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“You Needed a Strong Constitution for this Profession”—Interview with Legendary Hungarian Children’s Writer and Poet István Csukás

Hungary Today recently had the opportunity to interview István Csukás, Hungary’s legendary creator of children’s books, poems, films, and tv shows. In a discussion held in the 81-year-old legend’s home, the creator of Süsü, a sárkány; Pom pom meséi; Mirr-Murr, a kandúr; Keménykalap és krumpliorr; Sün Balázs; Gombóc Artúr; A nagy hohoho-horgász; and countless other classics that fill the imagination of every Hungarian child to this day, talked about his life, his work, and the future of art aimed for children in his country.

This interview has been edited for concision and clarity, and translated from the original Hungarian.

Do you have a favorite story?

I have a favorite of my own, as well as favorites that have sprung from other authors’ pens as well. In terms of the former, I would have to pick my series Pom Pom’s Stories (Pom Pom meséi). One reason for this is that, in contrast to my earlier stories, the main character here is a little girl named Picur, who dreams up all sorts of fantastical things on her way to school. The other reason is that Pom Pom is chiefly about imaginary creatures, not humans or animals. And the stories that take place are complemented by Ferenc Sajdik’s incredible drawings. It was interesting, that the abstract nature of the stories caused less difficulties for children than it did for members of the older generation.

Other than this, I really love the books of István Kormos and Gyula Krúdy, but the biggest influences on me, from my child on, were Sándor Petőfi and Sándor Weöres.

You spent your childhood in the eastern Hungarian town of Kisújszállás during the 1940s and 50s, when the country was in a state of incredible poverty. During this time, how important were folk stories for you?

My father owned a smithy, and the whole village would often gather in its courtyard. It was always full of people—mainly men, but women and grandmothers as well—who were good at telling stories, anecdotes, and so-called “living stories.” These were always magical, and I was always amazed by these ‘living’ words.
Speaking of poverty, that’s the sort of thing you speculate on after the fact, while as a child—even though we weren’t wealthy either—we never felt ourselves to be truly poor, because there was always food, we had clothes to wear. At the same time, we couldn’t really see the difference between wealth and poverty, since everyone was living in similar conditions. The people of the village were much closer to nature, to animals’ births and deaths in their everyday work. For this reason as well, stories, parables, and folk sayings had an important role to play in strengthening peoples’ spirits and their faith. You could say that I grew up floating in a sea of this culture. I have always been very happy with my background.

As a child, you studied to be a musician, while as a student you trained to be a lawyer, and later a humanities major; ultimately, you became a writer and a poet. This points to a certain cultural and societal sensitivity on your part. To what extent did these influence your art?

I completed my studies at the musical high school of Békés-Tarhoson, and I wanted to become a violinist. I began writing poetry around this time as well. A friend of mine copied one of my poems and sent in, in my name, to the Magyar Rádió’s (Hungarian Radio) poetry contest, which I won. This made me think. Later, a decisive influence on me was when three or four of my poems appeared in a Budapest journal: I saw my works in print, with my name alongside them. To be a violinist is an incredible thing, but it is still an act of interpretation, while I was more interested in creating. In this period, by the way, everyone starting with Endre Ady went to law school. To tell the truth, neither law nor humanities were of particularly interest to me, I really just wanted to move to Budapest.

What was your experience of the 1956 Revolution?

As a young sapling poet, who had just moved to the capital, I suddenly found myself up in the air, together with my contemporaries. I had to leave the university; they arrested those they could, while those who were able fled the city and the country. The remainder, which included us, were forced to hide. Those who were found and who didn’t have work had their IDs stamped as being ‘malingerers who endanger the public good’ (KMK—közveszélyes munkakerülő), and were expelled from Budapest. I was helped out by an acquaintance working at the literary desk of the Radio, through which I received smaller assignments.

You didn’t want to defect?

While I had a great number of acquaintances who left Hungary, I didn’t do so, because I felt that there was no place but Hungary where I could be a poet. I had faith that I would somehow be able to avoid danger. The truth is, I was within a hair’s breadth of being captured myself.

In the 1960s, you were a member of the Young Artists’ Club (Fiatal Művészek Klubja), which at the time was a symbol of resistance. How do you think back on that time?

Even the most brutal dictator can’t fill every gap. A musician friend of mine invited me one of the club’s meetings, held in an abandoned villa. Most of the members were visual artists, but there were actors, writers, poets, and musicians in the group as well. Since I was there from the very beginning, I helped renovate the building; a year later, I was given directorial responsibilities. In this group, we were finally able to take a breath from among great affliction.  We were able to talk things through among ourselves, and for these reasons there were more and more of us with each performance, and the club’s fame grew. We organized an exhibition of Lajos Kassák’s paintings, who was a big enough name, that the authorities wouldn’t bother us. When we got in trouble was when a few organizers voted that we should invite party cadres involved with cultural affairs to our events as well. I felt that this could be dangerous, and it seemed better to me for the club to stay more in the shadows. However, I couldn’t do anything in the face of the will of the majority of club members.

Several members of the Central Committee came to the performance—although I don’t want to mention names—and we were shocked to see ourselves surrounded by 15-20 plainclothes police.

One of the young musicians got up onto the stage, and addressed the Central Committee member present, saying, “Dear Comrade XY, it’s very good that you are granting amnesty to older writers and poets, but what of the younger ones, who no one gives a damn about, are they just going to rot in prison?” Now, this is when the real trouble began. The old comrade starting shouting “Tell me your name! Who are you? Who do you think you are?” Ultimately, we managed to end the night without any bigger issues, but the ice underneath us was very thin after that. By the way, the young artist was absolutely right.

You lived through the entirety of the socialist regime, from beginning to end. How do you remember this period?

It wasn’t as soft a regime as many people claim, in fact the opposite is true. The appearance of consolidation began, and the “bloodier” members of the regime really were sidelined, but internally, baseness and exclusion were hard at work, Káder’s cadre managed to take every significant position for themselves.

As for me, leaning on the inspiration of István Kormos, the incredible poet, writer, and (not least) friend, I started writing for children. At the beginning, I didn’t have much enthusiasm, but István finally convinced me, and squeezed a story book out of me, for which painter and graphic artist Endre Bálint created illustrations. I don’t even need to tell you, that this honor made me practically fall out of my chair.

With this, I found a refuge of sorts, that let me make a living for the most part, but I was still very much “outside the ring.”

Despite that fact, as a writer and literary scholar you won practically every possible award. As the author of countless works over the course of the past 57 years you are viewed as a living legend; everyone in Hungary knows your name.

István Kormos’ advice worked out really well, since I achieved success from the very beginning with my works written for children. This area was also lucky for me, since censorship didn’t reach all the way down to children’s literature. It was seen as unserious, just as it is seen today, no one truly cared about children. One of the downsides of this was that all of the failed, dilettante party writers wrote children’s’ books as well. Later, as an editor at Móra Publishing House, they made my skin crawl.

But at the same time, they allowed the publication of the works of Kormos, Pilinszky, Mészöly, Zelk, and Tersánszky. I have to add that, in all this, it was the children who truly benefited from the so-called exclusion of certain artists from ‘serious’ artistic life. No one bothered me, but I wasn’t a truly experienced author, and for this reason I can say that I was lucky. Many literary acquaintances of mine were not let out of prison, and had to suffer through a full 8-year prison sentence. You needed a strong constitution for this profession, you had to grow up, become firm, and endure. There was a certain degree of loosening up that was noticeable. The system, however—which was rotten—didn’t change, but rather the decisions forced upon us did. It was impossible to close all of the doors that had opened, and we felt that this terrible system would fall apart sooner or later. What we didn’t know was when this would happen, and who would be buried underneath it when it fell.

To what extent was it possible to include hidden anti-government messages in stories?

It was possible, but it was never really my intention. I will never forget István Fodor’s Romanian storybook Csipike the Giant Dwarf, which tried to depict Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu.

For example, a lot of people, including good friends, wanted to insert things into Süsü the Dragon, but this only led to misunderstandings. Some of this partially infuriated me, and partially did not; ultimately, I let it go. This sort of thing happened with (Süsü’s second episode) ‘Dragon Care Company (Sárkányellátó Vállalat), which some saw as mocking the socialist bureaucracy. It is my own esthetic belief, that politics is a foreign element in children’s stories, and I see no place for it. Let’s not weigh down children with this sort of stuff.

A few years ago, a Hungarian news site reported that composer István Bergendy copied, practically speaking note for note, Wille Mitchell’s 1970s song “Cherry Tree” for Süsü the Dragon’s theme song. What do you say to this?

Yes, I know about this, and it is true that they are very alike. In fact, I have my own opinion on the matter. But besides this, it is important to note that István Bergendy’s music is great, but it is what they call ‘applied music.’ Film music is always applied music, and you naturally don’t have to approach it in the same way you would, say, a Beethoven symphony. I can give examples from poetry as well, since in that artform the world is full of wandering motifs.

At the time, copyrights were not as written in stone as they are today. In addition, at the time it was still legal to sample 40 seconds of someone’s music.

How do you view contemporary children’s books and shows?

This arena was incomparably richer during the Kádár era. You could say that we lived in a paradise compared to current conditions, although it was one that existed under the shadow of the fact that—as I’ve mentioned—no one paid attention to children’s literature, or successes more generally.

At that time, the Magyar Rádió’s literature and music desk was an incredible literary workshop. Wonderful people produced high quality work. Since television took up so much of peoples’ attention, you were able to say basically anything.

In TV, where I also worked later, we were able to create with practically speaking no censorship. There were years when Magyar Televízió would produce ten films with adult actors, directors, and dramaturgs; in addition to these, they produced countless puppet films, cartoons, Claymation films, and paper cut-out films. The great reward of this was that people, beginning in their childhood, knew the faces of Hungarian actors, who at the time were able to find a place for themselves, and were able to make a living.

Since then, I have to say, that since we have not produced a single youth film in many years—ever since then there has been deathly silence—something isn’t right. I believe that Hungarian children should be given Hungarian books, music, and film; not out of nationalism, just so that, as German children read German books and French children read French, Hungarian children can read books that reflect the world they were born into. Naturally, after this one has to get to know other peoples’ books and stories as well. This is important for Hungary, because this is a base upon which you can build your entire culture. Bartók and Kodály knew this very well, the former expressed it in his book Mikrokozmosz (Micro-Cosmos), while the latter expended half of his life’s work upon this goal.

And why did this come to an end?

There are attempts today, but there is nothing like the bounty that existed back then. This makes me sad. Today, Hungarian children don’t watch Hungarian films, they watch American ones. Don’t misunderstand me, I have no problems with American films, but it is children living there who should be watching them. Hungarians shouldn’t only watch things on the screen that speak to them neither in language nor in the conflicts contained within the stories. I can’t stand the Dagobert type, who sits on gold and says “bring me gold!” This is not a Hungarian mentality.

On the other hand, what puts me in a better mood is the fact that, once again, young writers and poets have gotten into children’s literature. This is worth much more support, and is much more important, than the way art aimed for children is generally treated. When I’m in a combative mood I always say that half the money that the government has spent on culture should be given to children. This thought usually makes peoples’ hair stand on end.

Why do you think they don’t give money for this?

Because when the argument is about distributing money for, say, “road construction”, children always get left out. When the discussion came up as to which desk should be closed at the TV to save money, naturally the children’s section was chosen, just as today Budapest’s János Arany Children’s Theatre no longer exists. Things shouldn’t be this way; all of this should be taken much more seriously. And just as nowadays it comes to light that there is plenty of money for a lot of things, but children are always left out.

I’ll give you two concrete examples: earlier, there were film writing grants, where they gave out up to 8-9 million forints (…euro) at a time, and I approached multiple decision makers—success has at least that much of an advantage, that usually they agree to see you—and I asked them the question “How can you distribute this much money, while children don’t see a damn penny of it?” To this, I received the answer that “Well I’ve got you now, how many proposals did you submit?” To which I replied “No, I’ve got you now, since I actually submitted two works, one live-action and one cartoon film, and I didn’t even receive a reply.”

Children’s clocks tick faster. For them, four years is a whole stage of life; by the time they’re 14, the time for this sort of thing is over. What they don’t receive by this age, what doesn’t enter their little souls, will be missing forever.

What comes to mind, when you hear the words ‘Harry Potter’?

When I saw children standing in line at bookshops, reading on trams and buses, I was very happy. This is a huge advertisement for children’s literature, and I think that Harry Potter is a very important and useful thing.

The book started a trend, it brought children back to books. And naturally, I read it myself, not only from politeness, but from curiosity as well. Here too, you can see the wandering motifs that I mentioned earlier, one of which is how wonders fit it into everyday life.

We can learn from this as well. When I ask in book shops, why they don’t sell books for cheaper, I get the response that they are ruled by the ‘laws of the marketplace.’ Harry Potter is a good example of the fact that these ‘laws’ can be changed, since these books, reasonably priced, have made billions. They tried something similar similar during socialism, but the trash bins ended up full of them.

Reporting by Balázs Horváth

Photos by Péter Csákvári

Translated by Tom Szigeti