Rebecca Tamás on Attila József


‘O Europe’ Atilla József

Tr. John Batki


O Europe is so many borders,

on every border, murderers.

Don’t let me weep for the girl

who’ll give birth two years from now.


Don’t let me be sad because

I was born a European.

I, a brother of wild bears,

wasting away my freedom.


I write poems to amuse you.

The sea has risen to the cliffs,

and a table, fully laid,

floats on foam among the clouds.


(from Poetry, August 1970)


Europe is no beautiful thing. As Attila József says in his poem, ‘so many borders/on every border, murderers.’ The Europe of József’s life, a painful broken life that ended abruptly, was in turmoil, as much, if not more than, ours now is. Certainly to love Europe does not mean thinking that it is perfect, that it is uncorrupted, that it is wise. My father, like József once did, lives in Budapest, and all around him sees the evidence of a European Union that has done little to stem the tide of right wing fascism and extremism in his country. A Europe that stands back and lets it happen.


And yet. Despite the tangled borders, the murderers, the failures, on hearing of the referendum result this June, I was devastated. I am a European, someone half-British, half-Hungarian, caught between two cultures and two ways of being, made partly whole by my continental shape, my European self. To cut us off from the possibility of such a conjoined identity is to cut us off from the shared history of suffering that is ours, that we must share. We do not share one language, one outlook, one perspective, but we do share this iniquitous, bloody, tear-stained history. This matters, because how can we face such a history, learn from it and work towards something better unless we do so together?


Our human carapaces are so thin, we are all ‘brothers’ (or indeed sisters) ‘of bears,’ we all growl in pain and rub our blood all over the snow. Europe is our sharp-toothed and wet-mouthed past, and trying to pretend that away, as Britain is doing, is a betrayal of what we have gone through. It is trying to act as if we can return to year zero, smile blithely and start again. We cannot do that. To remove a heritage of pain is almost as bad as to remove one of joy. What else binds us? What else helps us learn? I belong to the continent where József was crushed under a train, where people like me were deported in the middle of the night, where my father was born and lives, my mother, my brothers and sisters. I belong to the continent that has made our ancestors suffer, to the one where we have moved about, restlessly, like smoke darting through the air. I belong to the continent where my friends sing to me in languages that I don’t understand, the one in which I am not hemmed in by an ocean, by a wire fence. I belong to the continent that owes every single person the chance to climb over that fence, to cut it down.


England is not enough for me, and should not be enough for anyone. I don’t know how we can bear everything that has happened unless we bear it in some sort of messy, continuous, shared form of existence. To be alone is the desperate result of this referendum, closed tight as an oyster, quiet, singular and terrified. Freedom is not always about the individual, it can just as much be about the multitude, wavering and suffering and hurting in an imperfect and damaged unison. As József says in his fractured, stark lament: ‘The sea has risen to the cliffs.’ We are very close to the edge of an unfamiliar kind of future, where genuine history is forgotten in a fog of backslapping nationalism, absolutely empty rhetoric, jam jars, bunting, words without communication, blank flags that mean nothing at all.


I don’t want all this ugly, old, ordinary European pain to be mine alone. I would like everyone to help me with it, for me to help everyone else with theirs, if I can.