In less than two decades, Miklos Vamos, a 36-year-old Hungarian writer, has published five novels, seven plays and seven other books of stories and essays. He has written film scripts and newspaper columns and adapted his own works for use on television.
Within Hungary, Vamos is a popular man. Outside, he is unknown. And that, he says, is the problem with modern literature in this small, communist-ruled country.
"It's a curious feeling to be a Hungarian writer, to be a writer for a small country and 10 million people," Vamos says. "The happiest thing that can happen to us is to be translated, but nobody cares about Hungarian books. Our literature is very good, but no one outside bothers to find out about it."
For Hungarian writers, to be translated is a supreme achievement -- bigger than recognition by a national audience. It means surpassing barriers of language and politics so formidable here that they are the artist's most familiar obsessions.
Miklos Vamos now has a small chance to make that breakout in June. His play "Skyfall" is scheduled to be produced by Bart Whiteman at Washington's Source Theatre. "All writers think they can speak to everyone, and I'm no exception," Vamos says. "What is important is that now, at least, I have a chance to find out if I am right."
"Skyfall," first produced in Hungary in 1974 and later adapted for national television, tells the story of one of the tall, prefabricated concrete apartment blocks that dominate the suburbs of Budapest and other Eastern European cities, and the families that live there.
In one apartment, a young couple are distracted and finally irritated by the noise of the identical apartment above them and they pound on the ceiling for quiet. But on the floor above, a larger, older family continues making noise to drown out the sounds of its own upstairs neighbor. On the top floor, starting the chain reaction below, an old woman has fallen asleep with the television blaring.
Like much of Vamos' work, the piece addresses urban alienation and social tensions with a light, sometimes whimsical irony. "I try to write about people in my plays and at the same time to focus on the possibilities of language, how language can be played with," Vamos says. Two of his models in this style are Americans: Joseph Heller and Woody Allen.
Vamos' work, like that of many contemporary Hungarians, often has a grimmer cast than that of Heller and Allen, however. Increasingly, it has dealt with the severe economic strains of a society whose socialized economy has stagnated while attempts at reform have opened a widening gap between prices and wages.
"People are really poor, a lot of people, and the gap between rich and poor is growing," Vamos says. "Every honest writer is addressing that now. It's a reality we can't escape."
The fact that such themes predominate in literature -- and that the books are published -- has set Vamos' generation apart from postwar writers in Hungary and those in much of the rest of Eastern Europe. Perhaps more than artists anywhere else in the Soviet bloc, Hungary's writers have been able to take a critical approach to society without clashing with communist authorities.
These authors have not yet escaped politics. Anxious speculation about the limits of official tolerance is a preoccupation within literary circles. Yet Budapest now hosts a number of writers who have managed to avoid the traditional polarization between communist and dissident camps.
For Vamos, what counts is the freedom of a writer to be nonpartisan, to avoid the classifications of ideological critics both here and in the West. "I've lost all my illusions about power and politics," he says. "I would like my task to be to write about myself and what I know, and not care whether it's taken as political or not. So far I've found that's a way to live without conflicts in this country." Even so, Vamos says, "There are three kinds of writers in Hungary: the favored, the tolerated and the banned. I'm one of the tolerated."
In the West, his work, like that of most Hungarian authors, has until now been noticed only when it concerned political conflict. Vamos' novel about the Hungarian revolution and Soviet invasion of 1956, "Sing a Song," was published in France and Scandinavia.
The book is partly autobiographical, based on Vamos' experience of the rioting and bloody fighting in Budapest as a 6-year-old boy. "It was a real problem then for me because there was no way to understand what was going on," Vamos says. "We had had this rigid socialist education, and then the revolution came. I was watching from the balcony of my apartment when the crowd pulled down our statue of Stalin. It created a big mess in my head."
Vamos' latest foreign exposure is the result of fortunate happenstance combined with the patronage of Pierre Frantz-Chapin, an American art dealer and cultural adviser to President Carter. Frantz-Chapin, the executive director of the Washington-based American Foundation for the Protection of the Heritage of Mankind, was visiting Hungary in search of painting and sculpture when he was introduced to Vamos by a mutual acquaintance.
Impressed, Frantz-Chapin arranged to have two of the author's plays translated into English. In addition to the Washington production of "Skyfall," Vamos says, several American companies are considering production of the second piece.
Meanwhile, Vamos himself has stepped up his study of English and hopes to spend enough time in the United States to write in the language. "My English is not very strong yet," he says. Then he grins. "But my Hungarian is brilliant."