Maria kaj la grupo (Maria and the Group)

Reviewed by Ralph Dumain,
translated from the Esperanto original

I could write a spicy roman à clef or a TV soap just based on my experience in a leadership position in the Esperanto Society of Washington. But as an Esperanto scholar I am also aware of our history and I am curious about the milieu of the most socially interesting period of our movement, between the two world wars. Esperanto lacks a raison d’être in the United States, but it has had deeper roots in Eastern European countries. Also, I was touched by the life story of Imre Baranyai (who wrote under the name ‘Emba’) and even by his simple monotonous poems. I was fortunate to acquire a copy of the original edition of his novel of 1936, Maria kaj la grupo (Maria and the Group). While it doesn’t possess great literary value, I found some very amusing moments in it that reminded me of familiar eccentricities, along with a surprise ending.

Peter Baka joins a local group affiliated with the national Esperanto association, and we see the group through his eyes. The group’s overall ambience alternates between tedium and pointless distraction, with much conversation in the national language rather than in Esperanto. Various pompous asses further their own ambitions and self-glorification under the pretense of making great strides for the movement. There are various factions: one faction prioritizes a good meeting place, dances, and entertainment for young people; an opposing faction is comprised of the ‘gazetvermoj’ (‘magazine-worms’, like bookworms). The principal advocate of the literary journal Aŭroro (‘Dawn’) envisions a grandiose future for the publication as well as for himself. (He eventually succeeds in personally appropriating it as a profitable enterprise.) There are various cliques and covert personal relationships including amorous ones among the group members. Most of the activity involves the covert scheming of various cliques, accompanied by loud proclamations of benefits for the movement. However, beyond personal ambition there is no evidence of serious, effective work on behalf of the Esperanto movement itself.

Other than the novice Peter, the sole exception to all this foolishness is the self-sacrificing, sickly Maria, who draws no attention to herself but assumes the role of beast of burden for the group. She seeks total anonymity, being totally dedicated to the movement to the point of asceticism, quietly tolerating all the skullduggery in the group, even when she suffers defamation. Peter is moved by Maria and becomes her only friend in the group, but her superhuman tenacity is beyond his comprehension.

The novel is not very interesting in the beginning, but gains momentum as the conniving intensifies and various amusing incidents come about. A typo finds its way into a text: it is supposed to read that the group wishes to thank a contributing female member with a firm handshake—‘manpremo’—but the printed text reads ‘mampremo’—yielding ‘let us firmly squeeze her breasts’. This is just a play on words, but the following incident is truly hilarious (and difficult to translate because of intentional grammatical errors in the original):

The president entered the door of the small room and clapping his hands, shouted:

— Ladies and gentlemen fellow, I request the leaderships, if they could please come to start the meeting.

— What did that old monkey say? – whispered the woman next to the girl in red.

— I was only able to make out that he invited some people in, as that fool talks only in Esperanto. He thinks that we are just as stupid as he is, to bother learning this hodgepodge of a language which will never amount to anything more than slang for idealistic half-wits.

I can relate! In Esperanto this is even funnier. But Maria’s selfless idealism is the total opposite of all this. It struck me as unrealistic, thus not really admirable. Maria confesses to Peter that amusement distracts from Esperanto’s ‘noble aim’ and ‘high ideals’. Well, it can be good to subordinate one’s own needs and desires to the realization of an ideal, on the condition that one’s efforts are connected to reality; otherwise, it’s just useless sentiment, akin to religious belief. For this reason, the contrast between Maria and the egotists is not fully compelling. Moreover, Emba misses the opportunity to explore more deeply why this situation exists and presents a problem for the Esperanto movement. The juxtaposition of a nebulous world-beating objective and self-serving egotism is neither accidental nor contradictory. It originates in the fact that many Esperantists in actuality don’t specifically think through what they are trying to accomplish. They want to do something important and be important, but they don’t know how to make that happen, and so they behave as we see here.

Eventually we learn more details of Maria’s world view. Unsurprisingly, it consists of international peace and brotherhood, i.e. Esperanto’s ‘internal idea’ (‘interna ideo’). Maria thinks that personal interests are too prominent while the idealistic dimension of the movement is weak. But she adds something new and surprising, for the reader and well as for Peter:

Can you tell me why the working class Esperanto movement is the more vigorous one? Because it takes Zamenhof’s values seriously, adding on the aims and interests of the entire working class.

This is the first time the proletarian Esperantists are mentioned. Thereby we learn that the ‘group’ described in the novel is something different and separate from the working class group. In addition there is the surprise of a favorable attitude toward the proletarian group, which in Peter’s circle has a bad reputation as ‘ragamuffins’, subhuman lowlifes dangerous for Esperanto.

At the climax of the novel, the treasurer is discovered to have stolen the funds and fled with a female member, also abandoning a former lover who is now pregnant. Maria dies in hospital and wills Peter her possessions along with a farewell message. Shamefully, out of the entire group only the president and Peter attend her funeral service. But then comes a surprise: a detachment of the working class group unexpectedly shows up to mourn and bursts into song in Maria’s honor. This is Peter’s first contact with the working class group, whose true character expunges his prejudices. He learns that Maria lived a whole other ‘secret’ life in the proletarian group.

Changes are made in the bourgeois group. The young people deliberate on the prospects for a new dancehall. Their superficial priorities notwithstanding, they are forced to face the real world at large: one member is a Jewish woman who may not be welcome in the new dancehall. The others muse how to remedy this little practical problem, without confronting the ethical question. Emba cleverly describes this situation, which implicates the social issues confronting Esperantism.

The group must accommodate itself to a more modest and stable lifestyle. After a long absence the previously abandoned, pregnant Elza, who is now active in the workers’ group, pays a visit. The author gets in one last gibe:

Mr. Chuka looked at her a long time and afterwards lowered his head.

—  I wish we could have as lively a group here as they have.

—  I have respect for them as well, because they oppose neologisms — opined member Tobots.

While the doddering old folks of the ‘group’ persist in pursuing their grandiose dreams, Peter talks privately with Elza, who confesses that the milieu of the workers’ group is more serious, more fraternal, and less gossipy.

So in the final analysis, the book is not only about the altruistic Maria, but functions as a propaganda piece for the proletarian Esperanto movement. This comes as a surprise, and although propaganda is not serious literature, this theme gives the book more charm. But a question comes to mind: why did Emba not write directly about the workers’ Esperanto movement (in which he was active)? Did the repressive political circumstances of 1936 made it necessary to approach the topic indirectly? I would like to see historians of the Esperanto movement tell us more about the social subtext underlying the novel. The one-time mention of anti-Semitism suggests the growing menace of fascism, which would eventually embark on swallowing up the world. In such a world Esperanto’s ‘internal idea’ becomes something much more serious than Sunday School moralizing.

The type of behavior satirized here is familiar, not necessarily in all its details, but in the general pattern. I would like to learn more about the contemporaneous (presumably Hungarian) proletarian Esperanto movement. Though the time in which we live is totally different, it would be nice to see a revival of working class Esperantist activism (minus the undesirable Stalinist and anarchist residues of the past), inter alia to stimulate more serious content into the often frivolous and sterile Esperanto movement as I experience it today.



This is a somewhat loose translation of a book review I wrote originally in Esperanto when I was in a leadership position in the Esperanto Society of Washington and disgusted with the craziness to be found in it, though there were also sane, well-grounded people in it including the leadership. And there was a fair amount of ditziness to be found in the overall movement in the United States as well. I had long abandoned ‘finvenkismo’ (final-victory-ism), the original but obsolete notion of the eventual universal adoption of Esperanto. Instead, my interest was in doing something useful with this global information network already in existence. Of course I would have to make some changes were I to write this today, first of all because the Internet exists and the Soviet bloc does not, and we will never again see the type of workers’ Esperanto movement that existed before I was born. (I first got myself an e-mail account in 1992.)

I enjoyed this novel mostly for the biting satire, although as you can see, it is also mixed with idealism, whose true home is portrayed as the working class movement. None of this particularly resonates with the situation in the United States, but if you know the history of Eastern Europe and the horrors endured there, you will understand that the Esperanto movement was more than a frivolity.

I particularly enjoyed the exchange referring to the president as a doddering simian and Esperanto as a linguistic hodepodge for dimwitted idealists. Delicious!

But this satire exhibits a larger phenomenon: the Esperanto movement has never consisted entirely of child-like innocents or of puffed-up opportunists: self-criticism and self-satire have been in the mix all along. This is one of the more extensive and interesting specimens. Emba (Imre Baranyai) wrote a lot of touching poetry about poverty, misery, and oppression, which he experienced personally. This was an unusual foray for him.

For a while I have thought about translating my review into English, to give English-speaking non-Esperantists a laugh and to vent to a whole new audience. But I also want to honor the dedicated and long-suffering poet Imre Baranyai, born March 14, 1902, as his birthday approaches.

ORIGINAL SOURCE: Dumain, Ralph. “Maria kaj la Grupo (de Emba), Recenzo,” La Kancerkliniko, n-ro 64, oktobro-decembro 1992, p. 13-14. Review of original Esperanto novel by Imre Baranyai (Emba), Maria kaj la Grupo, antaŭparolo de [forward by] Julio Baghy. Budapest: Literatura Mondo, 1936. 172 p. (Literatura Mondo 54; Beletristika Serio 5.)

Review (Recenzo): Emba, “Maria kaj la Grupo” de R. Dumain

"Al la Forironto" de Emba (Imre Baranyai)

Emba” de Sándor Szathmári

Intelekto kaj ideologio en nia kulturo de K. R. C. Sturmer

Nigraĵoj” de Georgo Verda (Izrael Lejzerowicz)

Esperanto Kiel Anti-Lingvo de Baldur Ragnarsson

Verkoj de & pri Ralph Dumain en La Kancerkliniko
(& aliaj verkoj ĉi-reteje)

Esperanto & Laborista Movado / Esperanto & the Labor Movement

Esperanto & Interlinguistics Study Guide / Retgvidilo pri Esperanto & Interlingvistiko

Alireteje / Offsite:

Maria kaj la Grupo recenzas Ralph Dumain (ĉe OLE)

Imre Baranyai (Emba) @ Ĝirafo

Hororo de Imre BARANYAI (Emba) Unikoda versio

Novjara penso de Imre BARANYAI (Emba)

EMBA (Emeriko Baranyai) 1902-1961

Ekzilo kaj azilo (poemaro) de Emba

Baranyai Imre: Originala Literaturo Esperanta (OLE)

Imre Baranyai - Vikipedio

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Uploaded 13 March 2018

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