Szilárd Borbély

The Dispossessed - Novel

Original Hungarian title: Nincstelenek: Már elment a Mesijás?, published in 2013 by Kalligram
(German title: Die Mittellosen)
ca. 240 pages
Szilárd Borbély
Foto: Szilárd Borbély
© Lenke Szilágyi

Szilard Borbély was born in 1964 in Fehérgyarmat, the most northeastern corner of Hungary. He made his lyrical debut in 1988 and published roughly a dozen volumes of poetry and prose. Borbély was a university professor in Debrecen and translated numerous poems, including works by Monika Rinck, Robert Gernhardt and Durs Grünbein, from German and English. His debut novel The Dispossessed established him as one of the most important authors of contemporary Hungarian literature. Borbély committed suicide in February 2014.

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Hungary’s literary sensation


When the shop owner Mózsi returns to his village from a forced labor camp, he no longer resembles a Jew at all. He will never again wear a black kaftan. Nor a white shirt. He does not even have any interest in learning where his articles have disappeared to: »The furniture had disappeared from the house, the books from the shelves, and compassion from our hearts.«

Decades later, in the 1970s, the young narrator of the novel is growing up in the same village. The eleven year old is also engaged in hard physical labor, he is cold, he is hungry. It is only in his interest in prime numbers that he manages to find himself – and something like the happiness of distance. His older sister and he try to keep their mother from committing suicide while their father, a tractor driver in an agricultural cooperative, drinks away what little money they have and is physically abusive. The family is stigmatized. No one is allowed to speak about the past. Are they Jews? Orthodox Christians driven out of Romania? Why have they been marginalized?

Borbély depicts scenes of childhood in a brutalized world. Yet he does so in such a way that the reader continues unabated with continuously held breath. With the outsider’s gift of self-observation, the young boy develops an incredibly sharp eye. Imre Kertész and Agota Kristof have been the only other writers to tell a story of survival in such a laconic and lucid way.


Selected Foreign Editions


U.S. edition released by HarperCollins >>


Spanish edition released by Literatura Random House >>


Catalan edition released by Periscopi >>


French edition released by Christian Bourgois Éditeur >>


Italian edition released by Marsilio >>


Dutch edition released by Lebowski >>

Polish edition released by Jagiellonian UP (WUJ) >>


Croatian edition released by Ocean more >>


»Borbély’s work promises to be a major gift to English readers. His is a massive talent, with a dark taste for the absurd placing him squarely in the company of Gogol, Kafka, and, more recently, Bohumil Hrabal and the filmmaker Emir Kusturica. . . . In Mulzet’s magnificent translation, Borbély’s prose is caustic and lucent, tart and somehow burnished. He writes in short, staccato phrases that seem bitten off, chewed at the end with an acerbic twist. He has a fantastic wit; he excavates the darkest whimsy from the bleakest of situations.« Kirkus Review

»Captures the pain of poverty and prejudice in post-World War II Hungary through the eyes of a young boy...This immensely powerful portrait of poverty is at once a window into an often obscured history, and a timeless testament to the struggle of those in need.« Publishers Weekly

»Lyrical…every page is laden with significance…A moving literary novel that compares favorably to both Elie Wiesel’s Night (1960) and Philip Hensher’s Scenes from Early Life (2013) for their disturbingly clear descriptions and autobiographical nature.« Booklist 

»Szilárd Borbély wrote to me in a letter: ›The frightening situation in our country…I have the feeling, the intuition that I’m living in a sick society that makes its members ill.‹ In all of Hungarian poetry, Borbély was the most promising, and the most lost, of poets, one who could have looked forward to a great and brilliant future.« Imre Kertesz, Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature

»Dear Szilard, I did not understand you. I loved you.« László Krasznahorkai, Winner of the 2015 Man Booker International Prize

»Borbély has found an artistically detached language, highly poetic in its severity, in order to stave off the lapse into silence.« FAZ

»It’s this self-destructive concealment from which this epochal Hungarian novel draws its incredible energies, its unheard of artfulness and incomparable depth.« Neue Zürcher Zeitung

»He may be deceased, but his work, this literary act of liberation, will remain.« Die Literarische Welt

»A first-class discovery.« Ilma Rakusa

»The novel should be considered the book of the autumn that naturally findsits place in world literature. Rooted in a specific place, a specific time, a specific life, calling out to every reader in the world about the misfortunes of humans.« Frankfurter Rundschau

»With his novel The Dispossessed, recently published in German, the Hungarian author Szilárd Borbély has radicalised the genre.« NZZ am Sonntag

»Rarely have the horrors of a remote village been described so powerfully.« DeutschlandRadio Kultur

»The Dispossessed reveals the destructive power of linguistic powerlessness, of keeping silent at all costs.« Carmen Eller, Die Welt

»Szilárd Borbély has left world literature behind. If you start reading this novel, you won’t stop. It’s of existential force. Without pathos, without self-pity, with hard, true sentences.« St. Galler Tagblatt


Other publications

Kafkas Sohn/Kafka’s Son (2017)

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