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Peter Zilahy: The non-fiction connection

  • I. Christianto


Jakarta | Wed, February 6 2013 | 12:54 pm

Not many authors come to this country with their works already translated into Bahasa Indonesia. Among the few is Peter Zilahy, a renowned Hungarian writer, who regularly visits the archipelago to connect and interact with the local culture and enthusiasts of his works.

Zilahy, the author of The Last Window Giraffe, or The Last Window Giraffe: Hari-Hari Terakhir Sang Diktator (The Final Days of the Dictator) in the Indonesian edition, says he’s here not just to tell his stories but also to learn something new from his readers. “Sure, like all authors, I’d like my voice to be heard, but I’m more interested in how it resonates within the rich cultural context of Southeast Asia, and I’d like to be open for new inspiration,” he asserts.

For this reason, Zilahy is back in Jakarta. He will be attending an event at the Reading Room in Kemang, South Jakarta, on Friday, where the audience can discuss and interact with the author about the English and the Indonesian editions of the novel.

He reiterates that he likes conversations with readers whenever he’s in a foreign land. “I’m curious about the local touch, the way people look at their everyday lives; the way they move, the words they use. Sometimes you learn an idiom, which tells a lot about how people look at the world here. The “sun” in Indonesian is matahari or “the eye of the day”. I guess I don’t need to explain why this is inspirational for a writer.”

Zilahy is Hungary’s most eclectic writer. He is also a photographer and a performer who likes to explore different media in his work. Born in 1970 in Budapest, he started out as a poet before publishing his groundbreaking work, The Last Window Giraffe in 1999. The book, which is written in the form of a “dictionary novel”, has been translated into 22 languages so far and has won several awards, among them Book of the Year in the Ukraine, where his book directly influenced the Orange Revolution.

The multilayered book, which critics find hard to pin down, describes the absurdity of life behind the former Iron Curtain. It could be categorized as a novel, memoir and historical autobiography
with a lot of poetry in between. It follows the author’s experience of his “own 1956”, the year of Hungary’s revolution, by participating in the 1996 protests in Milosevic-era Belgrade.

The author personally took part in the protests that led to the end of dictatorships in a dozen countries across Central and Eastern Europe. Little wonder, then, that his tragicomic descriptions of the carnival-like events inspired activists to stage pages of his novel on the streets of Kiev. Life imitating art is a rare
experience for a writer.

Originally titled Az utolso ablakzsiraf in Hungarian, the book contains striking photos taken by the writer himself — as well as others taken with a hidden camera — and cartoons, drawings and sketches. Bentang Pustaka is now planning to reprint the Indonesian edition of The Last Window Giraffe as well as publish a new book by the author later this year.

Zilahy has given lectures in several institutes such as New York University (NYU) and the University of New South Wales (UNSW). In addition, he writes stories and essays for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the New York Times, The Guardian and the Financial Times. In 2008, he performed a spoken-word show on Broadway at the Symphony Space in front of 840 people.

Zilahy recalls his first visit to the Indonesian capital in 2008, where he gave a poetry reading accompanied by a gamelan ensemble at the Jakarta Arts Center at Taman Ismail Marzuki (TIM). “Since then, I keep coming back to Indonesia. Two years later, I was invited to Bali for the Ubud Readers and Writers Festival for the launch of the Indonesian edition of my novel. This summer, I will come back to launch my second book in Indonesian at the Makassar Literature Festival in Makassar, South Sulawesi.”

The event at the Reading Room in Kemang will be moderated by writer/filmmaker Richard Oh, whom Zilahy also met through his books, and “it seems like, the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” the author said jokingly.

The new book, Three plus 1, which has already been translated into seven languages, is a collection of genre-blending prose in the guise of travelogues, diaries and short stories. Each piece has its own theme but together they are united by a voice that is present throughout the book. One of the stories, Sacrifice, is about a young man traveling to Crete from behind the Iron Curtain to reach out for something higher, and ends up trying to sacrifice a goat for Zeus.

Often on returning to Indonesia, the author admits the country is finding its way into his works. “I am sure my experiences in Indonesia will soon influence my writing, too, but I can’t tell yet in what way or when it will happen.”

Labeled by some pundits as a writer and performer with diverse interests, as well as an artist, Zilahy prefers to avoid definitions and says he just wants to keep on creating new stuff. “My interest is simply to go beyond the border,” he says, smiling. “The challenge is to create something new, something only I can do with my angle and my experience. Why would I write something others could do, too?”


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