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Interview with Angela Martin, translator of the novel 'Béla Bartók against the Third Reich' by Kjell Espmark

Friday, 20 January 2012 , ora 10.08
The most recent translation of your 'Béla Bartók against the Third Reich' published last week by the Polirom Publishing House brings you closer to a particular segment of world literature, to wit the musical one. How did you come to write this book?
First of all, I've always liked the committed creators and intellectuals. I think Kjell Espmark is part of the same spiritual family too, that he has a good literary and civic conscience and, beside all these, he has a great persuasion power as an artist. I think it is here that he and Béla Bartók meet under happy auspices, a composer whose destiny as a man and as a musician was deeply influenced not only by humanism, but also by a strong civic activism.
Now it may come as a surprise to you if I tell you that Bartók is not one of my favourite composers. It would be too simple and shallow if it were as such. My connection to Bartók is a little more complicated, in fact more complex and more profound as he comes more or less from the same geographical area. He is born in Sânnicolau Mare, in the present-day Timiş county, while I am born in Sânnicolau Mic, Arad county. I'm impregnated with the music of that area. The songs, the popular dances collected or performed by Bartók or his compositions are very familiar to me.

This book comes with a novel approach to the life of the great composer Béla Bartók. What is fiction and what is reality in this story?
Certainly the book is not a documentary about the life of Béla Bartók and not a monograph either, it is rather a romanticized monograph. Espmark recreates in an admirably written novel the figure of the pianist, of the ethnomusicologist, of the composer. Obviously, I won't tell you the whole novel, but I must tell you that it follows a biographical thread, starting with the childhood of the composer, with the devotion of his mother and with her involvement in his education, with his first concert given when aged nine and continuing with his years of study at the Budapest Royal University. The author also recalls the years Bartók dedicated to folkloric music, namely the period 1909-1913, when he collected and recorded in the Transylvanian villages more than 3,000 Romanian, Hungarian and Slovak songs and dances.
Then there is his confrontation with Goebbels, a very tensioned moment in the book, that is the protest Bartók addressed to Goebbels, for the fact the former hadn't been allowed to participate in the Düsseldorf exhibition, on the topic of decadent music, protest in which he had the courage to voluntarily declare himself a Jew.
There are many, many episodes in Bartók's life subtly and craftily rendered by the Swedish author. But what I find interesting is that Epsmark bases the construction of the character of Bartók upon the contrast between the physical frailty of the man and the strength of character of the musician, who, under Nazi oppression, debates the stature and the role of the intellectual against the background of a Europe ravaged by war.
Janina Bădici
Translated by Silviu Dănilă
MTTLC, Bucharest University