When There’s No Wind, the Sounds of the Past are Audible Over the Danube

On opposite banks of the Danube in Hungary and Slovakia, separated peoples find a way to talk in many languages across the ancient river.

Today we profile a unique literary gathering, AquaPhone Festival, that takes place on both banks of the Danube. It not only features literature from Hungary and Slovakia but also acts as a cultural bridge between the nations that have been isolated from each other’s shared histories by totalitarian rule. It serves as a powerful symbol against the rising tide of xenophobia, as a conversation with Karol Frühauf reveals. 

it could be done by us just shouting
just talking to each other over the water
and not by me going over to you by boat
you going angling? I’d shout into the wind
and your voice would echo across the water
no! I’m going angling! oh, right! I’d shout
all right I thought you’re going angling

— From ‘Modalities of Crossing’ by Dániel Varró, translated from the Hungarian by Peter Sherwood

From the southwestern part of the Danubian Hills, poetry drifts above the waves of the Danube. Lines of verse bounce from one side of the river to the other, hard on each other’s tails yet in accord, dissolving in the air.

lehetne az is hogy csak kiabálunk
hogy csak beszélgetünk a víz fölött
és nem megyek át hozzád ladikon
horgászni mész? kiáltanám a szélbe
és hangod visszaringna a vizen
nem! horgászni megyek! ja! kiabálnám
ja jól van azt hittem horgászni mész!

— From ‘az átkelés módozatai’ by Dániel Varró

Someone is reciting poetry. It takes a while for the words, carried by sound waves, to cross the river. This is how poetry behaves when a poem is recited aloud above a river. The author of this year’s poem, “Modalities of Crossing,” is the wonderful Hungarian poet and children’s writer, Dániel Varró.

dá sa aj tak že si len zakričíme
len si nad vodou pohovoríme
a neprejdem za tebou cez lávku
ideš na rybačku? volal by som do vetra
a tvoj hlas by sa na vode prihojdal
nie! idem na rybačku! aha! volal by som
aha dobre myslel som že na rybačku!

— From ‘možnosti prepravy’ by Dániel Varró, translated from the Hungarian into Slovak by Eva Andrejčáková

Varró’s poem is read out in several languages: first in Hungarian (the poet’s native tongue), then in Slovak, and finally in German. You have to wait patiently for the lines to reach you from the far shore before you can send your version back by the same route. The extraordinary dialogue is accompanied by live cello, saxophone, and clarinet. There is no wind, the June sunshine is reflected in the water, bathing the majestic domes of the basilica in the distance in its soft light. This is what the AquaPhone festival is like.

vielleicht sollten wir nur schreien
nur sprechen über das wasser hinweg
dann komm ich nicht zu dir mit einem kahn
gehst du angeln? riefe ich in den wind hinein
und deine stimme wallte zurück über das wasser
nein! ich gehe angeln! dann riefe ich beruhigt erwidernd
na gut ich dachte schon du gingest angeln!

— From “prozeduren der überquerung“ by Dániel Varró, translated from the Hungarian into German by Wilhelm Droste

This year, for the twelfth time, the festival played host to local and international artists and art lovers who took part in this unusual performance, paying a tribute to the Mária Valéria Bridge, a symbol of cultural cooperation that connects the city of Štúrovo in Slovakia with Esztergom in Hungary. Two regulars—musicians Alfred Zimmerlin and Markus Eichenberger—joined Dániel Varró in discussion with Slovak poet Mila Haugová and German journalist and translator Wilhelm Droste.

Daniel_Varró_(R)_and_Zoltán_NémethDániel Varró and Zoltán Németh

A winding road to the Danube

In the spring of 1989, Karol Frühauf returned to Slovakia for the first time after years in exile. This is where my roots are, he thought, as he drove to his native Štúrovo, wondering what still connected him to these parts.

At Radvan on the Danube, where the road from Komárno winds up right by the wide river, he felt a strong magnetic pull. He stopped and let it wash over him. He felt the poetry of home speaking to him, exactly the kind one often tries to avoid because of its bathos.

Karol Frühauf emigrated to Switzerland as a young man, following the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Born in southern Slovakia, of Slovak, Hungarian and Jewish stock, he was never one to wallow in homesickness, unlike some who regard themselves as true patriots. What he missed most in exile were the people he couldn’t meet for many years, including his mother. When the opportunity arose he decided to follow his instincts.

He and his wife Hanneke, both art lovers, came up with the idea of an event that would bring them closer to Karol’s birthplace, articulating people’s age-old longing for overcoming distances and surmounting borders and obstacles.

Trauma on the ferry

“When the borders reopened, I was seeking a good reason for my return visits to Slovakia. It seemed sad to go there just to go to the cemetery,” says Karol Frühauf. The Mária Valéria Bridge over the River Danube, rich in history, gave him the idea of using art to bridge the gap between people living on opposite sides of the river, which forms the border between the two countries.

The bridge was built in 1895, at a time when the cities of Esztergom and Štúrovo (then known as Parkan/Párkány) both belonged to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, of which Slovakia had been a part for centuries before it started to assert its own language against the dominant Hungarian in the nineteenth century. After World War I, however, Parkan/Párkány became a border town in the new Czechoslovak Republic, one of a large number of cities and territories Hungary had lost. They weren’t returned to Hungary after World War II either. Many Hungarians (and Germans) were forcibly expelled, further exacerbating the trauma.

The bridge was severely damaged by German air raids in 1944.  The connection between Esztergom and Štúrovo was severed for a full 57 years, and it wasn’t until the early 1960s that a ferry started to carry people and cars to and fro. The Hungarian population was reduced to a minority, and relations between the two countries remained fraught for decades. Tensions also marked the first few years after the end of communism in 1989.

The Slovak and Hungarian governments agreed to rebuild the bridge at the last minute at the end of the millennium, as EU funding was about to expire. Opened in October 2001, the bridge has reconnected the two cities. Apart from its practical use, it represents a key moment of reconciliation between Slovakia and Hungary.

Smuggled by my aunt

“My mother told me many stories about how in the 1950s people’s lives were controlled by the border,” says Karol Frühauf. He remembers the bitter tears his mother shed every time she was denied permission to visit her sisters in Budapest. Although they were only a few dozen miles apart, little Karol’s aunt saw him for the first time when he was seven years old. “And even then we only got permission for what was known as ‘small border crossing,’ and were only allowed to travel as far as Nagymaros, twenty kilometres away.  My aunt had to smuggle me for the rest of the way to Budapest,” he recalls.

It took nearly sixty years for Slovakia and Hungary to agree to rebuild the bridge. Of course, the bridge was not to blame for the fact that the two countries couldn’t find a way to communicate. It was the absurd policies of the totalitarian regimes that made matters more difficult, stopping people from travelling and visiting each other.

Two seconds of certainty

However, friends and relatives found a way to talk to each other. They would go to the opposite banks of the river, preferably in windless conditions—the early morning or early evening—and exchanged news, sometimes even coded messages. Water could be relied on to carry the sound—when a dog barked on the Esztergom side, it could be clearly heard on the other side in Štúrovo, except that the bark might have taken up to two seconds to cross the Danube, which is half a kilometre wide at this point.

This is the phenomenon Karol Frühauf has made use of when he conceived his literary-musical evenings. Five years after the Mária Valéria Bridge was rebuilt and reopened, he organized the first festival in Štúrovo, funding it himself with the support of the municipal authority. The reopening of the bridge in October 2001 elicited an incredible response not only among the population of the two cities but throughout the European Union. Frühauf has also established international artist residencies in what is known as the bridge guard’s house.

Connecting instead of dividing

“At first the locals wondered what was going on here, as festival goers—mostly Swiss and Hungarian—converged on the city every year. Gradually they’ve got used to the idea of the festival and embraced it,” Frühauf says.

Every year he brings over artists from Slovakia and other countries, many of whom return regularly to relive the unique experience. Past guests include Slovak authors Tomáš Janovic, Michal Hvorecký, Peter Macsovszky, Hungarian writers Lajos Parti Nagy, Zoltán Csehy, Ottó Tolnai, and German-speaking authors such as Klaus Merz, Zsuzsanna Gahse, Vladimir Vertlib and Slovak-Swiss author Irena Brežná. Their encounters are rooted in empathy, which, Frühauf believes, shows that present-day Slovakia is a country capable of adopting a sensible approach to the key issues of our time.

Tomáš_Hradil,_Karol_Frühauf,_Michal_HvoreckýLeft to right:Tomáš Hradil, Karol Frühauf, Michal Hvorecký

Irena Brežná and Andreas Saurer

As someone who has always been a member of a minority, Frühauf is highly sensitive to nationalism in Europe. Many of his relatives perished in the Holocaust. “We live in a part of the world which has been repeatedly overrun by a number of nations over the centuries. Surely no one here can claim to be pure-bred?” he says.

This belief is what fuels his ambition to connect people instead of dividing them. He believes that nature itself has proved that this is a worthwhile endeavour: the first time he organized AquaPhone, a mighty storm broke out in the middle of the performance, sending everyone scurrying for shelter under the bridge. Just as the show finished, a double rainbow appeared. It was a magic moment, a clear sign that there can never be too many encounters of this kind.

The essay was written by Eva Andrejčáková  and translated by Julia Sherwood.

Eva Andrejčáková is an editor with the Slovak daily SME, and a literary translator.

Julia Sherwood is Asymptote’s Slovakia Editor-at-Large. She was born and grew up in Bratislava, Slovakia, and worked for Amnesty International in London for over twenty years. She is now based in London and works as a freelance translator from and into English, Slovak, Czech, Hungarian, Polish and Russian. Her book-length translations include works by Balla, Hamid Ismailov, Daniela Kapitáňová, Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki, Uršuľa Kovalyk, Peter Krištúfek and Petra Procházková.


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