century joined together with emigrant existence. In
part, the same can be said about Spanish émigré literature (very significant
in the 20th century), and to a great extent also about the German-Austrians
– only that in their case, emigration into the language might be a less important
question. Namely, loosing the readers of Spain did not mean that the Latin
Americans were lost too, while the German-Austrians had opportunities of publication
in Switzerland and even more at other places. It is rather typical that it
is Joseph Roth to contemplate on the linguistic consciousness of the émigré
author, who brought with the memory of the disappeared (common) home from
Stefan Zweig and Musil experienced exile as a loss and so did Richard
Wagner writer-journalist, who moved from Bánát (
East Central European and Central European history built
its own labyrinths much earlier. Komenský merely gave a name to the path the
Czech literate of the 17th century (together with so many exiles)
was forced to take. Two outstanding personalities of Hungarian literature
of the 18th century were constrained to pursue their literary activity
in their life in exile: Ferenc Rákóczi II and Kelemen Mikes, author of the
Törökországi levelek (Letters from
The establishment of émigré literary-cultural centres is a consequence of historical tragedies. At the same time, the polycentric literary system made it possible that literature written in the mother tongue did not suffer a rupture despite the tight limitations and to the closure and defencelessness (from a political and power aspect) of domestic literature. In this sense, the cultural efforts of emigration could even be called ‘missionary’. On the one hand, there is the object: the representation of continuity. However, on the other hand there is the factor of the new situation, the interruption of the life of the individual (not only the author). World seems/seemed to be like a labyrinth maybe because of this. At least, the writer could feel it with good reason that he arrived to a crossroads which could decide his fate and where he is (might be) forced to be solving crossword puzzles. He could rethink the varieties of alienation many times, partly as a personality, who drew far from his linguistic-cultural background, and partly as a personality, who is an eyewitness of the stiffening of culture into civilization. Although his lifestyle-change coincides with a transfer into a ‘more developed’ world, asynchrony still remains, since on the one hand he arrived among the new forms from the outside and on the other, other linguistic cultures laid the foundations of his identity. The Diary of Gombrowicz reveals this at times hidden, at other times suddenly unfolding crises of identity, the freedom which becomes articulate in the ‘belonging-to-nowhere’ of the personality. So does the émigré oeuvre of Sándor Márai, the sequel of his autobiography written in 1949 (Föld, föld!…[Land, Land!: A Memoir]), and his Diaries he continued until the end of his life. We quote from his work San Gennaro vére again; once more from the account of an Italian character who pushes forward into the psychology of the emigrant making investigations on a stranger (emigrant) who presumably committed suicide. In the course of this, it is with astonishing empathy that he reconstructs the situation consciousness of the exile drifting between the growing distance of the homeland and the nostalgia for it:
‘Those strangers who do not have a home any more live really only those moments with the old tension of their life: the moments when they are waiting for the morning mail. Then, they always cherish hopes. They already know that they have no home – one can lose a home only absolutely and definitively and the historical turning points grant most often only an opportunity for haphazard and hasty returns but do not provide a home again – and they are still expecting the mail. They know that home was not merely a geographical apparition on a map but, similarly to love, a province of experiences. Who once has left this province, returns to what and whom he liked in vain: he finds neither a home nor his beloved but a country or a woman who has gained weight or married someone else. The strangers know this. And still, they are awaiting the mail’.
Sándor Márai hides the experiences of his first years in
emigration in the plot of the novel. It is such an autothematising work that
shuts off individuality (the person rendered objective is retained) with its
fictitious character. He works out a formation experimentally which helps
rendering the lifestyle-change of the emigrant perceptible with the change
of the form of the novel. The well-perceivable elevation of personal motifs
of the diary notes of 1945-1957 and the verifiable events up to a level of
existential philosophy as well as the several narrators
inserted between the author and the reader, make the ‘one-time’ event and
the case study distant and render it possible that the fate of the exile be
dimensioned as a general situation in life. The interpretation of the émigré
tripartite book of Josef Škvorecký (which has become a four-part volume
with the novel published still back at home in
After numerous examples, it is time to return to the theses
constituting the basis of the study and according to which, emigration and
the realisation that the world is a labyrinth are essential ‘experiences’
in the East Central European (and in part Central European) literary situation.
What is more: the two theses are closely connected to each other; there is
a correlation between them. We can instantly raise two questions: 1. Is it
only in this region where we can find the above outlined characteristics or
we can see these kinds of correlations maybe in other cultures (for example
in the mentioned Spanish one) as well?
It is much easier to answer the first question. Although
the Spanish (literary) exile of the 19th and 20th centuries,
let’s say, from the romantic Espronceda to Unamuno, also experienced the antinomies
of emigrant existence and encountered contemporary trends from French romanticism
to French literature in the 20th century, it did not abandon the
sphere of Spanish tradition: this is proved by the sovereign Byron reception
of Espronceda just as by the activity of Unamuno which re- and transformed
the Don Quixote conception. The literary emigration of East Central Europe
– whether it brought it to consciousness or not – arrived from the region
of diversity and multiculturalism. It transferred from a ‘traditional’ national-ethnic
division (we would like to recall the quoted sentences of Márai on the ‘national’
peculiarities of accents and diacritical marks) into other types of dichotomies;
from the language of a so-called ‘small’ people into the environment of ‘universal
language’. This proves without doubt that the East Central European author
is the unique representative of exile as an emigrant: this region’s effective
representative. It seems more difficult to answer the second question, for
the majority of emigrant writers arrived abroad as mature authors (even if
they were young) and thus, they present the linguistic division of the new
environment in their works at most (like Škvorecký who made use of the linguistic
possibilities offered by the mingling of Canadian English and Czech in his
work we mentioned). In the period of the so-called ‘national awakening’, the
grammatically incorrect usage of mother tongue and the mixing of non-mother-tongue
words and expressions into the speech served for producing a comic effect.
However, the émigré author faces the fact of language loss and its deterioration
and leaves the (mostly romantic) heritage developed in the era of national
awakening. It is another question that for example Mickiewicz had to cope
with more ‘bilingualisms’ during his life. His forced sojourn in
‘Ich habe Heimweh nach der Provinz, und Hermannstadt enthält all dies. Wie verführerisch schön muss es vor dem Krieg 1914 gewesen sein! Das sind vielleicht Übertreibungen eines Verwöhnten. Aber in einer Metropole, wo man Mitgegenwart von Millionen Menschen ertragen muss, erhält alle provinzielle Nichtigkeit den Glanz des Paradieses.’
(‘I am homesick for the province, the ‘country’, and Nagyszeben grants
me all this. How temptingly beautiful it had to be before the war of 1914!
This might be the exaggeration of a conceited person. But in a metropolis,
where one has to put up with the presence of millions of people, every provincial
– rural – little nothing possesses the splendour of
What makes me return to the Baroque novel of Komenský is not only the fact that the path of life, which is full of dangers, appears as a theme in the works of emigrant writers but also that it has a labyrinth-like character (which is not a view established only posteriorly). Although relatively few authors call this labyrinth by its name as a ‘locus terribilis’ modified by the 20th century, in reality it is post-modern (theory of) literature to describe its characteristics accurately. As opposed to the labyrinth of ancient times which had a centre and it was possible to know about this centre what traps it set for anybody who entered, here, the wanderer of the world is roaming in complete uncertainty and indefinability. Not only the ‘centre’ of his life ceased to exist but also the hope that he might be able to reach that centre after all. Exile – in this view – is still a labyrinth, an unceasing roaming even if everyday life makes settlement possible. It is existence between two worlds: one is the abandoned home and the return into which becomes more and more impossible (a novel character drops a remark to another Márai character who wants to return home: ‘you will get to know that there are two seasons, two homes, and two worlds, and you have to keep wandering forever. (...) Sometimes I believe you have not unpacked these suitcases completely for ten years. You have always awaited something. But you will not unpack completely at home either. You will never again unpack completely.’); the other one is the new ‘home’, from which they long to transfer back into the real one. We quote Márai again, this time an article of his from 1933:
‘The emigrants of time do not belong to a people’s community, and the terror, from which they escaped, is not local (...) They flee without moving and withdrew into more profound layers of time which cannot be measured with clocks and epochs... (...) The emigrants of time do not await anything. The home they long for sinks in time’.
When they already hide in the non-existent, unmistakable past, it might appear: the path taken backward in thought is a strayed path, a deviation from the road, a non-path, or a path going in circles. The Castle of Kafka rises at this point, which is not a castle; it is inaccessible for rational thinking. It is an image of longing (according to certain views), the realisation of which is constantly suspended and becomes illusory, since the act of granting it a meaning, that is, its naming is postponed. And it is exactly because of this that it can fulfil the function of the prison and the labyrinth more expressively than any other prison structure. Nothing has a real meaning in the novel of Kafka, as everything has several, among them contradictory and excluding meanings without the possibility of proving or at least accepting the ‘truth’ of any of them. It is in the tangle of these meanings that K., the geometer (sure, it is not even certain that he is really a geometer), who wants to emigrate from his home, immigrate in the village, and settle there, that he tries to define the world, his world, and his surroundings. This compulsion for definitions makes it impossible for him to assigns meanings from the beginning. Throwing a light over to his situation and status and the explanatory confrontation of his identifications and recognitions with ‘reality’ – which reveals constantly new forms – are equally hopeless. Thus, the castle is unapproachable, its description only adds to confusion; and what K. hears about the interior of the castle can arouse the idea of a labyrinth with good reason: ‘He enters offices (i.e. Barnabas), but those are only a portion of the total, then there are barriers and behind them still more offices. (...) You shouldn’t imagine these barriers as a fixed boundary. (...) There are also barriers in the offices that he enters, those are the barriers he crosses and yet they look no different from the ones he has not yet crossed, so one shouldn’t assume from the outset that the offices behind those other barriers differ significantly from the ones Barnabas has already been in. It is only during those bleak hours that one thinks so. And then one’s doubts increase, one is defenseless against them’. We would like to point out once more that Kafka was the key character of Central European context depicted by Kundera. By the way, Sándor Márai was the first Hungarian translator of Kafka. Moreover, the works of Kafka and their interpretations became almost the shaping factors of Czech history and history of thought after the scientific conference organized in Liblice.
One of the most important ‘workers’ of Monarchy-text, the Polish Bruno Schulz continued to weave the homespun of East Central Europe not only as the translator of Kafka but he also added significant threads to make it more colourful. In his stories – and more than once –, writing, or even: Writing itself becomes a labyrinth; interpretation can promise merely a chance for understanding and by no means its certainty. Transformation is an essential element of this world, which is a change in the form from one aspect while a mistake from another, or maybe the shift of the way of looking at things. The influence-history of the Komenský text can turn into (a) new direction(s) through the mediation of Kafka: partly it returns into Czech literature and partly (given that emigration and labyrinth can stand for each other) it functions as an important part of the dictionary of Monarchy-koine.
Central European discourse (just as East Central European which is perceived as a text-universe of the subregion) marked those determining segments, which are indispensable for its interpretation, while avoided the dangers of giving and attributing meanings self-confidently. We are talking about an open formation, a series of attempts of definition, which have a share in the disclosure of the interaction between text and sphere of the text. The conjuncture of literary work and its (linguistic, cultural history, etc.) context is also a necessary factor and it is thus that personal history can become (as in case of Komenský but also in others) the recollection of culture, literature, and texts (sometimes, genres). One of the great realisations of the oeuvre of Kafka is the continuous postponement of meanings, that is, the obliteration of fixed meanings. At the same time, we can discover the oeuvre of Komenský in the context of the oeuvre of Kafka and we can bring examples of considerable power from almost any of the literatures of the region for its influence-history. And not in a paradox way at all: as if realisations overarching Komenský, Kafka, Bruno Schulz, Sándor Márai, and Milan Kundera made up the Central Europe discourse, the advocates of which mark those prerequisites, which cannot be neglected.
Then, it seems as if the attributives subtracted from the study of
writers and poets and classified as common, had repercussions on the research
of the regional characteristics of the notable authors. Literates have outlined
the contemporary content and forms of thinking of
It is more and more typical that the words of those writers can count upon interest in today’s world literature, who build upon the experiences of the encounters of cultures, traditions of differing tongue, and text compilations. The majority of émigré writers of our region realised that this experience has become universal and that the presentation of the personal and the world-like together has gained a significance in a process, in which own and alien can be drawn near due to mutual understanding. The Czech translation and publication in Prague of the history of Bohemia written by Sudeten German historians is one of the expressive case studies, the self-understanding strategy of diaries written in exile is another; we can follow the evolution of ‘speech situations’ aiming at dialogue situation and reacting upon each other in both cases. The literatures of the Central European region are polycentric, as we have touched upon this before. That is, they have several centres, even up to the present day, although the reasons have ceased after the (political) transformations, which brought about the forced emigration. At the same time, writing the labyrinth-existence into novels has not lost its timeliness and the process of Komenský- and Kafka-reception has not subsided either. Neither in our region nor in the world as a whole.
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1. The region-subregion is mentioned here as
2. The status and categorisation of Milan Kundera as a Czech or French writer is subject to debates. Linguistically, he replaced Czech with French; we can find novels of his translated into Czech by somebody else and not him. At the same time, language change does not necessary involve a complete estrangement from the cultural community. Presumably, we will need further interpretations before taking up a more resolute position. It will be French and Czech literature and critiques of the future to accept or not to accept as their own the works written in French of the oeuvre of Kundera.