Figuli, Margita (1909–1995)
Figuli, Margita (1909–1995)
Slovak novelist known for her work Three Chestnut Horses. Born on October 2, 1909, in Vysny Kubin, Austria-Hungary (now Slovak Republic); died on March 27, 1995; the daughter of peasants.
Born in 1909 in a poor mountain village in Slovakia when it was still under the jurisdiction of the Hungarian part of Austria-Hungary, Margita Figuli rose above the limitations imposed by her peasant upbringing and took advantage of the improved educational opportunities that were made available after 1918 under the new Czechoslovak Republic. After completing her studies at a commercial academy, in 1928 Figuli found employment in a bank in Bratislava, the Slovak capital. Her literary talents developed rapidly, and she began publishing in newspapers and journals. Her style was closely linked to two contemporary writers of the Slovak Lyrical Prose school of which she, Dobroslav Chrobak (1907–1951) and Frantisek Svantner (1912–1950) were the leading exponents. Her early short stories, written in an impressionist style, were published in 1937 under the title Pokusenie (Temptation).
In 1940, Figuli published what was to become her best-known work, Tri gastanove kone (Three Chestnut Horses), a short novel of little more than 100 pages which became a bestseller in Slovakia, appearing in seven reprint editions during the next seven years. In its lyrical descriptions of the unspoiled forest world of the Tatra mountains, and using the symbolism of three horses to depict the goodness, beauty and strength of the natural world, Three Chestnut Horses is also a love story of a simple peasant girl's dilemma over choosing which of two suitors she should marry. Although the happy ending of the book may appear naive and contrived to some contemporary readers and critics, the novel was an immense success and was hailed as representing a major step forward for Slovak literature.
Between 1939 and 1945, Slovakia was ostensibly a sovereign nation, but in reality it was a satellite state of Nazi Germany. The Fascist Slovak regime persecuted Jews, Marxists and democrats, and while Margita Figuli was not politically active her deeply held Christian and humanist beliefs brought her in conflict with the ideological dictates of the Bratislava regime. After having published several antiwar stories, including Oloveny vtak (The Leaden Bird) and Tri noci a tri sny (Three Nights and Three Dreams), her dissident views led to her being dismissed from her bank job in 1942. Although Slovakia remained an ally of Nazi Germany, an unsuccessful national uprising in 1944 left the nation traumatized in the spring of 1945 when it lost its "independence" and once more became part of Czechoslovakia.
Figuli had spent the final years of the war writing a massive historical novel, Babylon, which appeared in print in 1946. A detailed description of the rise and fall of the ancient Chaldean Empire filling over 700 pages, Babylon presented a rich tapestry of ancient life, wars and religious beliefs. Many readers detected analogies to the recently ended world conflict in the novel's colorful descriptions of savage warfare in the ancient Near East. Popular with the Slovak reading public, Babylon was viewed with suspicion and even hostility by the increasingly powerful arbiters of Marxist literary orthodoxy in what before 1948 was still a democratic but increasingly pro-Soviet Czechoslovakia. Stalinist critics then and later condemned Babylon as a book inappropriate to the times, and as an essentially escapist and "merely aesthetic" work of art that served to distract both the intelligentsia and the working masses from the urgent tasks at hand.
During the cultural and political terror that marked the final years of Stalinist rule in Eastern Europe (1948–1953), Slovak literature was forced to toe a line that was rigidly based on the doctrines of Socialist Realism. Although Figuli did not completely succumb to these pressures, neither could she afford to completely ignore what was required of her as a major writer. In her 1949 novella Zuzana, she attempted to portray the lives of two lovers in the 1930s whose happiness and survival were tied to a world sliding inexorably toward war and chaos. In the 1950s, both Three Chestnut Horses and Babylon appeared in revised editions that give credence to the notion that the author succumbed at least in part to the pressures of "constructive self-criticism" then in vogue. In 1974, Figuli published what would be her last novel, Vichor v nas (The Whirlwind Within Us). In this work, the artist attempted to fuse mythic and documentary styles in the story of a magical blacksmith and a girl suffering from hallucinations, hallucinations that had originated from her mother's rape by a Nazi soldier. Since the book ended in a factory that underlined the imperative of the "building of socialism," many readers as well as critics came to regard Figuli's last novel as a work sadly inferior to her earlier writings.
In the last decades of her life, Figuli continued to write, producing well-received children's books that enabled her to avoid grappling with the social concerns that, if "improperly" treated, could place one in danger of being blasted by official critics. In 1974, she was honored with the title of "National Artist of Slovakia" and, in the last decades of her long life, leading Slovak literary critics were crediting Figuli, along with Chrobak and Svantner, as having "created modern Slovak prose." Her mystical Christian ethics and elegant style continue to appeal to at least part of the Slovak reading public, with Three Chestnut Horses regarded as a classic work (a new edition appeared in print in 1996). Although Figuli's writings are virtually unknown beyond Central and Eastern Europe (her major works have been published in Czech, German, Russian, Magyar, Polish, Ukrainian, Slovenian, Rumanian, Latvian, and even Kazakh translations), perhaps the time will yet come when her best works are made accessible to the English-language world. Margita Figuli died on March 27, 1995.
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John Haag , Assistant Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia