There are times when an author’s heart jumps. It might be a bad review, or finding another author who has written something similar, a response from an agent or publisher. When I was told someone had read The Skin of Water who had lived through WWII in Budapest, Hungary, the German occupation and the descent into communism, my heart did the fandango.
Fortunately, Ann Major enjoyed my novel and when we met she told me she’d even known some members of the family on whom I’d loosely based my story. I had even reminded her of aspects of daily life in 1940s Budapest that she’d forgotten. And yes, I’d made a few small errors which were a pleasure to correct.
Ann has just released her memoir, the delightful A Carpet of Jacaranda. I asked her to tell me some things about it.
Greg: Could you briefly describe your book?
Ann: In this book I have tried to establish a literary and historical monument not only to twentieth-century Hungary but also to the memory of those who have saved my life as well as to the memory of people whose humanity has triumphed when the call was for bestiality. Of Jewish origin but thoroughly assimilated, my enormously successful family, especially in terms of cultural and scientific achievement, lived confident in the future. Little did they realize that their world was being threatened by the looming danger of the Holocaust, perpetrated both by the German Nazis and the Hungarians. Having survived it, as well as the brutally long siege of Budapest and the arrival and the depredations of the Soviet Red Army, I fled Hungary at the time of the Communist take-over. My husband and I settled in Sydney, Australia.
Greg: What inspired you to write the book? Why now? How long did it take?
Ann: It was my children’s urging—and later that of their partners’—which planted the seed in my mind. It took more than a decade slowly to germinate and eventually to burst out fully grown like Pallas Athene… Actually, it wasn’t quite that easy…
Greg: Had you written something like this before?
Ann: No, I hadn’t. Only much shorter pieces and mainly on historical subjects.
Greg: Had you kept diaries and letters that aided your memory?
Ann: I only kept diaries during overseas trips and then only in very abridged forms.
Greg: Because of the turbulence in Hungary, you subsequent escape and then raising a family in Australia, you commenced tertiary education later in life. What degrees did you complete and do you think studying at that age brought something extra to the task?
Ann: I have always read a lot, both fiction and non-fiction, and after I had enough time on my hands, I felt that I needed some direction. While I was still working in my husband’s office (on the corner of Pitt and Bathurst Streets) I used to drop in at the WEA’s Bathurst Street library. First to borrow books, and eventually to attend some classes, which I felt would give me an entrée to recommence my tertiary studies. Some of these were speed-reading, essay-writing. It changed my life. I am not fond of some of today’s jargon, but I can vouch for the fact that I have found myself.
I graduated in History, Philosophy and Politics and after a year or so went back to get an MA in Modern History and after another year’s pause wrote an MA (Hons.) thesis in Ancient History. After that I stayed at Macquarie Uni as a research assistant and translator.
Greg: You speak of the loss of old photographs. Given you’ve included many in your book, how significant was and is the loss of other photos?
Ann: Luckily my US family was of significant help, and so was dear old Google.
Greg: What was the most interesting part of the writing process for you?
Ann: Getting to know some family members better than I had previously.
Greg: Were parts of it difficult to write?
Ann: Oh yes! And I am thinking here of the tragic loss of both my parents.
Greg: Tell us a little of your work as a translator? How did that start? Given that meaning in language is slippery, how difficult is it to make decisions about someone else’s exact meaning? Especially when you may not have direct contact with the original author.
Ann: Translating is very much a matter of individual choices, and the choice of words involves not merely a question of their suitability but indeed a moral decision of sorts. What I mean is that, when I undertook the job of translating Paul Lendvai’s book, The Hungarians—my first venture into serious translation—I felt that I had the multiple obligation of conveying the author’s style, thoughts and opinions as closely as possible, at the same time making them intelligible to a readership removed from the depicted events by language, as well as by space and time.
Greg: Do you work with words every day?
Ann: Yes, I do. I’m not a linguist—I wish I were. I just like words, whether I am reading or writing them; even collecting them and playing around with metaphors.
Greg: You have been back to Hungary many times and in that time Hungary has gone through many changes. When all is said and done, did you make the right decision to leave Hungary?
Ann: The short answer is “Yes.” The long answer is “Yes!” “Yes!!” “Yes!!!”
Greg: What’s your current or next project?
Ann: At present I am translating an autobiographical (?) novel written by a contemporary Hungarian Roma (Gypsy) author (+ 2007). Had I known what a challenging job I was letting myself in for, I wouldn’t have accepted it, but I am soldiering on as best as I can.
I hope this small post will encourage people to read Ann’s book. As I’m desperately wanting to start a new novel, the details contained in these types of memoirs are gold. And I don’t mean just to plunder for aspects of daily life. Whilst they do record the minutiae, the stuff of great writing, the point where an author’s voice becomes authoritative, in reading Ann’s book, there was a harmony, a reassurance of my own thoughts, formed far from the actual events, formed only through words, in a very different time and place.
A Carpet of Jacaranda