Mihály Dés: He was who he was
Founder of ‘Lateral’ dies at 67
‘There are always more reasons for closing a cultural publication than for striving to keep it alive,’ wrote Mihály Dés in 2006, as he shut down Lateral, the Barcelona-based journal he had founded twelve years earlier.
These ‘final words’ – this was the title of his regular column – were typical of Mihály Dés, seemingly defeatist but in reality defiant. He proudly declared that ‘while twelve years of Lateral might not have left their mark on the epoch, the epoch – characterized by a mixture of exhibitionist and industrial culture – has not left its mark on Lateral.’
On 18 May, Mihály Dés – editor, literary critic, translator, university professor, novelist and actor – died in Barcelona. He was 67. He will be buried in his hometown Budapest.
As an editor and magazine publisher, one could learn a lot from Dés’s self-assertiveness, his insistence on the importance of literature and theatre – and of journals. It was a survival strategy. As such it was dangerous, the slightest slip in style and ironic twist and you could immediately appear bitter. Many colleagues did – and do. Not Mihály. He mastered this art to perfection.
The first time I met him was in autumn 2000 at the European Meeting of Cultural journals in Vienna and Bratislava. Since then, until its closure, Lateral was a partner of Eurozine. We were both stunned by the intensity that characterized the intellectual encounters at this meeting, especially the battles around the concept of identity. Afterwards, under the somewhat biblical heading ‘I am who I am’, he described one of the sessions in Bratislava. The portraits of some of the key figures in the Eurozine network that this passage contains are priceless:
‘There is no such a thing as identity,’ blustered the Belgrade philosopher in consternation and his grave and bellicose indignation seemed so authentically Balkan that for a moment I feared the eruption of an inter-ethnic, intellectual conflict. It all started when the Polish economist repudiated the social claims of the special correspondent of the mythic New Left Review while setting out his own demands, which were unashamedly neo-liberal. And as if anything else was needed in such a permissive environment, he eulogized about something as reactionary, dead and buried as identity, in this case embodied in language.
Everyone pounced on him. The Serbian philosopher, as if he were a postmodernist Chetnik, asked him in a bellow if he had read the recent book by an intellectual American authority with an unpronounceable name, an irremediable refutation of the concept of identity. A Portuguese philosopher, more melancholic than a fado and more incisive than a union agitator, called attention to the fact that, in the era of globalization, there is no sense in speaking of identity: capital has no identity, the same products are everywhere, and the great entities that manage the world are supranational.
Identities, entities, calamities (…)
This event was held in a beautiful baroque palace of the capital of Slovakia, Bratislava, which, under the name of Pozsony, was for centuries the seat of the Hungarian diet and is known in German as Pressburg, a kind of suburb of Vienna, the imperial Habsburg capital from which it is separated by some fifty kilometers. Thus, it is quite possible that today there is no point in speaking of identity, but – because of history – this city has at least three.
This could only have been written by someone for whom identity was far from an obsolete concept – it was lived experience, and as such anything but fixed and solid. It is when it becomes ‘easy’ that identity gets dangerous – an ‘unequivocal and one-dimensional identity which does not permit any alternative, either for itself or for others,’ as Dés would have it.
The unequivocal – and, one might add, the ascribed – identity as obscenity. Mihály Dés often told stories about the misunderstandings he had to fight when he came to Spain from Hungary in 1986, three years before the Iron Curtain opened. For example, how his dissident critique of the Communist regimes, in the ears of people who in all other respects were similar to him, also politically, sounded like the arguments used by Franco’s propaganda machine.
Despite his claims to the contrary, Dés left a lasting mark on Spanish literary culture, first as editor-in-chief of the literary magazine Quimera and then as director of Lateral. A Hungarian founder of a Spanish journal in the heartland of Catalonia – if that is not a set of productively equivocal identities…
He recognized literary talent wherever he encountered it. When Mathias Énard lived in Barcelona, Dés immediately encouraged him to write for the journal. This was long before Énard received the Prix Goncourt. It was also in Lateral that the first interview with Roberto Bolaño appeared. And when, in Spain, Elfriede Jelinek or Imre Kertész were just foreign names and far from Nobel fame, Lateral gave them thorough introductions.
But he also took care of cultural traffic in the other direction, translating Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar and Mario Vargas Llosa into Hungarian. Having learned Spanish in Cuba – as a member of a theatre company – he cultivated a special relationship with Latin American literature.
In 2009, Dés moved from Barcelona back to Budapest. This changed his creative focus. At 60 he began to write fiction and in 2013 he published his first novel, Budapest Baroque. He never received any official recognition for his achievements, either in Spain or in Hungary. It was not like him, or just like him: at the end he couldn’t hide his disappointment at not being welcomed more warmly into the Budapest literary scene.
In an interview conducted just a few weeks before he died, he described his first novel as ‘the greatest intellectual experience’ of his life.
After all, he concluded, ‘I wrote Budapest Baroque in my own language, in Hungarian.’