András Szabados is a freelance translator, who is also a fan of classic science fiction and has made it his mission to bring the previously unknown works of Peter Zsoldos to the English-reading audience. You can grab a copy of his translation of The Mission here.
The Microcosm of Péter Zsoldos
Trying to define classic Central and East European Science Fiction as a genre would be like going to the store to pick up a pack of M&Ms only to discover that you have actually bought a box of Harry Potter’s chocolate frogs by accident.
From the sometimes silly, sometimes dead serious, and sometimes deeply philosophical works of Lem through the no-nonsense stories of the Strugatsky brothers to the satirical prose of Čapek, there are many tastes and varieties to be found within.
One major difference between these works and English language sci-fi is that due to the limitations imposed by language and politics, most of these authors, with the exception of the best known ones, frequently worked in relative isolation, without the impact that English language authors had on each other. The limitations of language meant that they were often secluded from others writing in different languages, but were all exposed to the same classic English works of Sci-Fi. At the same time, the upside was that literary microcosms developed in each of the languages, all of them with their own styles and traditions. Light was able to travel from the outside world into these microcosms, but it was much harder for it to get out or even to travel between them.
As far as the Hungarian microcosm is concerned, Péter Zsoldos was probably the most successful, although definitely not the most prolific of writers. His books were translated into over ten languages, he won several international awards, and one of his books was made into a TV miniseries and even a huge comic book (apparently a much sought after collector’s item). In fact, the most prestigious Hungarian Sci-Fi award has been named after him. Due to all the editions in different languages, we have no exact figures on the number of his books sold, but even a conservative estimate puts it well over a million. Not bad for an author who only had seven books in all in print.
His books were translated into over ten languages including German, Russian, Czech, and Bulgarian, but have never been translated into English before. One might wonder why this was so, especially as his style and themes are closer to mainstream English language sci-fi than that of many others who have enjoyed quite a bit of success with the English-reading audience – once again, Lem comes to mind. One reason might be political, as he wrote during a time when the Iron Curtain was very real, not only in the geographic but also the literary sense. It makes one think about how many hidden gems there are left undiscovered that have never made it to English language readers.
What is it that has made this author so popular in the first place? First of all, Zsoldos was not first and foremost a writer. He had a well established musical career and spent several decades as a vital contributor to the classical department of Radio Hungary. In fact, he only published his first book at the age of 33, and didn’t publish another one until five years on. In total, the number of books published only amounts to seven, with a couple of manuscripts in the drawer (hopefully to be published in the near future). It’s safe to say that as opposed to some must-publish-twice-every-year writers, he only wrote when he actually had something to say. This is what makes his books so thickly enjoyable: action-packed and deeply insightful at the same time, the stuff of great classic sci-fi.
Another contributor to his success might have been the fact that he took what he learned from the great classics of the genre, wrote about themes that were at the height of their popularity at the time, such as robots, mind upload, and encounters between different civilizations on different levels of technology, but instead of writing the type of dime-a-dozen novels which were prolific back then even in his home country, he concentrated on what is probably the most important and most gripping element of any story: the people that it revolves around. His characters are mature, well sculpted, and ultimately fallible. They establish an internal dialog with the reader, drawing them in, creating empathy in a way that very few authors are capable of. When they fail, and they probably fail more often than they succeed, we, the readers, as well as our established ideals and beliefs fail together with them.
So what are the stories about? You will meet a disjointed mind that keeps reincarnating in the residents of an extrasolar planet, abandoned AI entities in search of their origins, an astronaut stranded on a prehistoric planet, residents of a post nuclear holocaust Earth, the god-like ruler of an ancient city state from another planet, and a deep space explorer restricted to communicating with only one person back home. The stories are richly written and still offer quite a few twists to today’s readers, even if you have seen and read it all. If you, like me, are someone who likes to guess what will happen next and then loves being wrong, you will not be disappointed.
One thing that readers of The Mission, out now in English in the Kindle Store, will notice is how the narrative tends to be intermingled with the thoughts and feelings of the characters. Sentences such as “He had yet to learn what was behind Eddie’s disappearance, but thinking of that laugh gave him goose bumps. I have been leading you by the nose too, not just the others.” abound throughout the book, forcing readers out of their comfort zones. This is something that we thought hard and long about during the translation process: nothing would have been easier that using italics and the like to make a distinction between narrative and thoughts. In the end, we decided to respect the author’s heritage and not to meddle too much – after all, this is a novel about the human psyche as much as anything else, and the prose is a keen reflection of this.
Of course, this also makes the book highly divisive. It’s really not for everyone. If you prefer contemporary space opera (nothing wrong with it, there are quite a few great works out there) to insightful, if sometimes more demanding books, then it might not be your thing. If, however, you have read the great classics, have an open mind, and are pining for more, then it’s quite possible that you are in for something entirely unique and familiar at the same time.
This division is also reflected in the ratings that the book has received so far from readers on Amazon. It has collected 5 ratings that are 3 stars and below (“dumped it after the first 50 pages“), and 5 ratings that are five stars (“I can’t wait to see more of his works translated into English“). Only one four-star review so far – love them or hate them, these books will definitely make a lasting impression.