Indie Lit Makes It Big in Hungary

By Richard Rosenbaum

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, and the resulting chaos across Eastern Europe as countries struggled to regain their suppressed culture and adapt to totally new economic conditions, the time was just right for independent artists and creators to begin something completely new–into this scene stepped András Kepets. Raised in Budapest in a typical Eastern-European Jewish family, the child of Holocaust survivors, Kepets grew up in an environment suffused with culture, and was addicted to books and literature from a young age. It was partly this attraction to text and tradition that led him to Rabbinical school, but with only six months left until graduation he realized this wasn’t his path, and ended up dropping out. As a student he edited a Jewish youth magazine, which introduced him to the economic and practical aspects of publishing; he learned how to deal with the financial and editorial responsibilities of the industry, and was inspired with the idea to print a prayer book for the typical Hungarian Jew who would attend services but didn’t understand Hebrew. The book would have all the prayers transcribed phonetically into Hungarian so they could be easily read and pronounced. An old friend adopted Kepets into his trade company and published the prayer book; they subsequently worked together to put out a handful of other Jewish-themed works, mostly novels.

After the success of these efforts, Kepets decided to try to start his own publishing company, but with a broader list of subjects. The timing was perfect: it was after the end of the troubles in the book industry in the wake of the political changes of the ’90s, but before the doors closed on any new ventures having a chance. “I think nowadays it’s almost impossible for a new publisher without any money to start and grow in the Hungarian book market,” Kepets explains. Also there was an entirely new market opening up, with a public thirst for contemporary literature that had generally been unavailable under the restrictive Communist regime. Most of the leading Hungarian publishers at the time were ex Communist companies that were still operating in the same old ways, and by being the first to try a new formula, Kepets believed he could go forward easily. He was willing to take big risks, unlike other publishers. And he always managed to find dedicated staff to work with him and help him to survive early on.

Kepets’ fledgling press, called Ulpius-ház (meaning House of Ulpius, a reference to the home of the Ulpius family, characters from a cult novel called Journey by Moonlight by early Twentieth Century Hungarian novelist Antal Szerb, who died in a Nazi slave labour camp) began by publishing Hungarian translations of novels by writers such as now-Nobel Prize Laureate Orhan Pamuk and Michael Cunningham, as well as writers whose work had been banned during the Communist era such as Chaim Potok; the interest in this kind of heretofore mostly unknown literature proved to be very high. Kepets also became the first to introduce many new, young and unpublished Hungarian writers, some of whom have since become genuine literary stars in the country, practically household names (such as Márton Gerlóczy, author of the novel Justified Absence, published in 2003 when he was just 21). These early successes catapulted the small indie press into the big time, and as of the beginning of 2008 it now stands as one of the top three publishers in Hungary, releasing around 180 titles per year. They continue to seek out and publish the work of new homegrown talent, while also carrying on the tradition of putting out influential English-language works in translation–most notably, Ulpius-ház recently published the first-ever Hungarian editions of five of the novels of Salman Rushdie.

Kepets isn’t content to rest on his laurels; for him, it’s time to think of the future. His plans include investing in other small and medium-sized publishers, to grow stronger in the areas that his press has mostly ignored, particularly in the realm of non-fiction. It’s a major triumph for the independent arts in a part of the world that was particularly in need of a cultural renewal after decades of stifling of speech and expression, and it seems likely that this renaissance is only the beginning.

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