The key to Iván Sándor’s art of writing is history. He does not write explicitly historical novels, although several of his works are indeed set in historical times and places, but he writes novels of history. In his epics he examines the way of life and the tectonics of times past – how one can persuade history to speak and how to tell that story.
Iván Sándor’s personal biography and his creative career are organically interrlinked. He was born on 11 March 1930. His father owned a small factory, but his forebears were of rural and then Budapest-Jewish petit-bourgeois stock. By the end of the 1930s the influence of Hitler’s racial theories was exerting an increasingly baleful influence in Hungary. For Hungarian Jews abuse and discriminatory actions became increasingly common, which was one of the reasons Sándor’s parents enrolled him in the grammar school of the Pest Israelite Community at about the time that Hungary entered the Second World War as an ally of Nazi Germany.
Compared with the systematic slaughter of the Jews elsewhere in Europe, Hungary’s Jewish population remained relatively safe, if not completely so, until the spring of 1944. Then, on 19 March 1944, German troops occupied Hungary, and with the active assistance of the Hungarian provincial police and public administration the deportation of the country’s Jewish population to the death camps began with the exception of those living in Budapest. However, the terror finally reached the capital following the takeover of Hungary, in mid-October 1944, by the Hungarian Fascist Arrow Cross party led by Ferenc Szálasi.
The fourteen-year-old Sándor, cut off from his family, was obliged to lie low in cellars and so-called ‘safe houses’ that were officially protected through the efforts of a few enlightened individual foreign diplomats. Sándor was specifically indebted to the Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz, who, like Swedish Raoul Wallenberg and Italian Giorgio Perlasca, fully exploited the fine print of international law, as a result of which hundreds of children managed to escape deportation and probable death. Sándor’s parents – almost miraculously – also managed to escape from a death march to the camps, and the recollections of those dreadful months find full expression in Sándor’s 2006 novel, Legacy.
Following the crushing of the 1956 revolution by the Red Army, it was with great difficulty that Sándor found work. He was engaged by the newly launched weekly cultural magazine Film, Színház, Muzsika (Film, Theatre, Music) – an exemplary journal – and remained there until he reached official retirement age (and the magazine folded) in 1990. It was in the columns of this magazine that he developed a career as theatre and film critic and a parallel career as a playwright. Looking back on it, he now regards this time as just the beginning of his work as a writer. His first novel, Waves, had appeared in print as early as 1967, and the first of his literary works, and one that he still considers valid, was The Dispatch Rider, published in 1976. But it was the 1990s that proved to be his most productive decade, with ten volumes of essays and four novels to prove the richness of this phase of his career. Of the novels, pride of place should go to Sea Pebble, an extraordinary compound of the subjective and the objective epic in which the scanning rhythm of searching the memory and the murmuring melody of the past as it speaks, bit by bit make up what is both, at one and the same time, a fragment of a family saga and a complete essay novel.
In Sándor work narrative inserts regularly find a place in the essays, whereas the fiction is shaped by philosophical reflections. He analyses the literary side of his activities in what he calls the novel diaries, a process of obstinate self-reflection and an urge to think things through consistently, and this work may reasonably be compared to the essayistic output of Imre Kertész and Péter Nádas.
Legacy (2006 Hungarian; 2014 English)
It is hard to determine exactly who (or possibly what) is the true hero of Iván Sándor’s novel. Is it, perhaps, the fourteen-year-old boy from Zugló, the Fourteenth District of the Pest side of Hungary’s capital? Cut off from his family, he manages to survive the ghastly months that follow the arrival of the German Army in Hungary in March 1944 and are eventually brought to an end, after months of bitter fighting, by the Soviet occupation of Budapest on 13 February 1945. Or is it perhaps the narrator, who, fifty-eight years later, attempts to uncover the remaining traces, places and links to that time as he goes over the his own ghostly footprints and writes the past anew? Or maybe it is Carl Lutz, the courageous Swiss Vice-Consul in Budapest, who contravenes his official instructions in order to save the lives of many thousands of Jews by declaring that certain buildings – yellow-star houses – are part of the Swiss legation, and he issues papers declaring that the bearer is to be regarded as a Swiss citizen and thus protected.
Above and beyond the human element, however, Iván Sándor’s meticulously constructed novel Legacy pays particular attention to space and time. The narrator takes the reader on tours of the streets and squares of Budapest, from Zugló to Óbuda, from the Sixth District to the city centre. And echoing close behind are the footfalls of countless thousands of others. Moments in time that took/take place at the self-same spot in both 1944 and in the novel’s present are made to coincide so one reads two stories simultaneously, and in doing so Legacy can be read as a novelistic essay that ponders the philosophical feasibility of describing, expressing or communicating such events at all.