8. “A Happy Babel” interview with Michael Henry Heim

We offer here an excerpt from a rare personal interview with Michael Henry Heim (1943-2012), whose numerous translations, from the novels of Milan Kundera and the plays of Anton Chekhov and Berthold Brecht to a long list of fiction and nonfiction works by Dubravka Ugresic, Thomas Mann, Danilo Kis, Predrag Matvejevic, Sasha Sokolov, Vassily Aksyonov, Jan Neruda, Bohumil Hrabal, Gunter Grass, Alexander Tisma, and Peter Esterhazy (this is a partial list) have helped to shape the face of contemporary world literature in English. Most recently, Heim’s translation, from the Dutch, of Hugo Claus’s Wonder (Archipelago, 2009) received the 2010 PEN Translation Prize.

The textual history of these reminiscences deserves special note.

With the support of the Soros Foundation, Pro Helvetia, and the US Information Agency, Heim organized a conference in Timisoara, Romania in 1999 to promote the mutual translation of literature among the former East-bloc countries. Representatives from all the countries participated. Mircea Mihaies and Adriana Babeti, who worked closely with him on the conference, asked if some of their colleagues could interview him during the breaks. He agreed, assuming, he says, that all that would come of it was a newspaper article.

“But three of them and Adriana trailed me incessantly, badgering me with questions, one in French, another in English – French and English were the official languages of the conference – the third in German, and the fourth in Romanian. They told me they were going to translate it all into Romanian (I’m sure my Romanian needed almost as much translation as the other languages), but I didn’t really believe them. Then a few weeks after the conference was over, lo and behold they sent me the translation!”

The Romanian volume Un Babel fericit (Iaşi: Editura Polirom, 1999) was brought to my attention by Sean Cotter, Associate Professor of Literature and Translation Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas, who agreed to translate this excerpt. Substantial additions in English were then provided by Michael Heim.

A longer selection from the Romanian interviews, along with additional essays by Dubravka Ugresic, Esther Allen, and others, will appear in a composite biography entitled The Man Between, to be published by Open Letter Books in 2013.


A Happy Babel (Un Babel fericit)

Adriana Babeţi: When you arrived at Timişoara, you were sweaty, hungry, and thirsty: your train had sat on the line for two hours in an open field, under a forty-degree sun. It was a form of strike on the part of the railway workers. Yet when you stepped out of the train, you had a smile on your face, and I couldn’t understand why. You said that sitting opposite you was a young man who looked unbelievably like you at age seventeen. How would you characterize your seventeen-year-old self?

Michael Heim: I was a more or less typical American in that I was extremely naive: I had never been outside the US and knew nothing of the world. It was 1960. I had just finished high school, a public high school in the semi-rural borough of Staten Island, a true anomaly, administratively a part of New York, but tranquil, provincial even. Imagine, many of the residents had never been to “the city, ”as they called Manhattan, which was only a thirty-minute ferry ride away. (I made the bus, ferry, and subway trip to Manhattan every Saturday to take piano and clarinet lessons at the Juilliard School of Music Preparatory Division.) I felt a little foreign to the place, having come there from California. We had moved because my mother had remarried after my father’s early death.

AB: Where were you born?

MH: I was born in [laughs] Manhattan, as it happened. My father was a soldier, stationed in the south, in Alabama. I was supposed to be born there. But at the last moment my mother got cold feet: she was worried about the conditions in the military hospital and decided to give birth in Manhattan, where her mother was living at the time. Barely a month after I was born, however, we moved to Texas, where my father had been transferred. Then, toward the end of the war, we settled in California, in Hollywood, because my father wrote movie music.

AB: Who was your father?

MH: He was, of course, a Heim, Imre (Emery in English, which is what my mother called him) Heim, but he composed under a pseudonym, Hajdu, a common Hungarian surname. My father was Hungarian. It’s possible that Hajdu was his mother’s maiden name; it’s possible he used Hajdu to highlight his Hungarian origins, Heim being of course a German – or, in my family’s case, Austrian – name,. My father was born in Budapest, as were his parents. My grandfather’s name was Lajos, my grandmother’s, Sárolta. Unfortunately, I know nothing definite about my paternal great-grandparents except for a hint on my grandmother’s part that they included a Gypsy. Most Americans of my generation and earlier had scant knowledge of their forebears. Nor did my mother and her mother, both of whom were born in the US, take much interest in their ancestry. Our family lore is limited to the following: my grandmother was the last of sixteen children and the only one born in America.

The rest came from Kovno in what was then the Pale of Settlement. My mother was Jewish, my father Catholic.

AB: If you were to trace your father’s footsteps, could you assemble his biography? What do you know? What do you remember?

MH: I remember listening to what I later learned was classical music, and I remember that the first piece of music to stick in my mind was Stravinsky’s Petrushka. I couldn’t have been more than three, but when I heard it again much later I perked up immediately. Superimposed on the music is the image of my father. I have photographs and an elegant charcoal portrait, so I know. I resemble him closely. So much so that one day, one of my friends, seeing a picture of my father as a soldier asked me how I came to be wearing a uniform, since he knew I’d never served in the army. When my grandmother in Budapest (by the way, my mother and I always referred to her as “grandma-in-Budapest”) saw me for the first time, she cried and cried. She said it wasn’t her grandson visiting; it was her son. My father was born in Budapest in 1908 and studied piano at the Royal Conservatory with Bartók, but – on my grandmother’s insistence – he also apprenticed to a master baker in Vienna. Baking was the family trade. My grandparents ran four pastry shops in Budapest.

AB: What were Viennese baking schools like?

MH: Very rigorous, I imagine. But I knew nothing of Viennese or Hungarian cuisine. I didn’t eat my first palacsinta until I visited my grandmother. By the time my father left Europe, he had gained a reputation as a composer of popular music, the Irving Berlin of Budapest, my mother used to boast. One of his specialties was reworked Gypsy melodies, Once in a Budapest restaurant, the musicians learned I was Hajdu’s son and immediately struck up one of his hits. But he was also one of Hungary’s best-known film composers. A few years ago a friend brought me a videotape of a Hungarian film from the thirties scored by my father. It was very much of its time and quite good, actually. I had been told he also provided the score for the classic Czech film, Ecstasy, classic, because it purports to be the first film to show a woman in the nude, the famous Austrian beauty Hedy Lamarr runnng through.the woods Given my later fascination with things Czech, I was naturally intrigued but also a bit skeptical. How could I have missed a reference to my father? But five years ago I managed to view the film and everything fell into place. It features a twenty-minute scene in which the hero visits a Gypsy tavern. Aha, I thought, so that’s why my father had been called in. The on-screen credit went to the man responsible for the rest of the score. Years later my father  would do some ghostwriting in Hollywood, where he was getting a new start and completely unknown.

AB: When did your father go to America?

MH: In 1939  for the New York World’s Fair. As a pastry chef in the employ of Gundel, then, as now, one of the most sought-after restaurants in Budapest, one my grandparents provided pastries for. As it happened, Gundel handled the food concessions at the Hungarian pavillion and needed skilled pastry chefs. The war had broken out in Europe, and America was a safe haven, but it was very hard to get a visa. Not for my father, though. He went as a pastry chef, not a refugee.

AB: Would he have left Hungary if it hadn’t been for the Fair?

MH:As I say, it would have been all but impossible. He met my mother, in 1939 or 1940 through friends who recommended him as a piano teacher. She had taken piano lessons as a child, and her friends knew my father was looking for work. That’s how they met. My mother was five years younger than he was. Her family was relatively well off. They had had a lumber business in the old country. They were Ashkenazy Jews, but completely assimilated.

AB: What was your mother like?

MH: Her name was Blanche. She was beautiful and intelligent. But like many middle-class American women at the time, she made less of her life than she could have. She finished college during the Depression and longed to study English literature. She was the perfect anglophile: she enjoyed English tea, English novels, the English life-style. But she had to do what she could in those hard times, and she went into marketing. More precisely, copy-writing with a little modeling of hats on the side. It wasn’t particularly thrilling, but it enabled her to make her own way. Then she got married. At that time when a woman of a certain means married, she gave up going to work. My mother read five or six novels a week; she cooked, gardened, crocheted, and did charitable work. (My wife Priscilla characterized her as “comfortingly normal.”). She played tennis regularly, and we occasionally played together (she had been Westchester County Women’s Junior champion for a year, and I have a feeling she and my father, also an avid player, bonded more over tennis than piano lessons). Of course she also raised a child, me [laughs]. She was a good mother, very hands-off. She simply expected me to do well in school and so never made anything of it. Some assumed I would follow in my father’s footsteps and become a musician, but soon my true passion came to the fore: practicing scales on the piano at the age of eight or nine, I would prop a novel on the stand and read away.

By the time my parents married, Pearl Harbor had brought us into the war. My father immediately joined the army and became a proud American citizen. When I was born, they named me Michael, not because there was anyone on either side of the family by that name but because in my father’s mind Mike was the quintessential American name. He served in the entertainment corps, playing for the troops and composing battalion marching songs and the like. But then a freak accident occurred – we never found out what it was exactly – and in 1946 he died of cancer from the consequences. I long puzzled over what connection there could be between physical trauma and the growth of abnormal cells in the body until I found an answer in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, where the death comes about in an analogous manner.

In 1966 I was drafted to fight in Vietnam. I was against the war, but not being a Quaker I was ineligible for conscientious objector status. If it had to be, it had to be. But when the draft board went over my background, they discovered I was the sole surviving son of a soldier who had died in the service of his country. Drafting me was illegal. They immediately kicked me out of the office, cursing at me for wasting their time.

ABi: What contact did you have with your father’s parents in Budapest?

MH: My father had invited them to come to California, but they refused, claiming old age. When my father died, my mother determined to visit them. But by the time she gathered the necessary papers, it was too late: the Cold War was in full swing, and the Communists had taken over. My grandparents experienced difficulties under the Communist regime. They belonged to the bourgeoisie: they owned an apartment building and a building that was bombed out during the war; they had a private business. Everything was confiscated. My grandfather died some time in the fifties, but I did get to know my grandmother, when in 1962 I went to Europe for the first time.

I found her wonderfully engaging. She had even managed to maintain a sense of humor throughout the disasters of her life: the loss of her son, the loss of her husband (by all accounts a jolly old soul), the loss of her very living space. She was forced to share her apartment first with a family of strangers, then with two, and was eventually moved into an old age home. We would send her monthly packages. During our visit together she brought out a leather jacket of mine we had sent when I was ten. She was so shrunken she could still wear it. My mother and I would write to her in English, and as a child I had no idea she didn’t know the language. Only after getting to know her in person did I learn that she had paid to have our letters – and her own – translated. But by then I was studying German, the second language of all educated Hungarians of her generation, and we had been corresponding in German for some time. And if she wept when she first laid eyes on me, it was not merely because I was the spitting image of her son but also because she couldn’t believe I’d actually learned German: she assumed that we too had hired a translator. She and I talked non-stop for a week, then maintained a regular correspondence until her death in 1965. I’ve kept a bundle of moving letters from her. The salutation was inevitably “Mein heissgeliebtes Mikykind” (Dearly Beloved Mickey).

At the time I was passionately interested in Chinese philosophy, which to my mind held the key to a conundrum I later discovered has plagued many an adolescent, namely, whether man is born good, evil, or a tabula rasa. I hoped the answer would guide me through life. As a Columbia undergraduate I accordingly majored in Oriental Civilization (which emcompassed the history, philosophy, and literature of China, Japan, India, and Islam) and studied Chinese for two years. But I was crushed when I learned that as an American I would not be permitted to travel to “Red China” to study at the source.So I took my adviser’s advice and started Russian. “You will never want for employment,” he told me, “if you have the two major languages of the Cold War,” and since my adviser, F.D. Reeve, a prominent Russianist and poet, also happened to be the father of Christopher Reeve, the most recent Superman, I like to say it was Superman’s father who put me on to Russian.

In the end, I double-majored in Oriental Civilization and Russian Language and Literature, the latter taking over in the guise of Slavic Languages and Literatures when I went on to graduate school at Harvard. Although grandma-in-Budapest accepted my original Chinese orientation with equanimity, I can imagine how thrilled she would have been to know that I eventually learned Hungarian (“Don’t forget you are Hungarian” she kept telling me) and translated some of the finest contemporary Hungarian writers including Péter Estherházy, scion of the noble Esterházy line.

AB: Of all Central European authors translated, who are the best known in the United States?

MH: Kundera, Kundera, Kundera. By far. All intellectuals have heard of him. Whether they’ve read him is a different story. But they enjoy playing with the title of his best-known novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, going on about the unbearable lightness of this and the unbearable lightness of that. I laugh when I run across newspaper headlines adopting the formulation. The editor who commissioned me to do the translation first heard the title over a bad transatlantic phone connection from Kundera in French. All he could make out was that it consisted of three abstract words. I realized a title consisting of “three abstract words” would be a hard sell in the US but was surprised to learn that the initial opposition to a literal translation came from Kundera himself. “I realize that for you Americans the title will be a bit hard-going,” he told the editor, “so we can try something else.” And he suggested one of the chapter titles: “Karenin’s Smile.” I protested. “We’re not children,” I told the editor.” If The Unbearable Lightness of Being is the title, so be it.” And so it stayed. I’m glad I pushed for it. Even the film based on the book adopted it. Unfortunately, the film, though a box-office success, failed to take advantage of the cinematic structure inherent in the novel.

Daciana Branea: So you were there, in ‘68…

MH: Yes, I was there when the tanks rolled in. By then I was comfortable with Czech. My major literature was Russian, but I had developed a strong interest in things Czech during the three summers I spent there, ‘65, ‘66, and ‘68. During the summer of ’68 I worked on an English-Czech dictionary, providing Czech equivalents of American slang, and was employed as a translator by UNESCO in Prague. I translated scholarly articles, not literature. It was good practice, a good apprenticeship. It left me plenty of time to go out with friends to meetings and demonstrations. I had made friends among some of the leading film makers and actors and went to a film or play nearly every evening. It was fantastic: there was so much going on. Prague was second only to London.

By chance it was during the summer of ‘68 that the International Congress of Slavists took place in Prague. Ironically, the gathering of scholars coincided with the invasion of armies from the scholars’ countries. Just before the first session I went to the barber’s. It was the era of long hair, and mine was much too long for an event as staid as an international conference. The barber had read about the conference in the papers, and since barbers like to chew the fat as they work, I regaled him with human interest stories about the star of the conference, the structuarlist Roman Jakobson, a world-renowned linguist whose biography I knew well because I had studied with him. He had fled his native Russia after the Revolution (“and a good thing too,” the barber interjected) and come to Prague (“and a good thing too”), where he helped to found the famous Prague Linguistics Circle (“didn’t know we had one”), and after the Hitler’s invasion he fled to America, where he still lived (“smart guy!”)

Chatting with my Czech teacher, Jakobson’s wife, I learned that after a brief visit to Czechoslovakia in the late fifties (the first time she was allowed back to Czechoslovakia since she and her husband had fled), her sister, a perfectly innocent Czech housewife, was picked up by the secret police and interrogated. All they wanted to know was: “What is structuralism? What is structuralism?” They must have thought it was a plot against the regime. But by ‘68 the political situation had changed to such an extent that Jakobson could receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Brno, where he had once taught.

My Czech teacher, myself, and a few other Czech professors had dinner together at a Prague restaurant on what turned out to be the evening before the invasion. It was in the air, of course, but we all agreed it would be counterproductive on the part of the Soviets. It would tarnish an already tarnished reputation, and what would it gain them? Dubček, the symbol of the Prague Spring, called for “socialism with a human face,” not the reinstatement of capitalism. Most of my Czech friends were not particularly enamored of capitalism either; they wanted to reform the system from the inside and set an example for the other Warsaw Pact nations and even the world: a third way. No one knew how far the current changes would go, but that was an internal Czech affair. “No, the odds were invasion,” we concluded and went home.

I was holed up in the empty apartment of some American journalists vacationing on the Adriatic. At about four in the morning the phone rang. It was my Czech teacher. One of her friends had called to report the invasion was underway. I quickly turned on Czech radio. It had gone off the air, a bad sign. Then I switched to the German station Deutsche Welle, and suddenly things were clear. A half hour later I saw the tanks. The street where I happened to be living was Czechoslovak Army Street, and the apartment was only a few blocks from the Ministry of Defense. In the week that followed, I constantly crisscrossed the city interpreting between Czechs and the Soviet soldiers. Czechs were all supposed to learn Russian in school, but they had such antipathy to the language that even though Czech and Russian are closely related they could not communicate with the invaders. No Czech ever asked of me who I was. They were just grateful I could help them convince the Soviet soldiers what a mistake they were making. The soldiers were mostly naive kids and mostly non-Russians, that is, members of national and ethnic minorities. I suspected they had been singled out as a demonstration of the possible consequences of trying to strengthen their national identity, which is after all what the Czechs were after.

DB: So they simply didn’t know what they were doing there.

MH: They thought they knew, because they believed the propaganda they’d been fed, namely, that they were to give “brotherly aid” to a Warsaw Pact country invaded by capitalists. As proof Pravda published a front-page article showing a cache of “West German weapons” and bemoaning the threat of German invasion. The irony was that Germans had in fact invaded, but East Germans not West Germans.

In this connection I encountered an interesting instance of false linguistic friends. When the Czechs told the soldiers, “We didn’t ask you to come,” some did admit they had been amazed when the populace greeted them with – using the Russian word- “fists” ( s kulakami), while they had expected to be welcomed with open arms. The Czechs did not understand, because the Czech word for “fist” is pěst, and they thought the Russians were talking about “kulaks,” the supposedly rich peasants Stalin annihilated as a class in the thirties. “But we have no kulaks!” the Czechs protested through me. Besides, the Czechs were unarmed and couldn’t protect themselves, so they resorted to the ruses they so pride themselves on as a people. One of the things they did, which took on a great deal of importance for me in the days following, was to paint over the street signs to prevent the Soviets from locating the people they were out to arrest. There were, of course, some Czech traitors who guided them around, men who went on to occupy high positions in the new regime.

DB: So the majority chose a non-violent strategy consistent with their traditions.

MH: Right, and it worked. Permit me a digression. One day, as I was making the rounds to say good-bye to my friends, night began to fall. Because the invaders had placed the country under martial law, it was illegal to walk the streets after dark. I could easily have been arrested. So I ducked into a hotel, thinking I could sit it out in the lobby until morning. As it happened, a West German television crew had put up there, and I joined them. We worked together for several days. Despite the painted-over street signs I knew the city well enough to get them where they needed to go to warn potential victims that Soviet agents were after them. And since I also spoke both German and Czech. I could help them find ordinary Czech citizens to interview. (German was still the most commonly spoken foreign language in Czechoslovakia at the time, and several of the Czechs I interviewed lamented over the “good old days,” by which they meant the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy of their youth.One even made a telling slip of the tongue: “It was awful when the Germans – I mean the Russians  invaded last week.) I also recall a graphic example of the non-violent strategy you referred to, a hand-painted poster depicting, on the top, a little girl offering a flower to a tank decorated with the hammer-and-sickle coming to liberate the city from the Germans dated 1945, and on the bottom, the same little girl with her flower crushed under the same tank dated 1968.

The television crew eventually drove me to Vienna and delivered the interviews, and I not only saw myself on TV but was stopped by numerous passersby, congratulated on my courage and quizzed about the latest developments. Celebrity for a day. But we were in little danger.When the television audience saw a tank veering around the corner, the image looked much more dramatic than it was.

Once home, I was loaded down with a stack of invasion-related documents crying out for translation, but I was more interested in translating literature. Even so, my first translation from Czech literature appeared no sooner than 1975. It was a collection of wonderful, surrealistically-tinged stories by Bohumil Hrabal. My objections notwithstanding they were published under – and are still available under -the misleading title The Death of Mr. Baltisberger, which makes the collection sound like a novel and a downer of a novel at that. Nothing could be further from the truth: each of the stories exudes a zany joie de vivre. I fervently hope they will attract the audience they deserve once they appear with the title I envision for them: Romance, and Other Stories They are among my favorite works of literature.