István Lanstyák receiving first prize at the inaugural Posonium Literary Prizes.
Courtesy Posonium Publishing

István Lanstyák's first three academic books on the Hungarian language in Slovakia never received much attention outside the university world. He was thus shocked when notified in mid-September that he had won the top award at the inaugural Posonium Literary Prizes for his latest work, The Hungarian Language in Slovakia.

"I was starting to wonder if it was worth it to continue," said Lanstyák, 43, a linguistics professor at Bratislava's Comenius University. "Winning this award has galvanised my resolve."

The founders of the Posonium Literary Prizes are hoping the new awards for Slovakia's Hungarian authors will also bolster others who write in the Hungarian language in Slovakia, a community they say is both under-funded and under-appreciated.

"Hungarian culture is not widely recognised in Slovakia," said László Dobos, director at Posonium Publishing, which held the award ceremony. "Very little money is spent in this country on publishing Hungarian work."

Slovakia's Hungarian writers suffer from a small readership, which exacerbates the hardships faced by most writers in central and eastern Europe in the post cold-war world, artists who have gone from being fully supported by communist regimes to receiving barely any support at all.

Approximately 560,000 ethnic Hungarians live in Slovakia, according to the 1991 census, representing an extremely small natural audience for Hungarian-language books. Although a few writers also sell their books in Hungary, and some have their work translated into Slovak, even they do not earn enough to make more than a subsistence living from their work.

Edith Lauer has pledged to fund the awards every year.
Courtesy Posonium Publishing

"You don't get into writing [in Hungarian in Slovakia] because you want to make money," said Lanstyáka, who recently managed to buy his first computer.

The prizes, Slovakia's largest for Hungarian writers, were funded by Hungarian American Edith Lauer, chairperson of the Hungarian American Coalition in Washington, which disseminates information about Hungarian minorities in Slovakia, Romania, the Ukraine and Yugoslavia.

Lauer contributed 115,000 Slovak crowns ($2,500) for the awards, 30,000 crowns ($640) of which was given to Lanstyák. The remainder was divided among four other prizes, this year's going for lifetime achievement in poetry, an original poetry collection, a non-fiction study of the Hungarian culture in Slovakia and a translation of erotic Greek and Latin poetry.

Lauer said that a visit to Slovakia in the 1990s had convinced her to support Hungarian writers here.

"It's a deep irony, indeed, that during communism there was plenty of money to publish what was politically acceptable. But when the long-wished-for freedom swept out censorship, resources for minority cultural institutions, including publishing, were severely cut," she said. "That's why I decided to help."

Although not enough to support a writer for long, the money is welcome assistance.

"This award helped me tremendously," said Lanstyáka. "I used it to pay back part of the money I had to borrow to buy a car."

About 120 Hungarian books are published each year in Slovakia, mostly non-fiction and translations. Authors are paid very little for their work, sometimes nothing at all.

Lanstyák received no money for The Hungarian Language in Slovakia, although the three years of research that went into it was underwritten by global financier George Soros's Higher Education Programme.

"In this case the publisher put all the money it could spare into just getting the book published. I didn't even have a contract," he said. "But even when I've been paid, it's been a miserable amount, 10,000 or 20,000 crowns for a book."

Dobos said that 10,000 crowns ($200) was the average a Hungarian writer in Slovakia earned for a book, substantially less than the average monthly wage of about $240.

"Writers here usually teach or do research just to survive at a subsistence level," said Lauer. "That was a major motivational factor in my establishing this prize."

Cut off from home

Although many writers in the countries of the former Eastern Bloc are underpaid, said Posonium's Dobos, Hungarians in Slovakia have been in a particularly precarious position since Europe's borders were redrawn following the first world war. Hundreds of thousands of Hungarians who had always lived in the Austro-Hungarian Empire suddenly became citizens of Czechoslovakia, Romania, Ukraine and Yugoslavia.

"We were removed from the mother culture," he said. "We were subjected to assimilation. It was a great tragedy. Czechoslovakia didn't even start importing and exporting Hungarian books until the 1960s."

While the trauma of separation and the forced relocation of thousands of Hungarians following the second world war (70,000 Hungarians were forcibly resettled to Hungary in the 1940s; another 65,000 were resettled to the Czech Republic) has left Slovakia's Hungarian writers isolated, it has also been a seemingly endless source of inspiration.

Dobos, 73, has himself written several books on the plight of Slovakia's Hungarian minority. His Foldonfutok (The Dispossessed) documents the persecution of Hungarians from 1947-1948. Lauer calls Foldonfutok "the defining book about the tragic years from 1947 to 1948". It has never been translated into Slovak or English, although she recently pledged to pay for an English translation.

A new generation of authors such as Lanstyák are still documenting the ramifications of twentieth-century events on today's Hungarian culture. His Hungarian Language in Slovakia investigates the influence of politics and bilingualism on the Hungarian spoken in Slovakia.

"The climate for writers is bad throughout eastern and central Europe, and minorities always get hit the hardest," Lauer said. "Yet the Hungarian community in Slovakia still manages to publish 120 books a year. I find that remarkable."

"I will pay for these awards every year," she continued. "I'm happy to do everything I can to help."