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( 1935 - 1997 )


I Wished to See the Sea: Four Portraits

One of the most popular and most important genres of Hungarian literature through much of the twentieth century was the “sociographic and literary” documentary; and among its foremost practitioners was the undeservedly neglected sociologist Zsolt Csalog (1935–1997), whose courage was exemplary in his role as a key opposition voice for human rights during the communist era. Beginning in the early 1970s, he tape recorded in-depth interviews with, and monologues by, people from various walks of life. He then edited and recomposed the results. While in doing so he sought to retain a measure of their natural, less than tidy flow, his stylized transcriptions aimed also to produce works that resonated beyond their content-specific meaning. And, indeed, the resultant documentaries seemed all the truer in consequence of this literary feat. A corrupted use of language, a repetition of words and ideas, and stuttering all had the effect of demonstrating the mental and psychological state of the subject. Now released in a new edition, Csalog’s book, I Wished to See the Sea (A tengert akartam látni) presents an autobiographical portrait of four laborers through their monologues. These monologues reveal the quintessential Eastern European “little man,” aka the proletariat; and they say a great deal about the social deformities and lies of twentieth-century Hungary and, in particular, of the regime of János Kádár, who led the nation and its so-called “goulash communism” with a heavy hand for decades after the 1956 Revolution. More specifically, Csalog’s book undermined popular misconceptions by showing the degree to which the working class was at the mercy of the regime’s economic and political mendacity and wasn’t exactly thrilled about it. To quote a few sentences: “They say you can stand on an incline. That’s right! At the bottom.” “When I’m bored, I stare at chaos.”

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