The Bull Calf

Reviews of Fiction, Poetry, and Literary Criticism

Magyarázni by Helen Hajnoczky

Reviewed by Caroline Boreham

Helen Hajnoczky

Magyarázni. Coach House Books, 2016. 

104 pp.


Helen Hajnoczky’s Magyarázni explores the ambivalences of belonging—that ensemble of desires, attachments, and confusions that binds together communities just as often as it makes them difficult dwelling places. Inspired by the author’s own experience growing up in Western Canada with a father who left Hungary after the Revolution of 1956, Hajnoczky approaches the loaded image of ‘the ties that bind’ through the tonal and linguistic play that the genre of the abecedarian affords her. Providing a poem for each letter of the Hungarian alphabet, including the odd trespasser that is “not a true Hungarian letter” (99), Hajnoczky produces an alphabet primer that not only succeeds in ‘making the reader Hungarian,’ as her title suggests, but also reminds us that for all the heartbreak and embarrassment that comes with living between two cultures and languages, there is more than a little humour as well.

Hajnoczky makes the linguistic mishaps that so often occur when speaking in a foreign language into a full-blown poetics of the tongue-tied. Along with the more tragic moments that accompany learning a new language (when you produce “no letters,” but get “your heart” “caught in your throat” [41] instead), the poet incorporates those amusing, and so often mortifying, slips between words and senseless sounds into the very fabric of her prosody. In a collection where the Hungarian word for altitude (“Altatódal”) can be reworked into a mischievous line of nonsense verse in English (“All to tell, not too dull” [11]), it is indeed difficult to doubt the claim that underpins Hajnoczky’s book: that the messy business of speaking in another’s tongue has its own type of elegance.

The collection is structured in the form of a direct address; each poem singles out a “you” that ostensibly designates the reader who is to be ‘made Hungarian.’ But, in this exercise in linguistic and cultural translation, not even ‘you’ remain stable for the duration of your reading experience, an effect that has prompted Oana Avasilichioaei to characterize Magyarázni’s addressee as a “wandering ‘you’.” And wander we do, each poem inviting us to inhabit—always with some discomfort and uncertainty—a subjectivity whose borders have not yet firmed up. At times, we seem to slip into the skin of a character modeled on Hajnoczky’s father––“you / are an adventure or travel narrative spinoff series. You are / father enough on your own” (61)––and borrow from his grief and frustration; at others, we fall into the perspective of a daughter who feels that she has been bequeathed a sense of nostalgia and bitterness that is not homegrown: “you are meant to inherit this / rococo ache […] You adopted another’s resentments” (57). Part of the power of Hajnoczky’s collection is that, though certain words or lines more likely refer to one ‘voice’ over the other, most poems can be read through either perspective. The effect of this ambiguity is that the readers of Magyarázni are made to share in the comforts as well as the disappointments that contribute to a person’s sense of cultural belonging; the uneasiness you might feel towards your new home or towards your father’s cultural heritage translates into that uncanny feeling that you might not actually be living in the right city, or in the right skin.

Indeed, far from vying for the spotlight at “the centre / of this narrative,” Hungarian father and Canadian daughter—though these national filiations are, like the speakers, anything but fixed—tend to meet together “in the middle” (55). And this common ground, won despite the alienating differences of language, culture, age, and gender, is perhaps nowhere more powerfully, or fittingly, articulated than in the concluding stanza of “Otthon,” the Hungarian word for ‘home’: “You’re coming going leaving / back again. / Home is wherever / you are not” (57). The achievement of Hajnoczky’s collection lies in moments likes these, where, as estranging as the experiences of each speaker are, they nevertheless give the impression of belonging to each other in their isolation.

Caroline Boreham completed her MA in English at McGill University where she studied the British novel. She loves European cinema and discovering new voices in translation. She lives in Montreal.

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