I, Anna Csillag

“There on the large in-folio page was a picture of a woman, somewhat brawny and plump of shape, with a face that hinted at vigour and experience. An enormous sheepskin of hair streamed from that lady’s head, and tumbled heavily down her back, the ends of its thick locks trailing on the ground. This was some improbable prank of nature — a voluminous and abundant cloak spun from the roots of her hair; and it was hard to imagine that its weight was not causing her intense pain, that it would not paralyse her head, which it made enormous. But the owner of that magnificence appeared to wear it with pride, and the text printed alongside in heavy type told the story of that miracle, beginning with the words: ‘I, Anna Csillag, born in Karlovice in Moravia, had a meagre growth of hair...’ It was a long story, similar in construction to the story of Job. Anna Csillag’s meagre growth had been caused by a decree of Providence. The whole village pitied her for this affliction. They forgave her on account of her irreproachable life, notwithstanding that she could not have been entirely blameless. And, lo and behold, as the result of their fervent prayers, the curse was lifted from her head. Anna Csillag attained the grace of enlightenment — she received signs and instructions, and she prepared a specific, a wonderful medicine, which restored fertility to her head. Her hair began to sprout, and, as if that were not enough, her husband, brothers and cousins too became ergotised in the succeeding days with huge black pelts of beards. On the opposite page was a picture of Anna Csillag six weeks after the revelation of her formula, surrounded by her brothers, brothers-in-law and nephews — mustachioed men with beards falling below their waists — and one could only look in admiration at that veritable explosion of unfalsified, bear-like masculinity. Anna Csillag delighted the whole village — upon which a veritable benediction flowed in the form of colossal crops of wavy hair and manes, and its inhabitants swept the ground with their beards, as broad as brooms. Anna Csillag became the apostle of the hirsute. And, having delighted her native town, she now wanted to delight the whole world, which she invited, encouraged and begged to accept as its salvation her divine gift — that wondrous medicine, of which she alone knew the secret.”

Bruno Schulz: The Sanatorium at the Sign of the Hourglass. The Book

Ja, Anna Csillag, z długiemi włosami,
Zawsze ta sama, słodko uśmiechnięta,
Od lat trzydziestu – pomiędzy szpaltami
Stoję w gazetach twoich niby święta.
Jak lilję trzymam gałązkę z gwiazdami,
Czas mej anielskiej urody nie zmienia:
Puszysty włosów rozpuszczony dywan
Szumną kaskadą do stóp moich spływa,
Do bosych stóp bogini uwłosienia.

Ja, Anna Csillag, przez tych lat trzydzieści
Nie znałam smutku, nie znałam boleści,
A co się z tobą działo, o mój synu,
Że patrzysz na mnie – i łzy tobie płyną?

Mnie, Annie Csillag, nawet w one lata,
Gdy krwią twych braci spłynęło pół świata,
I krew – czernidło drukarskie załała,
I śmierć z sąsiednich szpalt na mnie wołała, –

Ani jeden nie posiwiał włos,
Ani jeden nie spadł z głowy włos.

O Anno Csillag, gazetowy świadku
Naszych cielęcych, obumarłych dni!
Chodzę po świecie i zbieram śmiecie,
Sam wkrótce będę po sobie pamiątką.

I będę pisał jeszcze głupsze wiersze
À la recherche,
À la recherche
Du temps perdu.
I, Anna Csillag, with my long hair
and with the same, never fading smile
have stood for thirty years between the columns
of your newspaper just like a saint.
I hold a bunch of lily-shaped stars,
time does not change my angelic beauty.
The cascade of my dissolved long hair
flows down as long as my feet
as if I were the goddess of hairiness.

I, Anna Csillag for thirty long years
have not felt sorrow and knew no pain.
But what happened to you, my son?
When you look at me, I see tears in your eyes.

Oh, Annie Csillag, to me during these years
while the blood of your brothers has flooded
the world and painted the printer’s ink red
and death has howled from these columns –

not a single hair has gone gray
and not one has fallen from my head.

Oh, Annie Csillag, you holy image
of the newsprint of our bygone childhood!
I’m just walking along, collecting the garbage,
while becoming memory even to myself,

and starting to write even sillier poems
à la recherche
à la recherche
du temps perdu.

Józef Wittlin: À la recherche du temps perdu (1933)

I Annie Csilag rosły, rosły włosy
And the hair of Anna Csillag kept growing and growing.

Czesław Miłosz, Traktat poetycki (1957)

“Seht, seht, wer bricht sich Bahn? Ein Weib, dessen Haar länger ist als sie selbst, ein Weib also, das Grund hat, seine Persönlichkeit zu betonen; sie ruft! Ich, Anna…”

“Look, look, who is breaking a path? A woman whose hair is longer than herself, a woman who has therefore all reason to emphasize her personality and who cries: I, Anna…”

Karl Kraus: Die Welt der Plakate (1909)

“Как всегда, мы сели. Кошка, тряся стул, лизала у себя под хвостиком. Отец шуршал страницами. Маман, посмеиваясь, пришивала кружево к штанам. Я перелистывала книгу. Анна Чилляг, волосастая, шагала и несла перед собой цветок. Поль Крюгер улыбался. Это — гостьи принесли.”

“As always, we sat down. The cat, shaking the chair, was licking herself beneath her tail. Father was rustling the pages of the newspaper. Mother was smiling and sewing lace to the pants. I leafed through the book. Long-haired Anna Csillag stepped forward, holding a flower in front of her. Paul Kruger was smiling. The book was brought by guests.”

Leonid Dobichin: Город Эн. Портрет (1935)

Országos Hírlap, 19. December 1898. Editor-in-chief: Kálmán Mikszáth

“After ‘I, Anna Csillag’ it is surely Matlekovits whose name occurs in the newspapers even more often than that of Jenő Zichy. He is the pampered favorite of the press.”

Kálmán Mikszáth: Hogy fogy Matlekovits? [How popular is Matlekovits?] (1885)

“One could write much more about this. And even if those ‘hundreds of appreciating letters’ referred to in every article of Jenő Rákosi signify nothing more than those in the advertisement of Anna Csillag, it would be a mistake to deny that many people think about this thing like Jenő Rákosi does.”

Miksa Fenyő, Irodalmi vita [Literary debate] (Nyugat, 1915)

“And in those bygone but unforgettable years, when men used to carefully examine women like some kind of a wonderful plant, they attributed great importance to the hair of Mária. It was obvious that she will grow it as long as that of Anna Csillag – oh, how happy will be the man who once will wash his face in this silken cascade!”

Gyula Krúdy: Aranyidő [Golden times] (Nyugat, 1923)

“You are withering, my old Flegman, like the flower pressed in the book of memories. You do not bring any luck any more, just like the little locks of hair which have lost their magic power, whether they were curled by a Gypsy girl or sent via C.O.D. by Anna Csillag. In 19**, after a May picnic I started to loose hair, and I discovered in the mirror that my nose had grown larger. That was my last May picnic under the oaks of Sóstó, and the only one where I did not bring home a single song, a single woman’s name from. Even the hair elixir of Anna Csillag had no effect on me, albeit I had written for it to Vienna.”

Gyula Krúdy: Az öreg Korányi professzor tanácsa [Advice of old Professor Korányi] (1929)

Source of the illustrations: http://www.brunoschulz.org/csillag.htm

“And the man who painted the signboards, Greiner, had previously been a lamp-lighter in the cabaret Hoelle in the Theater an der Wien. He had a vivid imagination, was a great talker and soon became a bad influence on Hitler. Greiner built all sorts of castles in the air, and Hitler took his schemes very seriously. There was eager competition between them in devising plans, and Hitler would say sometimes that Greiner was a genius like Edison, with unheard-of ideas, but that he was too fickle and needed someone to carry out his ideas. Hitler wanted to unite all these people into an organization following such ideas in coöperative work. Some of them should make drawings, design advertising, paint signboards, while the others should sell these products. But he had other projects as well. At that time there was a picture in all the newspapers of a woman named Anna Csillag, with long hair that reached to the floor, and below her picture was an advertisement, starting with the words, «I, Anna Csillag…» recommending an infallible hair-growing remedy. Hitler thought something of the kind ought to be invented. He admitted that the story of Anna Csillag was an obvious bluff, but he said one could earn plenty of money with it. He proposed to fill old tin cans with paste and sell them to shopkeepers, the paste to be smeared on window-panes to keep them from freezing in winter. It should be sold, he said, in the summer, when it couldn’t be tried out. I told him it wouldn’t work, because the merchants could just say, come back in the winter; we don’t need it now. To this Hitler answered that one must possess a talent for oratory. But I thought oratory alone would be useless.”

Reinhold Hanisch: I was Hitler’s buddy, New Republic, 5-19 April 1939.
Hanisch, who in the 1910s earned his living together with Hitler in Vienna, in the 30s wrote his memories that were published in the United States. When returning to Germany, he was arrested and died in the concentration camp of Buchenwald. [* This is what the Hitler in History Project tells about his death, but see claus’ well-informed comment below.]

Magyar Iparművészet, 1898/9, from here

“Ein Reklameauftrag der Firma Anna Csillag am Kohlmarkt hatte Hitler beinahe um den Verstand gebracht. Diese Geschäftsfrau inserierte in allen Tageszeitungen, Wochen- und Monatsschriften und pries ihre Haarpomade an. Die Reklame zeigte eine Dame mit langem, wallendem Haar, das vom Kopfscheitel bis zu den Fußknöcheln herabreichte und deren Text ständig begann: «Ich, Anna Csillag, mit dem riesenlangen Loreleyhaar, habe nur durch Verwendung der von mir erfundenen Geheimpomade diese Haarpracht erreicht. Jeder, der einen so prächtigen Haarschmuck haben will, schreibe postwendend an Anna Csillag, worauf man gratis und franco einen wundervollen Prospekt mit Beweisen und Dankschreiben erhält.« Hitler war von diesem Auftrag einfach begeistert. »Das nennt man Reklame machen! Propaganda, Propaganda, so lange, bis die Leute glauben, daß dieser Dreck helfen wird«, meinte Hitler. »Anna Csillag ist ein Reklamegenie, und vielleicht morgen schon wird man die neueste Erfindung der Anna Csillag anpreisen: Keine Schädeldecke für den Haarwuchs mehr notwendig! Anna Csillags Haarpomade wirkt sogar auf einer Billardkugel! Keine Angst mehr! Sollten aber mit Hilfe der Pomade weder am Kopf noch auf der Billardkugel Haare wachsen – durch die neueste Erfindung Anna Csillags, durch ihre Haarsamenpillen ist der Erfolg garantiert gesichert!« So spintisierte Hitler fast eine Stunde lang. »Propaganda, Propaganda, so lange, bis daraus ein Glaube wird und man nicht mehr weiß, was Einbildung und was Wirklichkeit ist«, sagte er wörtlich und eilte, ohne Angabe von Gründen, plötzlich davon. Nach zwei Stunden erschien er wieder mit einem Prospekt der Anna Csillag. Er hatte es einfach nicht länger ausgehalten, er mußte ins Geschäft der Auftraggeberin, um das Geheimnis der Pomadenpropaganda studieren zu können.

Vor allem interessierten ihn die Dankbriefe, denn diese müßten doch echt sein, und was mag unter Umständen so ein Dankbrief für eine Salbe, die nicht hilft, gekostet haben! Hitler dachte eine Weile nach, dann sagte er: »Vielleicht ist es ein gutes Geschäft, Dankbriefe für eine Haarpomade zu schreiben.« Ein Dankbrief lockte Hitler ganz besonders an, er stammte mit voller Anschrift aus Wien. Hitler verschwand wieder und hatte das Geheimnis der Dankbriefschreiberin schneller ergründet als ein Detektiv. Die Briefschreiberin war nämlich schon lange verstorben. »Ja, Propaganda, Propaganda! Tote als Zeugen kosten nichts. Nicht mehr als das Abschreiben der Parten am Wiener Zentralfriedhof. Propaganda, richtige Propaganda macht aus Zweiflern Gläubige: Anna Csillag mit dem riesenlangen Loreleyhaar hat den Nagel auf den Kopf getroffen. Sie verkauft die Haarpomade, verspricht unter Hinweis auf Dankbriefe den garantierten Erfolg, nur verschweigt sie, das die Haare erst unter der Erde, im Grabe zu wachsen beginnen. Propaganda«, phantasierte Hitler weiter, »was wirst du erst vermögen, wenn du im Dienste einer Idee stehst, um die Menschen glücklich zu machen!« Hitler war total verrückt geworden. Das von mir angefertigte Plakat hat Hitler persönlich zur Firma Csillag gebracht, um wieder im Pomadenheiligtum der Reklame schnuppern zu können.

Die in einigen Hitler-Büchern enthaltene Behauptung, Hitler wollte selbst irgend eine Salbe fabrizieren und nach Art der Csillag-Reklame vertreiben, beruht auf einer irrigen Information. Er behauptete bloß, daß vielleicht jemand noch auf die Idee verfallen könnte, eine Salbe zu erfinden, mit deren Hilfe man Glas unzerbrechlich machen kann. Er wird die Salbe gewiß so sicher anbringen, wie die Csillag ihre Pomade. »Propaganda, nur Propaganda ist notwendig, die Dummen werden nicht alle. Propaganda ist die Grundessenz jeder Religion«, meinte Hitler, »ob Himmel oder Haarpomade, nur der durch die Propaganda gestärkte Glaube bringt den Pfaffen und der Anna Csillag den Segen.«”

“A commission of the Anna Csillag Company in the Kohlmarkt nearly drove Hitler mad. This businesswoman advertised and praised in all newspapers, weekly and monthly magazines her hair-growing cream. The advertisement showed a woman with long, flowing hair that reached to her ankles, and its text invariably began like this: ‘I, Anna Csillag have achieved this enormous Loreley hair through the application of the secret cream invented by me. Whoever desires to have similarly gorgeous hair should write to Anna Csillag and will receive gratis and free of charge a wonderful brochure with evidences and letters of gratitude.’ Hitler was just thrilled by this commission. ‘This is what I call advertisement!’ he told. ‘Propaganda and propaganda, until people will believe that this bullshit will really help them. Anna Csillag is a publicity genius, and perhaps tomorrow we will praise her newest invention: No head skin is necessary to hair growing any more! The cream of Anna Csillag works even on a billiard ball! No more fear! However, should there grow no hair either on the head or on the billiard ball – success is guaranteed by the latest invention of Anna Csillag, the hair root pills.’ Hitler went on with this monologue for hours. “Propaganda and propaganda until it becomes a belief and people cannot tell any more fantasy from reality’, he said literally, and then without giving any reason he suddenly hurried away. After two hours he appeared again, with a brochure of Anna Csillag in the hand. He simply could not endure it longer, he needed to go to the shop of the commissioner, to personally study the mystery of the hair growing creme propaganda.

He was especially interested in the letters of gratitude, for they had to be real, and in the given circumstances a letter of gratitude for a cream that had not helped would have costed much. Hitler thought awhile and then he said: ‘Perhaps it is a good business to write letters of gratitude for a cream.’ One of these letters especially attracted Hitler, because it was published with a full Vienna address. Hitler disappeared again, and he explored the mystery of the letter faster than a detective. In fact, the person writing the letter had been dead for several years. ‘Yes, propaganda, propaganda! A dead witness does not cost anything. No more than copying the tomb inscriptions in the Zentralfriedhof. Propaganda, a good propaganda turns doubters into believers. Anna Csillag with her enormous Loreley hair has hit the nail on its head. She sells the cream, on the basis of the letters of gratitude she guarantees the success, but she conceals that hair will really grow under the earth, in the grave. Propaganda!’ raved next Hitler, ‘what would you be able to if you stood in the service of an idea to make people happy!’ Hitler became completely crazy of this idea. He took personally the advertisement prepared by me to the Csillag company, to breathe once more the air of the hair cream sanctuary.

The idea described in some books on Hitler that he also wanted to produce some cream and to spread it similarly to the Csillag advertisement, is based on a false information. Hitler only said that if someone invented a cream that made glass unbreakable, he could absolutely make it as famous as the cream of Csillag. ‘Propaganda! We only need propaganda. Of stupid people there are always enough. Propaganda is the quintessence of every religion.’ he said. ‘Whether heaven or hair cream, only faith strengthened by propaganda can bring blessing to the priests and to Anna Csillag.”

Josef Greiner: Das Ende des Hitler-Mythos (Vienna, 1947).
Greiner also lived together with Hitler in the 1910s in the men’s pansion of Vienna. His book which, according to its foreword, was written to “psychologically explain the Hitler phenomenon”, was pulped by the Allies right after its publication.

Anna Szałapak: Anna Csillag. Text: Bolesław Leśmian, Bruno Schulz.
Music: Zygmunt Konieczny. From the CD W Trójce (2005)

Photo from the Wojciech Nowicki collection.
Illustration of the article “Anna Csillag” in the
Tygodnik Powszechny.

The secret language

In the older literature on Gypsies it is a commonplace that they have a language of their own only so that the gadjos or peasants do not understand them in the villages they cross with their caravans: it is thus no more than a thieves’ cant. This old topos was also mentioned by Covarrubias among his fantastic etymologies. For example, he writes in the entry Gerigonza (‘Argot’) of his Tesoro:
Gerigonza. Un cierto lenguaje particular de que usan los ciegos con que se entienden entre sí. Lo mesmo tienen los gitanos, y también forman lengua los rufianes y los ladrones, que llaman germanía. Díjose gerigonza, quasi gregigonza, porque en tiempos pasados era tan peregrina la lengua griega, que aun pocos de los que profesan facultades la entendían, y así decían hablar griego el que no se dejaba entender. O se dijo del nombre gyrus, gyri, que es vuelta y rodeo, por rodear las palabras, permutando las sílabas o trastocando las razones; o está corrompido de gytgonza, lenguaje de gitanos.

Argot. A particular language used by the blind [beggars] in their inner communication. Similar languages have also the Gypsies just like the pimps and thieves, called germanía [from the word hermano, ‘brother’]. Gerigonza is almost gregigonza, as the knowledge of the Greek [griega] language was so rare in the past centuries that even among the educated there were only a handful who understood it: thus when one spoke in an incomprehensible way, he was told to speak in Greek. It might also come from gyrus, gyri meaning “turn, twist”, because the argot turns out the words, turns over their syllables and twists their meaning; or perhaps from the term gitgonza, that is, the language of the gitanos, the Gypsies.
In the previous entry we spoke about the tensions between the identity of a people and the identities of the individuals that constitute it. We have mentioned that in the case of the Gypsies such tensions are particularly connected with the language, with reading and writing. In this context is especially illuminating the following story which bears testimony to the extent the self-evaluation of the Gypsies is related to the appreciation of their language. On the one hand they accept the discourse of the power marginalizing their language in the vein of Covarrubias, while on the other hand they consider themselves more valuable when discover that their language can be written just like “normal” languages:
In a [Hungarian] village school the Beas Gypsy children who used their mother tongue as an inner argot, had sent me to hell. Their language is an archaic version of Romanian, and they also brought their curses from their old homeland. I know Romanian, so I replied to them. We have made a deal. If they regularly come to school, I will teach them how to write in their mother tongue. Their mouth fell open in astonishment for long minutes when they saw on the blackboard that what they talked could be really written down. They told: now they clearly see that they are just like those children who were not forbidden by their teachers to speak in their mother tongue in the school. They felt that bad times were finally over: they not only had speakable, but also writable worlds. From now on, dialogue is only question of dictionary. They did not yet know that the evil is hiding in the details.

Gypsy children playing in the Eastern Slovakian town of Krompachy, 1991
(source: Isabel Fonseca, Bury me standing, 1995)

La lengua secreta

Es un tópico sobre los gitanos decir que su lengua existe solo para que no les entiendan los  payos o los habitantes de los pueblos por donde vagan, equiparándola así a una especie de germanía de ladrones. Un tópico antiguo que el propio Covarrubias testimoniaba utilizando también alguna de sus etimologías fantásticas. Veamos, por ejemplo, la entrada de su Tesoro sobre la jerigonza:
Jerigonza. Un cierto lenguaje particular de que usan los ciegos con que se entienden entre sí. Lo mesmo tienen los gitanos, y también forman lengua los rufianes y los ladrones, que llaman germanía. Díjose gerigonza, quasi gregigonza, porque en tiempos pasados era tan peregrina la lengua griega, que aun pocos de los que profesan facultades la entendían, y así decían hablar griego el que no se dejaba entender. O se dijo del nombre gyrus, gyri, que es vuelta y rodeo, por rodear las palabras, permutando las sílabas o trastocando las razones; o está corrompido de gytgonza, lenguaje de gitanos.
En la entrada anterior se trataba sobre todo de las tensiones que se entablan entre la identidad de un pueblo y las identidades de los individuos que lo forman, y que, en el caso de los gitanos, se manifiestan de manera especial en la lengua. En este contexto nos ha parecido muy oportuno, como ilustración de la entrada anterior, reproducir esta vívida anécdota que acabamos de encontrar. En ella queda claro hasta qué punto los gitanos, cuya lengua les otorga identidad, asumen el discurso del poder que los margina. Pero dejan de sentirse inferiores cuando averiguan que también su lengua puede escribirse como las lenguas «normales»:
«Cuando estaba enseñando en la escuela de un pueblo húngaro, los chicos de los gitanos Beas, que usaban entre ellos su lengua como una suerte de argot secreto o confidencial, me maldecían. Su lengua es una versión arcaica del rumano. También se habían traído las maldiciones desde su vieja patria. Yo hablo rumano, así que les respondí. Llegamos a un pacto. Si venían regularmente a la escuela, yo les enseñaría a escribir en su lengua materna. Permanecieron boquiabiertos durante varios minutos al ver en la pizarra que lo que pronunciaban se podía realmente escribir. Dijeron que ahora sabían claramente que eran iguales a aquellos muchachos a quienes sus maestros no les prohibían hablar en su propia lengua en la escuela. Sentían que los malos tiempos finalmente habían terminado: tenían palabras que no solo se podían pronunciar, sino también podían escribirse. De ahora en adelante dialogar sería solo cuestión de usar el diccionario. Estaban convencidos de que todo sería así de simple. No sabían que el diablo duerme en los detalles.»

Niños roma jugando en la colonia de Krompachy, Eslovaquia oriental, 1991
(tomado de Isabel Fonseca, Enterradme de pie, 1995)

The solitary reader

We know that solitary reading – where the eyes function as windows absorbing the letters to illuminate the darkness of the individual – is a modern activity which depends on the existence of what we know as “individual”. It is a recent invention, more or less parallel to our idea of “literature”. Sure, the Parisian monk browsing in his cell a manuscript copy of the Letters of Abelard and Heloise, the Milanese humanist spending his time with his Hypnerotomachia Poliphilii and the hidalgo collecting in a separate volume his favorite poems by the poetas ingeniosos in vogue in the Madrid Court of Philip IV, basically also read for themselves, just like Don Quixote, who went crazy for pursuing exactly this kind of reading. Nevertheless, the consolidation of solitary reading and with it the appearance of our idea of literature only took place when these figures ceased to be exceptional and they already massively populated the cities, also spreading a new awareness of the individual that we might call “bourgeois”.

Those who are not too familiar with pre-19th-century literature perhaps do not clearly see the depth of the implications of these changes. However, it is enough to consult the authority of the Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española by Sebastián de Covarrubias – the first large dictionary with definitions of the Spanish language, published in 1611, just five years after the first part of the Don Quixote, and now edited again by Studiolum – which gives this definition for reading:
Leer. Del verbo latino lego, is, es pronunciar con palabras lo que por letras está escrito. Leer, enseñar alguna diciplina públicamente.

Read. From the Latin verb lego, is. It means to speak out in words what is written in letters. Or: publicly read, teach some discipline.
So even as late as 1611, “read” means to speak out, to use the voice, to make public, and not only to use one’s eyes, to internalize and to reflect.

But still today reading and writing can differ, in some areas, from how we automatically perceive them. This is what Isabel Fonseca tells us in a book that expounds in a very intensive way the history, life and especially the culture of the Gypsies in post-Comunist Eastern Europe: Bury Me Standing. She refers several times to the relationship of the Gypsies to their own language as well as to writing and reading. The book starts with the life story of the famous Polish Gypsy poetess Papusza (Bronisława Wajs, 1908-1987). A woman who, exceptionally, at an early age insisted on learning to read and who ended up writing a collection of extraordinary poems bearing witness to the difficult life and historical moments of her people, like for example the one entitled “Tears of blood: our sufferances under the Germans in Volhynia in the years 1943-44” describing their hiding in the forests of the mountains. Previously she also won fame as a singer, since she was married at the age of 15 to the old and venerable musician Dionizy Wajs.

Images of Papusza. The music in the background is the Russian folk song Why have you despaired so much, performed by the “Ruska Roma” (Volhynian Polish-Russian Gypsy) band Romane Gila

Isabel Fonseca’s reflections on the relationship of the Gypsies to the written word reveal a tension between the individual and the collective that we considered not to exist any more in Europe: “The œuvre of the handful of Roma poetesses bears witness to a tension between faithfulness to the tradition and the individual attempt to map their own personal experiences, often accompanied by a feeling of guilt. Already forty years ago Papusza followed this road leading from the collective and the abstract to a minutiously observed private world.

To Papusza this path brought the labels of “traitor” and magherdo (impure) among the Polish Gypsies. She was excluded from the group and her life collapsed. The remaining thirty-four long years of her life were spent first in a psychiatric hospital and then alone and isolated until her death.

For Papusza – unlike for Preciosa, the other famous Gypsy woman invented by Cervantes who could read and write, and of whom we later get to know that she was not a Gypsy at all – to gain a name among the gadjo by publishing books and to earn a unique identity to herself, costed a radical separation from her group. The Gypsies are closed in the orality, and they are being released slowly. The question is whether this “release” will not invariably mean also their complete disappearance as a people.

Concerning reading, Fonseca writes this (here we backtranslate her words to English from the Spanish edition that we used):
In Romani there is no word properly expressing the idea of “writing” and “reading”. The Gypsies describe these activities with words borrowed from other languages, or, and it is even more revealing, they use other Romani words for them. Chin, “cut” means “write”, and gin, “count” means “read”. But the usual expression is “dav opre,” meaning “I hand over”, so that the phrase means “reading aloud”. It does not indicate solitary reading which is not generally pursued by Gypsies. The word drabarav used by Macedonian Gypsies traditionally means “reading” in the specific sense of reading out the future from someone’s palm. And the Albanian Gypsies say gilabav which also means “sing”. A gilabno can be a singer or a reader, while a drabarno (or rather in its female form, drabarni) is someone who reads or foretells the future, but she also knows herbs: a healer. However, these are recent innovations which show what written language means for a historically illiterate people.

Our friend Péter Berta, who has been researching for decades the Gypsies of Transylvania and perfectly speaks their language, gave us this additional note to the words of Isabel Fonseca:

The Romani dialects of Rumania know even two forms of the word “read”. The Gábor Roms use the verb drabaröl, for example drabaröl e Biblie = reading the Bible. This verb can be deduced from the word drab which has been used in the sense of “herbs, medicine” in some Romani dialects. In the Gábor Romani dialect this latter meaning is already offuscated, and they only use it for “reading”. The other verb is ginel or djinel which explicitly means “read”. For example: zanav aba te ginav = I already can read (letters, books). Ginel also means “count”. Some dialects have different terms for “read” and “count”, while others indicate both activities with the same ginel.
It would be useful to find out to what extent the explanation of Fonseca on the semantic fields of terms for “read” is valid in other dialects of Romani. For example, in Caló, the language of Spanish Gypsies we find lirenar and nacardelar, which appear to function in a different way.

Oh, my Lord, where should I go?
What should I do?
Where can I find
songs and fairy-tales?
I don’t go to the forest
I don’t meet the rivers.
Oh, forest, my father
my sweet black father!

The time of wandering Gypsies
has passed long ago. But I see them,
they are happy and strong
and clear like the water.
You see how it is running:
it wants to speak.

But it has no words, poor one.

The water does not look back:
it runs far, it flies away
where nobody sees it,
disappears the water.


Sabemos que la lectura solitaria —aquella en que los ojos son una especie de tragaluz que absorbe las letras para iluminar la oscuridad del individuo solo— es una actividad moderna. Depende de la existencia de lo que conocemos como «individuo». Es un invento reciente y más o menos paralelo a nuestra idea de la «literatura». No discutiremos que el monje parisino que abría en su celda una copia manuscrita de las Cartas de Abelardo y Eloísa, el humanista milanés que se solazaba con la Hypnerotomachia Poliphilii y el hidalgo que se hacía encuadernar los versos favoritos de los poetas ingeniosos que corrían por el Madrid de Felipe IV, leían fundamentalmente para ellos mismos. Ni que don Quijote, que se volvió loco por llevar a cabo este tipo de lectura, marque un punto y aparte en la historia de las letras. Esto es así, pero hizo falta que todos estos personajes dejaran de ser excepcionales y poblaran masivamente las ciudades, y que en ellas apareciera una nueva conciencia de individuo, que quizá pueda llamarse burguesa, para consolidar de una vez por todas la lectura solitaria y, con ella, nuestra idea de la literatura.

A veces es difícil hacer ver la profundidad de las implicaciones de estos cambios a quienes no han tratado lo suficiente con la literatura anterior al siglo XIX. Sirve entonces de ejercicio dirigirse a la autoridad del Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española de Sebastián de Covarrubias y pedirles que busquen allí —estamos en 1611, seis años después de la publicación de la primera parte del Quijote— la definición de leer:
Leer. Del verbo latino lego, is, es pronunciar con palabras lo que por letras está escrito. Leer, enseñar alguna diciplina públicamente.
Así que todavía en 1611 «leer» es pronunciar, usar la voz, hacer público. No solo usar los ojos, interiorizar, reflexionar.

Pero aún hoy leer y escribir pueden ser, en algunos ámbitos, cosas distintas a lo que entendemos de manera automática. Nos lo cuenta Isabel Fonseca en un libro que explica de una manera muy intensa la historia, la vida y sobre todo la cultura de los gitanos en la Europa ex-comunista: Bury Me Standing, 1995 (Enterradme de pie, 2009). Nos llama la atención la cantidad de referencias a la relación que tienen los gitanos con su lengua propia, con la escritura y la lectura. El libro empieza hablando de la famosa Papusza (muñeca) nombre romaní por el que se conoció a Bronisława Wajs (1908-1987), gitana polaca. Una mujer que se empeñó de pequeña en aprender a leer y acabó escribiendo una colección de extraordinarios poemas que son muchas veces testimonio de los acontecimientos difíciles de la historia de su pueblo. Basta ver la balada que escribió sobre la vida clandestina en los bosques durante la Guerra, «Lágrimas de sangre: lo que pasamos bajo los alemanes en Volhynia en los años 43 y 44». Antes se había dado a conocer como cantante, desde que la casaron, a los 15 años, con el viejo y venerable arpista Dionizy Wajs.

Imágenes de Papusza. Al fondo se escucha la canción popular rusa Por qué, amigo, bajaste tanto la cabeza, cantada por el grupo «Ruska Roma» (gitanos ruso-polacos de Volhynia) Romane Gila

Las reflexiones de Isabel Fonseca sobre la relación de los gitanos con la escritura nos revelan una tensión entre lo individual y lo colectivo que creíamos que ya no existía en Europa: «La œuvre colectiva del puñado de poetas romaníes que está hoy en activo presta testimonio de una tensión no superada entre la fidelidad a la tradición popular y la tentativa individual, acompañada de un leve sentimiento de culpa, de cartografiar la propia experiencia. Papusza recorrió ya, cuarenta años atrás, ese camino que lleva de lo colectivo y lo abstracto a un mundo privado, detalladamente considerado.» (p. 14)

A Papusza, ese camino la llevó a la consideración de «traidora» y magherdo (impura) entre los roma polacos, fue excluida del grupo y su vida se vino abajo. Primero en un hospital psiquiátrico y luego sola y aislada durante treinta y cuatro largos años, hasta su muerte.

Para Papusza, al contrario que Preciosa —aquella otra gitana ilustre que sabía leer y escribir inventada por Cervantes—, ganar un nombre en una actividad propia de los gadjo (payos) como es publicar libros, a la vez que le granjeaba una identidad única, le costó la separación radical de su grupo (claro que de Preciosa sabremos luego que no era gitana). En los gitanos hay una suerte de encierro en la palabra hablada del que se están liberando lentamente. La pregunta es si esa «liberación» será indefectiblemente paralela a su desaparición completa como pueblo.

Copiamos unas líneas del libro de Fonseca:
No hay propiamente una palabra en romaní que exprese la idea de «escribir» o la de «leer». Los gitanos toman prestado de otras lenguas para describir estas actividades. O también, y es aún más revelador, usan otras palabras romaníes. Chin, o «corte» (como en la talla), significa «escribir». El verbo «leer» es gin, que significa «contar». Pero la expresión habitual es dav opre: dav opre significa «yo entrego», y así la frase puede traducirse «leo en voz alta». No describe el leer para uno mismo; eso no es algo que hagan los gitanos en general. Asimismo, drabarav, una versión de «leo» utilizada por los gitanos macedonios, significa tradicionalmente leer en el sentido específico de leer el destino en la palma de la mano. Y en Albania los gitanos pueden decir gilabav para decir «leo», aunque signifique en principio «canto».
     Un gilabno es un cantor o un lector; un drabarno (o más a menudo un femenino drabarni) es alguien que lee o que adivina el futuro pero también que entiende de hierbas, lo que equivale a curandero. Se trata de innovaciones recientes; muestran lo que el lenguaje escrito significa para un pueblo históricamente analfabeto. (p. 18)

Sin embargo, nuestro amigo Péter Berta, gran conocedor de la cultura gitana centroeuropea, especialmente de Hungría y Rumania, nos dio esta nota complementaria a las palabras de Isabel Fonseca:

En los dialectos romaníes de Rumania el verbo «leer» se encuentra incluso en dos formas. Para atenerse solo al dialecto de los Gábor de Transilvania [un grupo de unos cien mil gitanos sobre los que Péter investiga], está el verbo drabaröl. Por ejemplo: drabaröl e Biblie = Lee la Biblia (el verbo tiene igual raíz que el nombre drab que se usaba en el sentido de «hierba, medicina». En el dialecto Gábor el antiguo sentido se ha ido oscureciendo y ya solo se usa para indicar «leer»). El otro verbo es ginel o djinel, que significa explícitamente «leer». Por ejemplo: zanav aba te ginav = yo ya sé leer (letras, libro). Ginel en ciertos dialectos significa también «numerar», pero muchos dialectos utilizan un verbo distinto para cada actividad.
Nos quedaría por averiguar con más detalle hasta qué punto en los demás dialectos del romaní el ámbito semántico de los términos para «leer» es tal y como explicaba Fonseca. En caló, por ejemplo, hemos encontrado lirenar y nacardelar que, a lo que nos parece, no funcionan exactamente así.

Oh, Señor, ¿adónde debo ir?
¿Qué puedo hacer?
¿Dónde puedo hallar
leyendas y canciones?
No voy hacia el bosque,
ya no encuentro ríos.
¡Oh bosque, padre mío,
mi negro padre!

El tiempo de los gitanos errantes
pasó ya hace mucho. Pero yo les veo,
son alegres,
fuertes y claros como el agua.
La oyes
correr cuando quiere hablar.

Pero la pobre no tiene palabras…

…el agua no mira atrás.
Huye, corre, lejos, allá
donde ya nadie la verá
agua que se va.

Ars memorativa

We have just recently come back from Buenos Aires. It was a journey of which we have so much to say that we have not yet found out where to start. And it is high time, because time is inexorably running, a new year has risen, and we do not want our memories to fade or rust. Although time is also able to do just the opposite with memories: to exalt them, to recycle them and to give them a glare and a persistence that marks them as valuables or knickknacks. It is not easy to predict what will be treasured and what will be discarded by our memory. And time also composes new, more complete objects of the debris within our head, and it constructs narratives where originally there were only scenes.

Just a humble example. On the way back from Azul to Buenos Aires, after just some five kilometers we stopped to eat at a restaurant called “Punto Argentino”, near to a field where guanacos were grazing. Here we met Juan Bautista who shapes out of pieces of scrap fabulous or long extinct animals as well as machines of inextricable function.

Juan Bautista. Sculptures of scrap iron

This bike which seems to be unearthed from the future naturally brings to mind the bicycles of the Knights of the Sun and the Moon about which we have talked in a previous post. And it is also close to the remake or counterfeit toys prepared by our friend Miquel Àngel Llonovoy in his unusual museum.

We got back to Buenos Aires with these fresh images on our mind, and only when we took stock of the past days, we realized their similarity to the ones we had seen before in Azul: the figures in the quixotic park of Carlos Regazzoni, composed of old iron, twisted bed frames, car bonnets, nuts, cranks, pipes, radiators and nails.

Azul on the pampa to the southwest of Buenos Aires is an interesting city for many reasons. In 2007 it was declared “Argentina’s City of Cervantes”. This square extends on the outskirts of the city, along the creek Azul, under the vast blue sky of the pampa. In the previous days we participated at the Second International Conference of Cervantes in an environment so passionate about the work of Cervantes that it even transformed by magic the pampa into the plains of La Mancha. Well, of this city we will surely have to write later.

“…one of those gentlemen who usually keep a lance upon a rack, an old buckler, a lean horse, and a coursing greyhound”

Julia observes with justifiable fear the armored Dulcinea.

“There goes Sancho on his nag.”

We have concluded that this region of the country displays a special attraction to scrap sculpture. But as now, some two months after coming home, we thought back on those works of art, we have suddenly remembered the exhibition catalog we bought at MALBA (Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires) where we spent good times both in the exhibition rooms and in the library. The catalog has some sculptures by renowned artist Antonio Berni which constitute a worthy terminus to this journey that we have done unaware through the recycled art of Argentine. These frightful hybrid monsters made of wood, door handles, rivets, washers, toilet seats, boxes, wicker baskets, roots certainly occupy an illustrious place on the pedigree of the above seen scrap iron sculptures

Hypocrisy or The interplanetary monsters vying for Ramona (1964)

Squalor (1965)

Menacing bird (1965)

The victorious worm or The triumph of death (1965)

Voilà, an unexpected story within that other big story of the journey to Buenos Aires whose construction we still do not know with which piece to start.

Ars memorativa

No hace mucho estuvimos en Buenos Aires. Es un viaje del que tenemos tanto que contar que todavía no hemos encontrado por dónde empezar a hacerlo. Y va siendo el momento, porque las horas ya suenan en otro año, el tiempo no dará tregua y no queremos que los recuerdos se difuminen o se oxiden. Aunque el tiempo también es capaz de hacer justo lo contrario con los recuerdos: decantarlos, reciclarlos y darles un fulgor o persistencia que los señala como valiosos o como quincalla. No es fácil predecir qué cosas atesorará la memoria y qué desechará. Con las piezas sueltas, dentro de la cabeza el tiempo compone objetos nuevos, más completos, y llega a construir narraciones donde solo había escenas.

Un humilde ejemplo: volviendo de la ciudad de Azul a Buenos Aires, no habíamos recorrido ni cinco kilómetros cuando paramos a comer en un restaurante llamado «Punto Argentino», cerca de un lugar vallado donde pastaban guanacos. Allí encontramos a Juan Bautista, que con piezas de chatarra daba forma a animales fabulosos o extinguidos antes del Diluvio y construía máquinas de inextricable funcionamiento.

Esta moto que parece desenterrada del futuro, con su toque cyberpunk, nos trae a la memoria, por supuesto, a las bicicletas de los Caballeros del Sol y de la Luna, de las que hablamos en otra entrada. Y también está cerca de los juguetes que rehace o contrahace nuestro amigo Miquel Àngel Llonovoy en su insólito museo.

Llevábamos estas imágenes frescas en la memoria y solo al llegar de nuevo a Buenos Aires y hacer recuento de los días pasados, nos dimos cuenta de la similitud de este trabajo con otro que habíamos visto antes, en Azul: el de Carlos Regazzoni autor de un parque de figuras quijotescas hechas con hierros viejos, somieres retorcidos, capós de coches, tuercas, manivelas, tubos, radiadores de autobús, clavos.

Azul, en la pampa, al sudoeste de Buenos Aires, es una ciudad interesante por muchas razones. Fue declarada por la Unesco en 2007 «Ciudad Cervantina de la Argentina». Esta plaza está en la afueras de la ciudad, a orillas del arroyo Azul y bajo un inmenso cielo. Hasta allí fuimos para participar en las II Jornadas Cervantinas Internacionales, en un ambiente tan apasionado por la obra de Cervantes que transmutaba como por ensalmo la pampa en los páramos manchegos. De esta ciudad también hablaremos más adelante.

«...de los de lanza en astillero, adarga antigua, rocín flaco y galgo corredor.»

Julia observa con justificado temor a una acorazada Dulcinea.

«Allá va Sancho con su rocino».

Concluimos así que esa zona del país debía atraer especialmente a unos peculiares artistas chatarreros. Pero solo hoy, cuando ya hace casi dos meses que volvimos a casa, pensando de nuevo en aquellas esculturas hemos recordado de pronto el catálogo de una exposición que compramos en el MALBA (Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires), lugar donde pasamos buenos ratos tanto en sus salas como en la librería. Aparecen allí unas esculturas del famoso Antonio Berni que acaban por construir este relato azaroso, un recorrido que nosotros mismos desconocíamos haber hecho por el arte del reciclado argentino. Son estos tremebundos monstruos hibridados con maderas, pomos de puerta, remaches, arandelas, tapas de inodoro, buzones, cestas de mimbre, raíces... seguramente los antecedentes más ilustres de las esculturas anteriores.

La hipocresía o Los monstruos interplanetarios se disputan a Ramona (1964)

La sordidez (1965)

El pájaro amenazador (1965)

El gusano triunfador o El triunfo de la muerte (1965)

Un relato imprevisto dentro de ese otro gran relato del viaje a Buenos Aires que aún no sabemos por dónde o con qué piezas empezar a componer.