Örkény, István

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ÖRKÉNY, István

Nationality: Hungarian. Born: Budapest, 5 April 1912. Education: Technical University of Budapest, certificate in pharmacy, degree in chemistry. Military Service: Served in labor battalion, World War II: spent nearly three years as a prisoner of war in Soviet camp. Family: Married Zsuzsa Radnóti in 1965; one son, one daughter. Career: Writer and dramatic adviser, various theaters, Budapest, 1947-56; factory chemist, 1958-61. Awards: József Attila prize, 1955, 1967; Grand Prize for Black Humor (France), 1970; Kossuth prize, 1973. Died: June 1979.


Short Stories

Tengertánc [Sea-Dance]. 1941.

Budai böjt [The Fast of Buda]. 1948.

Idegen föld [Alien Land]. 1949.

Ezüstpisztráng [Silver Trout]. 1956.

Macskajáték [Cat's Play] (novella; from his play). 1966.

Jeruzsálem hercegnóje [Princess of Jerusalem]. 1966.

Nászutasok a légypapiron [Newlyweds Stuck in Flypaper]. 1967.

Egyperces novellák [One Minute Stories], illustrated by RéberLászló. 1968.

Idórendben: arcképek, korképek [In Order of Time: Portraits and Sketches]. 1971.

Meddig él eoy fa? [How Long Does a Tree Live?] (selection). 1976.

Rózsakiállítás (novella). 1977; as The Flower Show [and] The Toth Family, 1982.

Novellák [Short Stories]. 2 vols., 1980.

Búcsú: kiadatlan novellák [Parting: Unpublished Short Stories]. 1989.


Házastársak [The Married Couple]. 1951.

Egy négykezes regény tanulságos története [The Instructive Story of a Four-handed Novel]. 1979.


Voronyezs [Voronezh]. 1948.

Sötét galamb [Dark Pigeon]. 1958.

Macskajáték (from his novella; produced 1979). 1966; as Catsplay: A Tragi-comedy in Two Acts, 1976.

Tóték [The Toth Family] (from his story; produced 1968). 1967.

Pisti a vérzivatarban. 1969; as "Stevie in the Bloodbath," in A Mirror to the Cage, 1993.

Vérrokonok [Blood Relations]. 1974.

Kulcskeresók [Searching for Keys]. 1976.

Élószóval. 1978.

Forgatókònyyv [Scenario]. 1979.

Drámák [Plays]. 3 vols., 1982.


Amíg idejutottunk … Magyarok emlékeznek hadifogságban [The Road to Captivity … Hungarian Prisoners of War Remember]. 1946.

Lágerek népe [People of the Camps]. 1947.

Az utolsó vonat [The Last Train]. 1977.

Önéletrajzom töredékekben: befejezetlen regények [Fragmented>Autobiography: Unfinished Novels]. 1983.


Critical Studies:

"New Developments in the Hungarian Drama" by George Gömöri, in Mosaic 6(4), Summer 1973; in Ocean at the Window edited by Albert Tezla, 1980.

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István Örkény was a Hungarian prose writer and playwright of the generation that grew up during a period of increasing political strife and division in Europe and that experienced World War II as a major, formative event. Örkény's first book of short stories, Tengertánc (Sea-Dance), was published as early as 1941. His experiences at the Russian front (where he served as a member of the notorious labor battalions organized by the government for Jews and communists) and the following years spent in a Russian prisoner-of-war camp provided much material for his later writing. After a feeble attempt to write in a "Socialist Realist" vein, which more or less ended with József Révai's attack on his short story "Lila tinta" (Purple Ink) for its allegedly "bourgeois" outlook, Örkény began to search not only for a distinctive new style but for a new type of short fiction that could best encapsulate the paradoxes and absurdities of the twentieth century. This he found by the mid-1960s in the genre egyperces novella (one-minute story), a grotesque and often absurd sketch that usually "told" a story. These "one-minute" pieces, the first of which were included in the collection Jeruzsálem hercegnöje (Princess of Jerusalem) became the hallmark of Örkény's shorter fiction.

In one of his sketches Örkény gave instructions as to "How to Use One-Minute Stories": "The enclosed stories may be short, but they offer full value…. A one-minute story may be read either standing or sitting, in the wind or in the rain, or even when riding a crowded bus. Most of them can be enjoyed while walking from one place to another" (translated by Carl R. Erickson). Thematically, these are either wartime anecdotes ("In Memoriam Professor G.H.K.," "Two Cupolas in a Snow-Covered Landscape," "Let Us Learn Foreign Tongues!"); tales of the unexpected with an ironical twist ("A Brief Course in Foreign Affairs," "Satan at Lake Balaton"); or straightforward parodies and absurd mini-dramas ("Public Opinion Research" and "The Last Cherry Stone," respectively). Most of these one-minute stories are informed by a kind of black humor, which critics detect in the work of other Central European authors from Havel to Mrozdek. What makes Örkény's work idiosyncratic is his feel for everyday situations and everyday characters. Because of this, the reader accepts the internal logic of his stories, however absurd they may seem when taken out of their "realistic" context.

Some of Örkény's longer stories are also memorable. "The Hundred and Thirty-Seventh Psalm" is the story of a bungled appendix operation at the Russian front, carried out without anesthetics by a former medical student. "Fohász" (Prayer) is the moving story of a Hungarian couple who has to identify the body of their son, one of the young men killed in the street fights of the 1956 uprising. While these stories are, by and large, kept within the framework of the realistic tradition, Örkény also produced some that are close to the spirit of the one-minute pieces: "Az ember melegsegre vágyik" (One Would Like to Have Some Warmth) tells the bizarre story of a doctor getting obsessed with a superior stove, whereas "Café Niagara," Örkény's most Kafkaesque piece, is a symbolic representation of the situation that totalitarianism imposes upon all its subjects. "Café Niagara" is a place where people are regularly beaten and humiliated for crimes they have not committed—yet the fact that they have already been punished liberates them from their previous fears and anxieties.

Örkény was also an accomplished playwright. One of his early plays, Tóték (The Toth Family), was first written as a novella. It is based on a wartime anecdote of a half-crazed major of the Hungarian Army who, when on leave, visits the family of one of his soldiers. The family, in their effort to help their son (who at the time is already dead), submits to all the whims and wishes of the major, including the manic folding of great quantities of cardboard boxes every night. In the end the Toths revolt against the major and kill him; the absurd story has a grotesque and macabre conclusion.

Another long story by Örkény, Rózsakiállítás (The Flower Show), tackles the problem of dying and its representation by the media. A young filmmaker decides to shoot a documentary film on dying and selects three real characters to appear in his film: a professor of linguistics; a woman whose job is flower-packing; and a popular TV news commentator. The novella not only traces the process of their dying but also raises the issue of art influencing life, even the manner in which people actually die. While informed by irony The Flower Show remains within the realist tradition; for all his penchant for the grotesque Örkény was a writer interested in the everyday life of average people whose problems he depicted against the unreal backdrop of Central European history.

—George Gömöri

See the essay on "Café Niagara."