Thoughts on the novel “Little Lily” by Orsolya Karafiáth
Translated from Macedonian: Milan Damjanoski
Having confidence in the well-deserved reputation of the publishing company ILI-ILI and the proven literary taste of its editorial team, I accepted in good faith their invitation to promote the book “Little Lily” without having any idea who Orsolya Karafiáth was or what she had written. Thus, the first thing I could do in this case was to carry out a Google search on her. Even though the majority of the links were for articles in Hungarian, thanks to Google Translate the impetus to learn more was momentarily satisfied.
If we can judge by the critical acclaim, Orsolya Karafiáth has swiftly risen from a young and hopeful talented poetess to the status of the “new Hungarian literary diva”1F, who owes her popularity equally both to her literary work and to her show-business flare for self-promotion. She has organized live promotions of her books, filmed videos such as the one announcing her latest book where she plays all her literary heroines, as well as being a regular presence in the public life and media in Hungary. She does that through performances with her pop-band, hosting TV shows, designing covers of fashion magazines, etc. Not only does Karafiáth not mind being called a tabloid celebrity, but she relishes it and thinks it is funny. Obviously, she has realized on time that these days literature too, requires the sort of PR tactics specific to this era of globalization in which we live. Consequently, Karafiáth, through her playfulness and sense of uniqueness proves to us that there is nothing contradictory in being a popular vamp woman at the same time as being an exceptionally talented writer whose works (especially the poetry) can be full of sentimental, melancholic, even melodramatic tones. Quite the contrary, all of this is complementary, stimulating to her work and is well received by both the public and the critics.
After publishing three collections of poems and one novel, Orsolya Karafiáth followed this up by writing her latest novel “Little Lily” continuing her (literary, but also life-long) mission to fight taboos and conventional barriers imposed by the society she lives in. Through the telling of the story of a woman (the main heroine Lia) and the women in her life (her high school teacher Mary, her boss at work Lilly, her mother and her best friend), Karafiáth is not just narrating the intriguing intimate story from a woman’s perspective – herstory, but she further delves deep into the psychology of the woman’s universe, the complexity of youthful suffering, the world of never-ending diets, hysterical idiots, pompous birthday parties and anxiety disorders. She does not shy away from the absurd struggle against repressed sexual attraction and troubled love affairs which at first glance seem to be all about the issues of power relations based on hierarchy and control, but are rather the expression of authentic human behavior, as well as of all too familiar emotions of loneliness, passion, guilt and shame, the scene of countless inner dilemmas, confusion, doubts…
The author herself in the novel rather openly, and I would say bravely, blurs (or, at certain points, erases) the boundaries of what is defined under the category of normal, especially when it concerns relationships. So, she touches upon various “forbidden” relations – starting with the “infatuation” arising between an adult woman and her students with its hovering latent pedophilia, the disturbing intertwining of work, privacy and sensibility when dealing with such delicate situations, and ending with fatal lesbian love stories with the full range of passions, but also guilt, shame and anger which accompany them. Thus, she says at one point: “We wouldn’t put ourselves with Mary in any category, nor any formula could be imposed on us, that I was in love was incredible enough, but yet I knew this was the real thing, it was real because I don’t love her because she is a woman, but because she is Mary, so it doesn’t matter if she is a man or a woman, how old she is, what she is doing, I don’t care how she lives her life; what I feel for her is not even dependent on what she feels for me.”
There’s no doubt that Orsolya Karafiáth does it very well – she uses a quite simple language and a colloquial jargon and vocabulary, the narration has a languid and natural flow without any restraint of thought, without any “pussyfooting”, striking directly into the heart of the matter. She has no compunction to openly and without any prejudice describe both the most banal everyday events, as well as the deepest most intimate expressions of eroticism, and everything found in-between. Based on that, though the dominant feeling is that the focus of the novel is exclusively placed on the intimate stories about looking for love, we can also sense throughout the discrete presence of condemnation and unacceptance of all that is different. The novel also provides a description of the broader social context and the modern life in a Central European capital – a vortex of vodka shots, fur coats and the need to hide your age and celebrate your 30th birthday for the umpteenth time, broken family relations, infidelities and drug dealers, beginnings of the school year and cancer treatment clinics, cleavages, Marlboro cigarettes and old Eddie Sedgwick photos…
The 26 colorfully illustrated chapters contain many more interwoven provocative threads which amplify and enrich the narrative multilinearity of the novel. However, without having to go into each individual chapter, what is important to point out is that the focus in all of them is put on the woman’s perspective. Having said that, Orsolya Karafiáth skilfully manages to avoid the narrow confines of the categories of the “woman’s writing” or “lesbian literature”, despite the attempts of some critics to pigeonhole the novel. We also have to consider the fact that today in Hungary certain conservative tendencies are quite visible, which in one case of an anthology of lesbian writers from Hungary has resulted in only one of the authors being brave enough to include her photograph and biography next to her name2F. Thus, the media presence of Orsolya Karafiáth in the public eye brings the added risk of taking the focus out from the novel and onto her personal life and the issue of her sexual orientation. However, by stating in the novel that “I am not a lesbian, I clarified, at least I don’t think I am, and if I have to define myself at all cost then I’m more of a bisexual, I think or even more precisely, I would say, that I may always fall in love with the wrong ones, but I always fall in love with the human being, not the man or the woman, I don’t care what gender they are, I guess.”, she talks about the universality of love as an emotion, resisting the insistence on having all kinds of different definitions and categorisation.
She has spoken publicly about her dedication to erase all labels on many other occasions, as was the case in the interview conducted as part of the research done by Szilva Eszter entitled “A ‘women’s turn’ in literature? Women’s literature in Hungary in the last decade and its connections to feminist politics”3F. When asked how she defines herself, Karafiáth answered jokingly, saying that: „If someone asks me whether I’m fine with having költönö (women poet) written under my name I always reply: just write what you want. This is not important for me. They could also write zombie, I do not care.“4F
Truly, all attempts to find a frame for her work are unnecessary. What matters is the work itself and the path it takes to reach the reading public. With regards to the path taken to reach its Macedonian readers, I believe now is the right time to complement, beside the author herself, also the translator from Hungarian, Zlatko Panzov. When you read “Little Lily” in Macedonian, the novel sounds as if it is originally written in Macedonian, which is the ultimate testament to the craft of the translator. In fact, we have to give credit to Panzov for bringing Hungarian literature closer to the readers in Macedonia through his translation of the works of Béla Hamvas, Noemi Szecsi, Péter Nádas, György Konrád, Krisztina Tóth, István Örkény and several others. The credit also has to be given to Nenad Stevovich and Igor Angelkov from ILI-ILI publishing house who have always had an eye for a good book and translation. To sum it up, once again they have a hit on their hands! “Little Lily” is an excellent novel which I whole heartedly recommend!
2. „From among the selected ten Hungarian lesbians, only one author makes herself completely visible by having her portrait next to her writing. This author is Ágota Gordon who published a lesbian novel entitled Goat Lipstick. All the other authors reveal themselves only by giving their names, with no photograph and no biographical sketch. A photograph would make them too visible, a risk that they are not ready to take. Their decision should be considered as a marker of the hostility of the Hungarian social context towards identities other than the heterosexual one.“ (Zita Farkas, The Articulation of Lesbian Identities through the Paradigm of Visibility and Invisibility in the Hungarian Context), Conference Proceedings – Thinking Gender – the NEXT Generation UK Postgraduate Conference in Gender Studies 21-22 June 2006, University of Leeds, UK e-paper no. 32; http://gender-studies.leeds.ac.uk/files/2013/02/epaper32-zita-farkas.pdf (Accessed on 14.10.2015).
3. Szilva Eszter ,“A “women’s turn” in literature? Women’s literature in Hungary in the last decade and its connections to feminist politics”, Budapest, Hungary, 2011, Submitted to CEU, Department of Gender Studies, www.etd.ceu.hu/2011/szilva_eszter.pd”.
4. Eszter: 45, www.etd.ceu.hu/2011/szilva_eszter.pdf (Accessed on 14.10.2015).