Lengyel, József

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Nationality: Hungarian. Born: Marcali, Somogy County, 4 August 1896. Education: Studied philosophy at University of Budapest and University of Vienna. Career: Took part in Communist Revolution of 1919; arrested and consequently fled to Vienna, 1919; moved to Berlin, 1927; journalist, dramaturge, Prometheus Film Studio, and editor, Film und Volk, Berlin; emigrated to Moscow, 1930; editorial staff member, Sarló és Kalapács; imprisoned in work camps, Siberia, 1938; released, rearrested, and released again, worked as night watchman, 1953; rehabilitated and allowed to return to Hungary, 1955. Founding Co-editor, Vörös újság and Ifjú Gárda.Awards: Attila József prize, 1957; Central Council of Hungarian Trade Union prize, 1958; Kossuth prize, 1963. Member: Hungarian Communist Party, 1918 (founding member). Died: 14 July 1975.


Short Stories

Igézó; elbeszélés (novella). 1961; as Igézó, 1962; as The Spell, with From Beginning to End, 1966.

Elejétól végig (novella). 1963; as From Beginning to End, with The Spell, 1966.

Elévült tartozás (includes Igézó and Elejétól végig). 1964; as Acta Sanctorum and Other Tales, 1970.

Ézsau mondja [Esau Sayeth]. 1969.


Visegrádi utca [Visegrád Street]. 1932; revised, 1957.

Prenn Ferenc hányatott élete avagy minden tovább mutat. 1930; revised edition, 1958; as Prenn Drifting, 1966.

Három hídépító; elbeszélés egy alkotás eléletéról [Three Bridge Builders]. 1960.

újra a kezdet. 1964; as The Judge's Chair, 1968.

Mit bír az ember (újra a kezdet, Trend Richárd vallomásai) [HowMuch Can a Man Bear?]. 1965.

Szembesítés. 1972; as Confrontation, 1973.


Keresem Kína közepét; útinapló [I Am Looking for the Centre of China: Travel Diary]. 1963.

Mérni a mérhetetlent [To Measure the Immeasurable] (collection).2 vols., 1966.

Bécsi portyák [Visits to Vienna] (travelogue). 1970.

Neve, Bernhard Reisig; föld és külföld [His Name, BernhardReisig; Home and Abroad]. 1979.



in Hungarian Authors: A Bibliographical Handbook, by A. Tezla, 1970.

Critical Studies:

"The Return of Lengyel" by P. Ignotus, in Encounter, 1965; "Lengyel: Chronicler of Cruel Years" by George Gömöri, in Books Abroad 49(3), Summer 1975.

* * *

The fiction of the twentieth century would be much poorer without authors who wrote mainly about the world of Soviet concentration camps and detention centers known, since Solzhenitsyn, as the "Gulag." This theme lies in the center of József Lengyel's work, too. Lengyel was one of the founders of the Hungarian Communist party in 1918. After the failure of the Hungarian Soviet Republic he immigrated to Vienna and from there, via Germany, to Moscow. He was arrested in 1938 and spent the following 18 years in jail and in Soviet labor camps; he could return to Hungary only in 1955 and began to publish his stories connected with camp experiences some years later.

All these biographical details have to be recalled, for Lengyel is, indeed, a "biographical" writer, someone who based most of his writing on experiences of his own. His most favored genre was the short novel or the long story, differences between the two often being blurred. It was with the long story Igézö (The Spell) that he first made an impact. This is the story of a nameless political exile, a foreigner who lives in the Siberian forest and works there as a charcoal-burner. Through patience and kindness he wins the affection of a neighbor's dog and also earns the confidence (and the animosity) of some of the local inhabitants. The Spell is a melancholy tale, scenes of which are built up by what the critic L. Czigány called "the accumulation of visual detail." The short novel Elénjetol végig (From Beginning to End) deals with the vicissitudes of Lengyel's favorite alter-ego, György Nekeresdi (Do-Not-Look-For-Him George), a foreign communist innocently arrested and jailed in one of Stalin's great purges. The narrator tells his story in the first person, recounting his horrifying experiences in overcrowded, putrid Russian prisons, Arctic labor camps where people freeze to death or die of sheer exhaustion or of pellagra. Bread is the leitmotif in the ballad-like tale of the hero's life; it links seemingly unrelated episodes. In the Siberian camp bread is "life, itself"—respected with an almost religious awe—and for stealing bread the punishment is death. Lengyel's message at the end of this story is simple: "May there be bread for everybody!"

Lengyel's best stories are certainly those that deal with his personal tribulations: they all belong to his "Russian cycle" collected in the volume Elévült tartozás (Barred Debt). The hero of "Kicsi, mérges öregúr" ("Acta Sanctorum") is an old professor of physics who is arrested on trumped charges and subjected to beatings and humiliation by the interrogators. The little professor, who himself hates smoking, steals cigarette butts for his fellow prisoners in the interrogation room—an act of saintly compassion in the eyes of Lengyel. The story "Sárga pipacsok" ("Yellow Poppies"), which takes place in an Arctic camp, is narrated in the first person; the narrator works as nurse in the camp hospital. A patient tells him about the mass executions that happened in Norilsk only a year or two earlier. Now yellow poppies grow on the unmarked graves of the victims. Lengyel ends the story on a cautious note: he is not sure whether the patient told the truth, but what if "even if a small fraction of what he had told were true…. I myself also saw those yellow poppies."

Yet another labor camp story, "Hohem és freier" (1964, "'Hohem' and 'Freier"'), is, according to the author, a description that "has more in common with natural history than with literature" (translated by Edna Lenart). It highlights two distinct species of camp-dwellers, the professional thief and criminal ("Hohem") and the average simpleton without camp experience ("Freier"). The story describes the way in which the latter is robbed without noticing it at all. In this small piece of labor camp sociology, Lengyel exhibits a sense of humor that colors only very few of his otherwise somber and melancholic stories.

In the small collection Ézsau mondja (Esau Sayeth) published in 1969 Lengyel included more Siberian and other sketches that he characterized as "being half-way between fiction and truthful chronicles of reality." These stories bear the collective title "Obsitosok szökésröl beszélnek" (Veterans Talk About Escapes) and include the dramatic account of a communist's escape from counterrevolutionary Hungary in 1919. For all the crimes of Stalin and the monolithic horror of Soviet communism, Lengyel remained a (somewhat embittered and intensely critical) communist to the end of his life. This fact, unfortunately, impaired his ability to write stories about postwar reality in Hungary with the same intensity as he had handled the Gulag themes. The only striking story in Ézsau mondja that is not connected with prison life or Siberian escapes is entitled "Neszesszer" (Vanity Bag). It tells, in an anecdotic form, what particular impulse made a young man, the son of a colonel in the army of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, turn into a communist. Social injustice was the initial theme of the young Lengyel, but protest against inhumanity and political injustice became the main thrust of his work after his release from captivity and return to his native country, where he could at last tell his own painful and terrifying story.

—George Gömöri