Vilenica Prize Winner 2023: Ottó Tolnai

The Vilenica jury – consisting of Aljoša Harlamov (President),  Amalija Maček (Vice President), Ludwig Hartinger, Aljaž Koprivnikar, Martin Lissiach, Aleš Mustar, Tone Peršak, Gregor Podlogar, Diana Pungeršič, Jutka Rudaš, Đurđa Strsoglavec and Julija Potrč Šavli– have awarded the Vilenica 2023 Prize to Ottó Tolnai.


Ottó Tolnai: photo © Viktor Gálos

Ottó Tolnai is a poet, writer, playwright, essayist, translator, and editor, and one of the most prominent contributors to contemporary Hungarian literature. He was born on 5 July 1940 in Kanjiža, in the north of present-day Serbia. From 1959 to 1962 he studied at the Department of Hungarian Language and Literature at the University of Novi Sad, and then Fine Arts and Philosophy in Zagreb. As a Vojvodina Hungarian living outside Hungary, he began his writing career in the ‘Yugoslav realm’ in the 1960s with the collection Homorú versek (Concave Poems), an experiment in concrete and visual poetry. In 1969, with the quasi-autobiographical novel Rovarház (The House of Insects), he signalled a poetic innovation in contemporary Hungarian literature. Through the formal construction of collage, he broke with the linear narrative conventions that had dominated Hungarian literature up to that time.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Új symposion (New Symposium) magazine began to be published in Novi Sad and, with its intellectual originality, liberal outlook, and avant-garde modernity, it became the most representative workshop of Hungarian literature in Vojvodina, and had a profound influence on its artistic life. Ottó Tolnai was editor-in-chief of this multicultural journal until 1974, when he had to resign for political reasons. From 1966 to 1990 he was a member of the Yugoslav Writers’ Association and even its last president before its dissolution. From 1974 to 1994 he worked as an editor and art critic for the cultural programmes of Radio Novi Sad (Újvidéki rádió).

Since the 1990s, Ottó Tolnai’s work has been placed in a broader context due to opening of the borders. At that time, he began publishing in Hungary, first with Jelenkor publishing house in Pécs, and later with Kalligram publishing house in Bratislava and Budapest. Since 1994, he has been living as a freelance artist in the former spa town of Palić in Vojvodina.

Ottó Tolnai has published more than 35 books, which have been translated into many languages, including Serbian, German, French, Polish, and Slovenian. Ottó Tolnai’s plays have been staged in theatres in Budapest, Vienna, Novi Sad, and Avignon. He spent 2004 in Berlin as a recipient of a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). In 1998 he was elected a member of the Hungarian Academy of Literature and Arts. In 2007 he received the Kossuth Prize, the highest Hungarian state award for literature. He has received numerous other awards and prizes for his work and is now considered one of the most important contemporary Hungarian authors.

Prepared by Jutka Rudaš, member of the Vilenica Jury

The Textual Wold of Ottó Tolnai

Ottó Tolnai ranks among the most prominent authors of Hungarian literature. A Hungarian living across the border, in Vojvodina, he embarked on his writing career in the ‘Yugoslav reality’ of the 1960s. His poetics, springing from the tradition of Hungarian culture, has been strongly influenced by modern Yugoslav literary trends, which gives it an intercultural character since his creative method reveals simultaneous ties to multiple cultures. Ottó Tolnai’s art of living is underpinned by the deep hedonism of his ‘own’ culture. His art is thus steeped in openness and a confident freedom in gliding between countries, regions, cultures, and customs. The power of his texts comes to the fore in the small scratches and chinks which are flooded by his rich experience of a Hungarian literary legacy and ex-Yugoslav culture and reality. With its bewildering complexity and intricacy, this historical (multi)cultural basis of his texts astonishes readers, inspiring them with a fruitful uncertainty.

Tolnai’s textual world, based on the world’s plurality and replete with culturally charged motifs, associations and visual perceptions, may radically uproot us from our comfortable reading strategy. Since his poetics makes us experience associative processes at the levels of text elements, fragments, or the whole, these constituents function as organisers of metaphors, other tropes, and semantically connected image clusters. The loose composition of his poems allows us to experience tastes, smells, colours, surfaces, as we slowly sink into pulsating life. His lyric poetry and prose are vibrant with the tradition of avant-garde imagination, with boldness and insouciance and atmosphere. The cornerstone of Ottó Tolnai’s art rests on duality: stark reality on the one hand and a unique ‘Tolnaiesque’ imagination on the other. His writing style conjures up a vision of reality which blends the true and the anecdotal, the mythical and the fictional, thus crafting a close link between existence in the world and the artistic articulation of the latter. His work draws on thousands of small intimate loci, experiences, and manifold cultural inspirations, which are then placed into his literary context. Tolnai’s poetic universe is shaped by a consistent process of solidifying reality into metaphor. Many of Tolnai’s artists, writers, painters, historical personages, or even everyday ‘heroes’ come from the encyclopaedia of the Mediterranean–Balkan area, where the banal realities are coded to blend into a specific Tolnaiesque magic. Through the figures from the visual arts, literature, and social history that are set to words in his artistic discourse, he rediscovers the essence of his own art. Reflection on his own activity is a major process in his art: writing is a subject of poetry, events are literary themes, recording of the creative process is a staple in his statements. He is a master of astonishing images, which are the more impressive because they are evoked by simple language and economical use of poetic devices.

In his own words: ‘What matters in poetry is always economy and background, the hidden depth of the world of feelings and thoughts, the invisible, the lavish and inexhaustible “behind”.’

The most important reality for Tolnai is the Adriatic as a source of pleasure, and the bloody canvas of a sail as a metaphor for the disintegrated former Yugoslavia. The Adriatic is a standard Tolnai motif, which recalls and revives a specific regional and historical interpretation of existence. Metaphorically, his texts may be said to be tossed by the waves of the Adriatic like a cork buoy. His books essentially seek to reinterpret the cultural experience of the region and present the meaning of the Adriatic–Balkan–Yugoslav myth from a different perspective. The poet of the Adriatic, as he is dubbed by the Hungarian literary world, outlines a broader cultural and historical perspective, which directs the individual lives of its protagonists, its distinctive feature being the creation of pluralism based on relationships between individuals. These individuals may be the hapless ones, alter egos, masks, existent and non-existent figures, a kind of archived memories which reveal the dramaturgy of the macro- and microworlds of the region though associations, language allusions and illusions. The coordinates of Tolnai’s texts are stamped by a heterogeneous, polyphonic interplay of sounds, everyday conversations and dialogues, by prolific experimenting with narrative techniques, and by self-reflection. A reader faced with such absolutely idiosyncratic poetics and text forms may attain through Tolnai’s ‘arias’, as the author calls the genre of his writing, a full-fledged aesthetic experience. For Tolnai’s works create meaning, just as meaning creates life.

Translated by Nada Grošelj