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20 November 2018

The Travels of Tariménes in the Afterlife – A Bitter-Sweet Memory of Tamás Kabdebó


I first met Tamás (or Thomas, as he is known in English) Kabdebó some time in 2006. At the suggestion of the outstanding radio reporter, Éva Filippinyi who also departed this life, some two years ago now –, I went to see him, when I was still a writer for the Hungarian daily Magyar Nemzet, at a soirée held at the Budensis Social Circle in Óbuda. That evening, if my memory serves me well, the writer, who had flown in from Ireland, was presenting a volume entitled The Travels of Tariménes in the Past, the Present, the Afterlife and in a Series of Novellas by Tamás Kabdebó. After the official part of the event, I exchanged a few words with him, but really just a few I no longer remember where, but there was somewhere I had to hurry to.

After I had read Tariménes, I wrote a review of it, which was published in the MarchApril 2007 issue of Pannon Tükör magazine, under the title of The Heart’s Intent On the Tariménes Novellas of Tamás Kabdebó. To quote just a part of the review, I wrote, “Tamás Kabdebó, despite living in Western Europe since 1957, is a writer from Baja.1 More precisely, he is from Baja as well. Because, to paraphrase Mikes,2 he loves Maynooth, his adopted home in Ireland, in a way that he cannot forget Baja. Yet likewise he cannot forget Debrecen, Budapest, Pécs… the list of places visited by Kabdebó’s alter-ego, Tariménes, in the novellas contained in this volume continues with some more distant towns in the Danube Basin, such as Kolozsvár [Cluj-Napoca, Romania] or Szamosújvár [Gherla, Romania], all the way to the Serbian town of SmederevoSzendrő on the banks of the Lower Danube. We could venture even further afield, for one’s birthland is the culture from whose breast one is nurtured, so the Holy Land, as the cradle of Christianity, is also conquered by Tariménes with the most natural ease during his travels in this volume.”

The next I heard of Kabdebó was five years later. With some friends of mine Romanians, Serbians and me, a true group of Danubians – I was waiting for my pizza in a restaurant in Brno when my phone rang – an unknown number, starting with the country code for Ireland. Tamás Kabdebó came straight to the point, telling me that in his personal chart of articles about his works, he regarded my analysis of Tariménes as number three, but since the gold medallist was dead and the second-placed writer was intolerable, he was asking me to write a substantial, even book-length study of his Danubius Danubia, his chef d’œuvre, which I must have read. As for the whole “libraryful” of literature that had been published about the opus, there was no need to worry, he assured me, for he had saved everything in his home in Newcastle, meticulously arranged in files. If I was interested, he would be happy to have me as his guest for a week in Ireland, where I could do as much research as I wanted, he said. And, he added, there was a photocopier next to the ping-pong table.

First I would read the book, and then I would decide, I told him.

I read the book and I said yes straightaway. During my first encounter with Danubius Danubia, I felt as though I had stumbled upon a hidden treasure. Kabdebó was right, but not entirely – there had indeed been some great reviews about this undoubtedly great roman-fleuve, and yet they were not enough to carve out a space for Tamás’s trilogy in some or other canon – I write “some or other, because in contemporary literature there are parallel canons, and Kabdebó’s book dares to think, and make others think, to such an extent that it does not fit into any single schema or any pre-defined thought system. It would be interesting one day to immerse myself more fully in the mysteries of the reception of Danubius Danubia probably I could come across evidence that Kabdebó’s magnum opus was too experimental for conservatives, too history-centric and reader-friendly for post- modernists, disturbingly integrational of Central Europe for nationalists, yet overly concerned with the Revolution of 1956 to satisfy the tastes of internationalists, and what is more, the work does not ignore national narratives, but places them side by side, thereby conjuring up a sense that the approach to history taken by the peoples of the Danube has led to the concoction of contradicting narratives, so consequently the only way to bring peace to this apparently endless rivalry is by weaving these divergent threads into an “all inclusive” story of the Danube region, which transcends these national narratives.

To see this approach reflected in the work of someone else would in itself have given me sufficient cause to say yes to this request. However, the fact that we both to quote Tamás here – live in the spirit of the Danube – was just one of the reasons why I accepted his invitation. With Danubius Danubia I had to realise that in Kabdebó, we had a Hungarian writer who, while not always writing masterworks after all, it is impossible to run a world-record time every blessed day –, showed that he had the capacity within him: besides Danubius Danubia, his short novel on the events of 1956, translated into English as A Time for Everything, probably belongs in this category, which brings the total number of his masterworks to two which is still two more than the average writer ever produces.

So eventually I flew to Ireland. He did indeed have a photocopier, with a ping- pong table next to it, in his library-house. Kabdebó had two houses almost next to each other in the small town near Dublin where he lived, where – in good old Irish tradition – strangers passing on the street would enquire after one another’s health. In one house he lived with his wife, Anna, and – until he was drawn to the other side of the world by wanderlust and love – their son, Isti; in the other he worked. As befitting a fastidious philologist, he ensured that everything he might need for his work was at hand. That is no hyperbole, but fact: even in the toilet, every wall was covered up to the ceiling with bookshelves.

We made hearty use of the ping-pong tabledespite being close to eighty, Tamás could still come up with some killer serves – and I was just as enthusiastic in my use of the photocopier. The notes contributed greatly to my monograph – entitled The Anatomy of a Danubian Novel, and dealing with Danubius Danubia in five essays being published for Hungarian Book Week 2013. Two of the essays have already been published in English translation – proof, perhaps, that the Pan-Danubian approach may be more acceptable when seen from the perspective of an outsider, whose starting point lies west of the Black Forest, ideally west of the English Channel, when delving into the shared Danubian region, this common homeland of nations, whose destiny is the same, but who are nevertheless incessantly vying against each other.

I would like to believe that my volume played a part in Tamás’s late recognition – and I would like to believe that he too could rest safe in the knowledge that he had finally been given the attention and appreciation that he deserved. I can still remember his disappointment when he found out that he had been nominated for the Kossuth Prize, and that despite the decision-makers – or, at least, those we believed to be the decision-makers – being bombarded by a veritable campaign of guerrilla marketing waged by his friends and other supporters, myself included, he was overlooked and the prize went to someone else. Then, in the end, without ever ascending the Matterhorn, he found himself on the peak of Mount Everest – bypassing the Kossuth Prize, he went straight on to become a recipient of the even more exclusive Hungarian Laurel Wreath Award. “If only they’d given me a badge to pin on my chest”, he told me over the phone, with his characteristically mischievous, self-deprecating humour, when he spoke about the award ceremony – yet through his pretend indignation it was obvious how genuinely happy Tamás was about finally being recognised.

Then came news about his illness. Then came denials of the news about his illness. Both came from him. Eventually the denials came more rarely, and then they came not at all. “You’re made of tough wood, Tamás”, I told him once on the phone. “The wood may be tough, but it’s old now”, he answered. And then of course he grumbled for a while about how bad the Irish health service was.

The last time we spoke, he informed me that a selection of his short stories was to be published for the Festive Book Week. When we had both done our own book-signing duties, we would meet up and have a fulsome dinner together, is what we agreed.

Two weeks before Book Week, Tamás died. I do not know if he actually stipulated in his will for his ashes to be scattered in the Danube. But perhaps it does not matter. I know that he nursed doubts about it, but I believe that the journey of Tamás-Tariménes is continuing in the afterlife. There to greet him, I hope, was his mother, who died when he was a little boy, his brother, who passed away a few years ago, and his father, welcoming him with the words I would have chosen for his send-off: “Tamás – have a great time, you did a great job!”

Translation by Steve Kane

 

Notes:


1 A town on the Danube in southern Hungary (Translator’s note).

2 18th-century Hungarian writer Kelemen Mikes who died as an exile with Prince Ferenc II. Rákóczi in Turkey (Translator’s note).




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