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Szilárd Borbély in English: Kafka’s Son

Szilárd Borbély (Photo: Lenke Szilágyi, courtesy Kalligram Press, Budapest)

Circling back to Kafka shows the long-lasting effect of early experiences and influences continually revisited that is discernible in Borbély’s works. One step forward from the practice of “the novel writing itself,” Kafka’s Son seems to follow another modus operandi, that of the text itself rewriting itself. Borbély turns to Kafka’s texts three times by reflecting or quoting (Valastyán, 2018), first in the letters in Berlin–Hamlet, where he borrows from Kafka’s letters and reworks them into his poetry. The second instance is in the short story called A bolgár kalauz (English: The Bulgarian ticket collector), where Borbély inserts Kafka as a traveler in East Europe on a fictitious trip that might have happened but never did. 

The novel Kafka’s Son can be considered the third and most complex iteration of Borbély turning to Kafka’s works, style, and intellectual stance. On one hand, some of the texts can be traced back to Kafka indeed as citations, focusing on documents, events, and venues related to the author; on the other hand Borbély seems to create what one might call “forward citations” via fictitious documents, especially in the various versions of the Letter to My Son, which, at the same time, seems to insert Borbély himself in the book from the perspective of the father-son relationship. This method empowers Borbély to see Kafka not only as an identity the author has created via his writing, but also a medium, which allows Borbély to use the Kafka persona to talk about himself. As a result, writing is detached from life and starts to replace it, which takes him in the words of one his close friend, acclaimed critic and author Gábor Schein, to a dangerous practice: “ [writing?] as an activity might lift the author up and out of the unbearable realities of life, but the non-human powers of the language will push him back to death with a larger force, thus in the final iteration of the project, life must drown in the passionately created, dark and whirling text-flow.”(Schein, 2021, translated by J. H. Ward) 

Cover artExperimenting with voices, structures, and the creation of new connections back and forth between his own texts, Borbély also employs the strategy of using statements then withdrawing them. Kafka’s Son starts with the statement:  

“This novel takes place in East Europe. It’s about travelers and travels. About Franz Kafka’s travel, who is not Franz Kafka. And about staying in one place, without what the travel would be meaningless. Then about the walks, whose route always circles back to itself.” (Borbély, 2021, p. 5, translated by J. H. Ward). 

The same text, not being confusing enough, returns in a few pages later in the following version: 

“This novel takes place in East Europe. In fact, it’s not a novel, and it doesn’t take place anywhere. It doesn’t relate events as other novels usually relate events, it would only like to resemble to them.” (Borbély, 2021, p. 11, translated by J. H. Ward) 

Since Borbély is such a great master of the Hungarian language, every single little detail needs a special attention––especially awkward or grammatically incorrect sentences here and there, as Angyalosi (2016) had pointed out much earlier in his essay on Borbély’s short stories.  

Borbély was famous for constantly editing and reworking his text. With its fragments, Kafka’s Son continues the line of unfinished business between parents and son with the language he chooses, a true challenge to translate. Only the language remains. 


Borbély-Series by Books We Read

This series of blog posts covers some additional reflections on Borbély, translation, Hungarian literature, and so forth that didn’t make it into the essay The unbearable lightness of translating: Szilárd Borbély’s works in English by Judit H. WardNick Allred, who edited the Europe Now essay as an Editorial Fellow for the 2021-22 academic year (part of the Mellon-Center for European Studies Dissertation Fellowship), has collaborated on all texts in this series throughout the process. While we will post installments in this series under one or the other of our names since a blog post can’t accommodate co-authorship, all of them are effectively a joint production. 

  1. Language is Cruelest of All: Szilárd Borbély in English
  2. Language is a Graveyard: Szilárd Borbély and Literary Translation 
  3. We Say “Aluminom” – Books by Szilárd Borbély in English 
  4. Et. In. Arcadia. Ego. – Szilárd Borbély and Intertextual References 
  5. Szilárd Borbély in English: Kafka’s Son