Murder Ballads

In Szilárd Borbély’s theological poetry, death is the one true God.

Daniel Kraft
June 24, 2019
Szilárd Borbély. Photo: Bach Máté

Discussed in this essay: Final Matters: Selected Poems 2004-2010, by Szilárd Borbély, translated by Ottilie Mulzet. Princeton University Press, 2019. 200 pages.

THE UNNAMED NARRATOR of The Dispossessed, Hungarian writer Szilárd Borbély’s autobiographical novel, grows up in rural poverty as the son of a man rumored to be Jewish. “That word, Jewish,” the narrator says, “is the word my father never pronounces. Only when he’s drunk. Otherwise, never. And even then, so softly, almost whispering it. You can sense from his words that the Jew means some dark secret. Something fearful. Something we don’t talk about. Something to be ashamed of.” Bullies mock the narrator by calling him the name of a local Jewish boy whom the Nazis murdered. “They smear pig shit on our gatepost,” he says—a cruel perversion of the mezuzah their family would be too afraid to display. In the novel, Jewishness is a palpable absence, a non-identity that serves only to fill the narrator with a visceral sense of otherness and shame.

Yet some Saturday mornings, the family rises, the father and son don hats; the family faces east and recites a series of half-remembered prayers. Afterwards, the narrator’s “father always repeats the same words: ‘Never forget: the basis of everything is prayer. The entire world is upheld by prayer. Without it nothing could survive, neither people nor things. Everything is in God’s hands, except for the fear of God itself.’” This last sentence is a quotation from the Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 33b, while the claims that precede it reflect a Hasidic worldview. Jewishness persists even in the scarred landscape of Soviet Hungary, but it is unnamed and unnameable as such in the light of sobriety; it is a traumatized piety transmitted from a father to his children alongside overwhelming grief and alienation.

Borbély’s ambivalent relationship to his Jewishness is central to his explorations of post-Soviet European identity, and to his preoccupations with grief and trauma. Final Matters: Selected Poems 2004-2010 is Borbély’s third book available in English, following The Dispossessed and a collection of poetry (Berlin-Hamlet). Taken together, these books—all translated faithfully and beautifully by Ottilie Mulzet—show that Borbély, who died by suicide in 2014, was one of post-Soviet Europe’s major writers.

Borbély’s fragmented identity and his upbringing in Christian-normative Hungary—as well as his interest in the forms and themes of baroque Christian art, in which he was an academic specialist—incited his desire to write “a secret dialogue” between the complex folk theologies of Eastern European Judaism and Christianity, as he described it in a 2008 interview published with his collection Egy ​gyilkosság mellékszálai (Subplots of a Murder). Many of the poems in Final Matters emerge from this project. Mulzet made the selections for this collection from the last two books of Borbély’s poetry published in his lifetime, both of which were almost universally acclaimed by Hungarian critics. The first three of Final Matters four sections are poetic sequences rooted in Catholic, Greek, and Hasidic mythology; all three reflect on death, violence, and the impossibility of messianic redemption. The fourth section focuses on embodied suffering, juxtaposing poetic narratives of childbirth and miscarriage alongside Holocaust narratives.

Most of the poems in the “Hasidic Sequences” section, in which Borbély’s theological project finds its clearest expression, take the form of untitled mystical discourses between three leaders of early Hungarian Hasidism: Rabbi Yitzchak Taub (known to his contemporary followers as the first Kaliver Rebbe), Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum (whose descendants founded the Satmar Hasidic dynasty), and Rabbi Tzvi-Hirsh Friedman (the Lisker Rebbe, whose Hasidic movement was almost completely destroyed during the Holocaust). This section contains moments of compelling and authentic Jewish exegesis—what the Hasidic world might call chiddushim, or innovative interpretations of Torah.

Take, for instance, this midrash on Genesis 4:8, in which Cain murders his brother Abel:

One Seder evening, the rabbis were
discussing atonement. After a long silence,
Reb Teitelbaum commented

that Cain had been plotting to kill
Abel for a long time. He didn’t slay him
from sudden passion. The murder took place

on the Sabbath, because Cain wanted
to desecrate all of Creation. And
with this murder he could prove

that the Lord has no power
over human beings, because anyone
can take a life. Cain struck the Sabbath

first, with his axe . . .

The first victim of Cain’s crime is the divine moral order itself; murder is the destruction not only of an individual human life, but of a fundamental relationship between God and creation. This moment demonstrates some of the most striking and pervasive features of Borbély’s poetics: he uses poetry as a medium for a theology linked inextricably to the reality of death.

Some artists long for death, or idealize it—think of Allen Ginsberg’s “Kaddish,” in which “Death is that remedy all singers dream of,” or Sylvia Plath’s “Edge,” in which a dead woman, “perfected, . . . wears the smile of accomplishment”—but Borbély deifies it. Borbély is, in his own dark way, a strict monotheist. Again and again, his poems set forth a complex and syncretistic theology in which death is the one true God—and when he speaks of death directly, he finds a joyous, devotional tone.

The most explicit statement of this theology comes in “Erratic Liturgy of the Hours”:

O, bliss of Sweet Death
come at midnight for our souls . . .
come for us now, o Sweet Death,
in place of our Christ our Lord!

Borbély acknowledged the importance of death to his writing, and to his life, in a 2004 interview also published with Subplots of a Murder. “In the consciousness of our age,” he said, “death is not considered to be an important value . . . After the age of forty, I think that, as for myself, it is time to prepare for death. A good death. And to pray for my dead.” This was not a merely theoretical discussion. Four years earlier, on Christmas Eve, burglars had broken into his parents’ home; they had beaten Borbély’s father unconscious and murdered his mother with a meat cleaver while she slept. Borbély discovered them the next morning.

Borbély’s desire to prepare for death was likewise no abstraction. It was ten years after that interview that Borbély took his own life at the age of 51. We should, of course, be careful not to conflate his biography with his work, yet it’s hard to avoid reading these death-haunted late poems through the lens of their author’s suicide. Borbély himself invited biographically informed readings of his writing: His 2004 book, Halotti pompa (The Splendors of Death), for example, contains an appendix of media coverage of his mother’s murder, and implicit references to her mutilated body appear throughout Final Matters—for instance, in his description of Abel’s murder in “The Sequence of Isaac Taub”:

[Cain] beat

Abel’s skull, his blows
even heavier, until it broke apart

in pieces. When he stopped, you couldn’t
tell it was Abel anymore . . .

Here Borbély conflates the trauma of discovering his mother’s murdered body with the trauma of Abel’s murder in Genesis, as refracted through the Jewish tradition of midrashic discourse. This conflation of particular traumatic experiences with broader mythic and theological narratives is one of the central, and most powerful, tactics that Borbély employs.

This conflation appears again in an unnamed poem from the “Hasidic Sequences,” which begins, “Why is this night different from all other nights?—”. A Jewish reader expects an answer connected to the comforting rhythms of the Passover seder; we are in seemingly safe territory. But in the next line we read that the question is being asked by Otto Moll, an SS officer at Auschwitz who oversaw Birkenau’s crematoria, reflecting on his murderous work:

Why is this night
different from any other night,
asked Otto Moll within himself

for the second time, as he watched the rows
of people filing before him, sent to the right
or to the left. Why do I feel that

God is here, even if I know
that’s impossible?

Here Borbély weaves the liturgy of Passover, the archetypal story of Jewish liberation, into the genocidal violence of Auschwitz. The poem ends with a final, devastating juxtaposition, this time quoting “Chad Gadya,” the Aramaic children’s song sung joyously at the end of a seder, as it shifts focus from Moll to one of his young victims:

“A little goat,”
mumbled a small child, “a little goat,”
and squeezed the hand of his Mammele
as they walked toward the ovens.

Here Borbély approaches over-sentimentality, but holds back just before he crosses that line. This stanza demonstrates his ability to signal, with a vivid detail, the inexpressible suffering of which our world is both progenitor and heir.

Dead and dying children recur throughout Borbély’s poetry and symbolize for him the impossibility of any redemption outside death. In an essay on the Nobel Prize-winning Hungarian Jewish writer Imre Kertész, Borbély writes that a child “is always the embodiment of the Messiah, or—to put it differently—of the Redeemer.” A dead child is, therefore, a brutal reminder that messianic eschatology, and its promise of a joyous redemption, is a fairy tale.

This impossibility of messianic redemption is as central to Borbély’s theology as it is to the childhood of The Dispossessed’s narrator; the closest person in that novel to a messiah is an intellectually disabled man named Messiyah, whom villagers hire to clean their outhouses. In this anti-redemptive theology, Borbély sometimes seems like a bleaker version of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the iconoclastic Orthodox Israeli theologian who maintained that “the messiah will come, forever . . . Any messiah who comes is a false messiah. The essence of the messiah is that he always will be coming.”

“The Sequence of Isaac Taub,” a poem based loosely on a Hungarian Hasidic folk song, describes the messiah appearing to a rabbi in the form of a bird. But when the rabbi does not sing, the messiah-bird grows depressed and becomes mute. The last verse of the original Hasidic folk song ends with a rooster crowing, “When will it be? When will it be? / When the Temple stands again, / and Zion is rebuilt,” a classic articulation of Jewish messianic faith. Borbély asks the same question, but with a very different answer: “Never shall that bird ascend, / just he who sings these words.”

The specific theological meaning here is cryptic, in a way typical of Borbély’s weaker poetic moments; he sometimes falls into abstraction or obscurity, where specificity and vividness might be more compelling. What, after all, does it mean, and what is at stake in Borbély’s poetic theology, for this mute messiah-bird to ascend, or not? Either way, the eschatological prognosis is clear: don’t bother pinning your hopes on messianic redemption. The only certainties are that redemption is impossible, and that you will die.

Despite its occasional obscurity, the poetry of Final Matters is a tremendous achievement, and shows that Borbély should be considered not just among the great writers of post-Soviet Europe, but also of contemporary Judaism. Like so many Central and Eastern European Jews, Borbély learned his Jewishness through a combination of shame, violence, and secret ritual. But he expressed and responded to this inheritance with a beautiful, grief-stricken body of work that broadens the possibilities for modern Jewish writing.

Perhaps a sustained engagement with the theological traditions of Europe’s vibrant Jewish past, combined with an uncompromising consideration of its traumatized Jewish present, might give rise to a new, radically expansive, and deeply rooted form of Jewish religious discourse. In Final Matters, Borbély has set forth what is at once a groundwork for, and a vital contribution to, such a literature.

Daniel Kraft is a writer, translator, and educator living in Richmond, Virginia.