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Interview Péter Zilahy

Organic buildings, human lianas in the windows, whistling, pointing, flashing their flashlights, caryatids and putti come-to-life. Salesgirls stand in their shop windows, like mannequins, they look outside and wave. On the scaffolding, construction workers are waving their hammers. A man hangs over the edge of his fifth-floor balcony and swings a three-armed candelabra around in the air, as if he were fishing in the stream of people below him. The streets become river valleys, I let myself be borne along, a woman throws her arms around me, I don't speak Serbian. No problem, she loves me anyway.

- The Last Window Giraffe

Péter Zilahy
Stacey Knecht

The Last Window Giraffe

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SK — This is such a visual book. Which isn’t surprising, because you’re a photographer, as well as being a writer. What I find particularly interesting in your photographs is the way in which the various elements merge to form an entirely new image. For instance, in one photograph, we see a ferris wheel through the trees – the ferris wheel seems to be growing right out of the branches. A ferris wheel tree!

PZ — This ferris wheel is actually on the grounds of the Belgrade Castle which, in a way, is one of the biggest graveyards in Europe, because of all the battles and the people who died there. The tree lives from all those human components. I like to have a lot of hidden stuff in my works. My pictures are narrative, if you look at them for a long time, you get a story. That’s how they work: the more you look at them, the more you see. The same way the text of The Last Window Giraffe has several layers. You can read it on a very simple level, like a textbook – people who don’t read literature can enjoy it, too. But you can also go to a deeper level, and deeper still, until all the tiny nuances all make sense. I worked hard to simplify it. First I created the structure, which took me about ten months, the structure of associations, of connections, like a building. Then it took me eleven more months to make that structure disappear – to make it look like it was written very fast, in one go.

SK — You’re talking now about the shape of the book as a whole?

PZ — Yes, but also the style.

SK — Which came first? The structure – the book is written in the form of a children’s picture dictionary – or the content?

PZ — Well, I was sitting on the battlements of the Belgrade Castle, where the two rivers flow together. I used to sit there every afternoon for a little meditation between two demonstrations, and I thought, I’d like to connect something like that, something that would flow together, like rivers. Not just two streams, but several. Because all these rivers bring many other rivers with them. I wanted to connect images and text and history and aesthetics – and Belgrade and Budapest.

SK — The original Ablak-Zsiraf, the Window Giraffe, which you’ve used as your model: would you call it a kind of primer?

PZ — The Ablak-zsiraf has been called many things: a children’s encyclopedia, a children’s lexicon, a primer... in the end, it’s just an ablakzsiraf.

SK — When did you decide that this would be your framework?

PZ — I knew from the very start. Walking around in Belgrade and watching what was going on in the street, you couldn’t avoid seeing how infantile it all was, the protestors playing against Big Brother, who is so much more powerful. You’re just a joke. So you try to make the whole thing seem like a joke: if everybody runs around infantilized, you’re on more equal ground.
Also, the system treated us like children, so a children’s dictionary was an ideal form to play around with.

SK — So this dictionary, which everyone in Hungary used –

PZ — Nearly everyone –

SK — Your parents, too?

PZ — No, it wasn’t published till I was born, 1970. It’s a book for a generation. It was actually written by a noted psychologist, quite a guy.

SK — So there was a ‘real message’ inside!

PZ — It was a children’s book, but yes, it did contain many things that sounded like messages. I chose several quotes for my book, quotes which you could interpret in various ways. But everything meant several things in those days, because you could never say what you meant – it was a kind of code. You had to read between the lines. If you read something in the news, it was always the opposite. For instance, if TASS denied that a Korean plane had been shot down over China, we knew the opposite was true. For that reason, it was actually a great time for jokes, because whenever you said something, you could mean the opposite! You could say something completely innocent, and the whole country would be laughing. And winking.

SK — But how can you possibly know, as a child growing up in those surroundings, that there is another meaning to what you see?

PZ — The two meanings are parallel. They’re there from the beginning. Most Hungarians don’t speak any languages other than their own, but this makes them automatically bi-lingual!

SK — If you grow up thinking that everything has a multiple meaning – in the book you talk about ‘reading between the lines’, this comes up again and again – if you grow up with that notion, it must affect your perception of the world around you. Even the way you take photographs. What do you see when you look through your camera? What do you look for?

PZ — It’s a very long process. At first I only took pictures of faces. That was the only thing I was interested in capturing, because faces are so rich and change so fast. But later I realized there is much more, and if I take a long time with my camera, I begin to see picture. Sometimes I walk around something for three days before taking a picture of it. I don’t go there shooting. I don’t usually carry the camera around, either, you’ll never see me with a camera. I need to take a picture that makes a connection between many things. That’s the point. If it’s just an aesthetic surface, I’m not really interested. I want to surprise myself, too: I want to see something new in that picture when it’s developed.
I realized after a while that I could do different stuff with images and text. In the end, with this book, I realized I could combine them in a way that would create a harmonious piece, or tension. Sometimes harmony, sometimes tension.

SK — The way you speak about your photography: is that also how you approach your writing?

PZ — Yes, but the result is different, and the effect is different. I write and re-write. I write by hand. I write with a pencil. And I write walking. I walk around, sometimes it takes 15 kilometers to write a short story.

SK — You walk around while you’re writing?

PZ — Yes, I walk around my room and I have pages stuck on the floor and the wall and everywhere, and I write here and I write there and I walk in between. At the end you’ve got the process of arranging it all, putting it together, and finally I use the computer, and then I re-write again, and then I look at it, and two weeks later I look at it again... it takes a long time. For a book you need two years, three years, or more.

SK — The Last Window Giraffe is presented in alphabetical order, like a real dictionary, but I doubt you actually wrote it from A to Z...

PZ — No, but I did write with a structure. I had this route, this map, in my mind. I was also thinking of the hypertext –

SK — Like a dictionary –

PZ — Exactly. From here to here, and here to there, and you can make a road here and you can make a road there. It’s a kind of labyrinth, in a way, but not one in which you lose yourself. It’s just a way of finding different routes, but the road is the same.

SK — Sometimes the book even tells you where to go. For instance, on page 16: In this dictionary, you can learn a lot of interesting things about Belgrade. You can also read about the jungle, under the letter ‘ő, for őserdő.’ On page 24, under the letter ‘dzs’ – which is quite an unusual letter for English readers – we read: ‘Dzsungel is Hungarian for “jungle”. See also under őserdő.’ So we turn to the letter ő and see that ‘őserdő means primeval forest, which is sometimes called "jungle": see also pages 16 and 24!’ Go here, go there...

PZ — Yes. It’s easier when you have a form, so you can make cross-references like that, as a joke. And you can explain things without explaining, because it’s the natural form of a dictionary. I don’t force anything on the reader, I offer the information in a playful way. And you don’t have to be Hungarian, or Eastern European, or any kind of expert, to read the book, because all the info is there.

SK — Okay, Péter, this is something I never, ever ask writers, but in your case...

PZ — Are you going to leave this in? ‘This is something I never, ever ask writers, but you....’

SK — The narrator of The Last Window Giraffe, whose name happens to be Péter: is it you?

PZ — Yes, sure. But who is this ‘you’? Even if it’s me? Can you write ‘me’? Can I write ‘me’? Can I write ‘you’? I don’t have a problem with that. It’s a creative ‘you’. It’s also a ‘you’ that I don’t have direct access to, so I have to imagine this ‘you’, or ‘me’. And of course, my image of ‘you’ or ‘me’ changes all the time. So in ten years I’ll probably read this book quite differently.

SK — I was curious, because since I already knew you, I had this image in my mind while I was reading of a schoolboy Péter, a younger version of you –

PZ — But I also have an image of this schoolboy Peter, just like you. It’s not really me, of course, how could it be? There’s too much distance between us. Besides, I probably made up everything I wrote. This is the character I invented: why not just call it ‘me’?

SK — Okay. Good enough. Here’s a quote from the book that I’d like to ask you about: ‘The Hungarian is a kind of Serbo-Croatian, somebody without a country.’

PZ — Hungarians are always trying to find their roots, and at the same time trying to emphasize how different they are, and that makes it very difficult for them to integrate. The Serbo-Croatian language was invented in order to create one country, in the 1850’s – now it’s the opposite situation. Now they want to create three separate languages out of it, so it’s a political question. In that sense Hungarian is also a creation, an artificial construction. The name ‘Hungarian’ was given to us – we don’t call ourselves ‘Hungarian’, we call ourselves Magyar. Even Magyar is an artificial label – it’s like Holland versus The Netherlands, it’s not the whole, it’s just one of the counties. This whole nation thing... it’s fictitious. We have to create and re-create it, and I’m trying to offer creative ways of thinking about it, without falling into the same trap of always being alone, being completely different, being misunderstood –

SK — Those are the standard clichés about Hungarians?

PZ — Yes. We have a very high suicide rate, you know. We’re down to fifth place now, but in the 20th century, Hungary was way ahead of Japan. Now it’s Lithuania and Latvia.

SK — You’re interested in history, aren’t you?

PZ — Yes, I am. As a Hungarian you cannot escape that. In all East European countries they tend to teach a lot of history at school, in order to explain things. People are very involved with stories like that, the ones historians make up. It’s a popular kind of narrative: ‘And 2,000 years ago we did this and that, and we went to war and kicked ass and the emperor came down and said to the chief, oh no, the Hungarians are here!’ And it’s everywhere! You go to any bloody little country and they tell you the same stories about how they saved the world from the Turks, how they invented everything from the biro to the computer, how they have the best literature in the world, how their women are the most beautiful in the world, and why doesn’t anybody understand that?!

SK — So it’s an Eastern European thing? You’re sure about that?

PZ — Oh yes, I’ve been to all those countries. They’re not exactly the same, obviously, but they’re very similar in this respect, and the fact that they don’t see this, that they don’t see how ironic it is that everybody’s telling the same story in the next village – it’s very comical, because it’s all a big tragedy for everybody, and they all have the biggest problems in the world, and they all cry, and they all do that! And you go 100 kilometers away, it’s a different nation with a slightly different story, different colors, but they have the worst history, and it’s so horrible... Hungarians are quite extreme in this, but there are others, too.

SK — But how can you ever get a clear picture of anything that’s happened, if everyone is making up their own myths?

PZ — It’s difficult. There’s very little self-knowledge in my country. It’s going to make it very hard to change anything. It’ll take quite a long time, my generation is going to have to die out to make way for more flexible people.

SK — ‘Your generation’? It’s funny, I hadn’t really seen you as part of a generation –

PZ — It’s not really a generation. But there’s clearly a dividing line. People who are five years younger than I am haven’t got a clue of how it was to live in a so-called Socialist country. It’s a very short time ago, really. I lived under the regime for eighteen years. That’s enough to have an idea. That’s enough to face the police. That’s enough to get a little humiliation, but not too much to completely damage you. I’m actually very lucky, because if I’d lived ten years longer under that regime, I might’ve gotten into much more trouble, or been humiliated in a way that would’ve seriously changed me, or been imprisoned, or whatever. But this way, I saw enough, I understood enough, and it was a challenge, it was fun. And I was against the regime, the regime was bad, so I was good, so it was a very positive upbringing. Kids don’t have that today. It’s only about money. You can’t be against money, what’s the point? So it was actually very good to be a child in those days, the last days of the regime. It taught me a lot. I’ve lived in two worlds, I know two different systems, so to speak. Which makes me, in a way, more prepared for things to come.

SK — What about the people around you? Friends, family, others of your ‘generation’? Are you an exception? You’ve chosen to write books, and do photography, film, performances...

PZ — My family kept a lot of secrets from me for a very long time. There were several artists in the family before me, but no one ever told me about that. Art was considered unimportant in my family. My parents were scientists. And they expected me to do science, too. And I wanted to do science. The only problem is that when I got into it, I realized it would be very hard for me to survive the Hungarian university system, because I say what I think, and they’re just not used to that. That influenced my career. It was also around that time, I was 18 years old, that I began to write. I’d had no intention of being a writer, or doing anything art-sy.

SK — What happened?

PZ — I had some extra time in English class. I could already speak English but I had to be there anyway. They let me sit in the back and do what I wanted, and I started scribbling things and they turned out to be poems. I showed them to some people and three months later, I was published in the best magazines. And all of a sudden, it seemed I was part of a larger family of authors. I was very idealistic, so happy, jumping around... It took me two years to get completely disillusioned. But at the time – I was a writer! A poet!

SK — Are you still a poet?

PZ — I still write poems, but the idea of poetry books doesn’t work for me anymore. Books and poetry – I’d have to produce a certain amount of material and put it all together in book form, but that wouldn’t mean it was a book. No, I can’t think in terms of poetry books anymore. I can only think in terms of poems.

SK — Your prose is very poetic. That associative quality we were talking about, the layers. You don’t always know what it says, you don’t always have to know what it says. Like a good poem. The reader has to be willing to make an effort.

PZ — Yes, I like my readers to work. I worked! But I don’t force them. They can enjoy the surface and go away, but if they’re willing stay, I make them work.

SK — Let’s go back a bit: you’ve traveled enormously in your life. Why did you choose to write your first book about Belgrade?

PZ — That’s the funny thing. Everybody expected me to write a book about Japan, or Australia, or Tasmania, and I wrote a book about next door! It’s not really about next door, it’s about Hungary, too, I’m using Belgrade as a case in point. I haven’t written about 99 percent of my travel experiences. I may, one day, but just the fact that I could place myself or some character somewhere and he could do strange things – that wouldn’t be enough for a book, either. For me, travel writing has to tell a real story. It has to mean something more.

SK — Tell me about why you went to Belgrade.

PZ — I actually went to all the Eastern European demonstrations. In the beginning it was because I wanted to study the behavior of the crowd from an anthropological point of view. And I come from a good family, we never liked being in a crowd, so I was very curious. That’s one thing. The other is: 1956. We weren’t going to have another revolution in Hungary, because we’d already had ours in ’56. This time it was going to be smooth, it was going to be a gradual change... But none of the other countries around us had had a revolution yet, so they had to have something wilder. Something more euphoric. Something closer to the ’56 that I knew from my parents, and friends, who had lived through it. I went to all these countries to get my own glimpse of ’56. To try and re-live it, the euphoria, the illusion of freedom – all the stuff that makes a revolution perfect for a few days, but maybe horrible for the rest of your life. That kind of thing, that people are incredibly happy all of a sudden and that they’re together – I had to see that.

SK — When did you start out on your travels?

PZ — 1987. The whole thing took about ten years, going from one protest to another. Sometimes I even gave advice to the demonstrators. I had a lot of experience! I told them how they could be more effective, how they could get behind the cordon, or funny ways they could get the police on their side, like bringing them chocolate, flowers... Lots of little tips.

SK — So you were a ‘protest expert’?

PZ — Yes, a protest expert. I wasn’t a journalist, I wasn’t even writing about it. In a way, I was more of a protest scientist! But in the end I didn’t write a book about protest science, I wrote a book of fiction, which is also a book of facts. For some, it’s a handbook, for others, it’s poetry – in the Ukraine they use it for practical purposes. In Serbia they use it as a textbook about what happened in certain places. In the Ukraine it was a big thing: the Ukranian writer Yuri Andrukhovych wrote to me during the protests there, and said: We are living in your book now.

SK — Did you have any idea, all those years, when you were going from one demonstration to the next, of what lay ahead? Could you see the direction it was taking?

PZ — Yes, I could tell what was going to happen, very clearly. On a daily basis, too. When people said things like: Oh, the police are going to come and crush us! I’d say, no they’re not going to come, at least not now. Or in certain situations: ‘I think there’s going to be a beating tonight. You better stay home.’ And there would be a beating. I could pretty much tell. I went to Berlin because I thought the Berlin Wall would be coming down soon, and everybody thought I was crazy. Even today, if I say things like that, people think I’m lying, or stupid. But often my intuition worked, and that saved my ass, and sometimes other people’s. I didn’t go to these places to fight, or kick ass – I was curious. Many people in Belgrade told me that what they really liked about my being there was that I wasn’t a Westerner, or a protest tourist, or one of them. I was inside and outside at the same time. With them, but not one of them. I didn’t have any prejudices, or the burden of being a patriot.

SK — Were you accepted?

PZ — Very much so. In Belgrade yes. But not everywhere, not all the time. In Prague, a lot of students were very snobby. When I spoke English to them they were friendly, because they thought I was a Westerner and they had a high opinion of Westerners. But when I told them I was Hungarian, they weren’t interested anymore. The funny thing is, I was much more ‘western’ than they were. But they thought: Hungary’s in the east, and they couldn’t accept help coming from the east. But in East Germany they were very friendly. In Poland, too. In Romania it was more complicated, because you could be a target. There’s a big Hungarian minority in Romania, and the secret police was very much against the Hungarians there. All these countries had very different dictatorships. And they’ve had different revolutions as well, some have achieved more than others. You can’t make 50 years disappear just like that. There are still too many people from the old system, doing things in the old way. It’s a reflex. You don’t always realize it, but it’s there. So as I said, new generations have to come. And these people have to speak foreign languages. And they all have to have more knowledge of themselves.

SK — Do you think Eastern Europeans are unique in this lack of self-perception?

PZ — I think it’s more true of Eastern Europe than in other countries. Take the Dutch, for instance. The way they look at themselves, it’s much more realistic... In our case, it’s harder to be realistic because one doesn’t know much about the origins of these people you call Hungarians. So myths form, myths about the past.
When I was a kid, Hungary was the least nationalist country in Eastern Europe. It was not at all supported by the government. These days it’s much more nationalistic – more people, more families, are quarreling about politics, the right-wing is quite emotional about many issues. The country is divided today, it’s taking us down. We’re getting heavier and heavier. Once we were the leading country in the region. You definitely cannot say that anymore.

SK — Have you ever considered living anywhere else? Could you live anywhere else?

PZ — Well, I have lived for short periods here and there... I can do a year here, a year there... but I miss the food, I miss the faces, I miss the area where I was brought up, which is also where my father was brought up, and his father... I have my roots there.

SK — Same house?

PZ — Same garden. The houses have been destroyed several times, but the garden is still the same... old trees...a romkert, a garden with ruins of the buildings that used to be there, like a broken, 19th-century marble pillar, the old terrace where I used to play, an old gate, a buried wine cellar, a couple of stones that used to hold boxes for palms... I like those surroundings. I would miss it. I don’t know if it would be impossible to live anywhere else – I mean, if you were to offer me a Garden of Eden somewhere... but even then, I probably wouldn’t go, unless they spoke Hungarian there. I need the language around me, I’m a writer. It would be difficult to go. On the other hand, it can be hellish at home... so it’s always a back-and-forth. But I always end up going home. I’m always going home.
The Ledge
editor-in-chief: Stacey Knecht,
Thanks to: De digitale pioniers and
Het Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds
Design: Maurits de Bruijn

Copyright: Pieter Steinz, Stacey Knecht
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