Archive

Monthly Archives: May 2013

Ballpoint: A Tale of Genius and Grit, Perilous Times, and the Invention that Changed the Way We WriteBallpoint: A Tale of Genius and Grit, Perilous Times, and the Invention that Changed the Way We Write by Gyoergy Moldova
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“There was a time when I also used to think that there was order in the world, but since then how many times have I seen manipulation and intrigue emerge victorious and genuine achievement go unrewarded?”

So remarks Andor Goy, the less well remembered Hungarian developer of the ballpoint pen. It seems a fair conclusion to draw from this, another story of Hungary’s exhausting 20th century. Moldova wants to us realise that Laszlo Biro lost his rights to the ballpoint through manipulation and intrigue under the rule of law in a free market economy, and Andor Goy lost his likewise under a communist regime; neither system rewarded ‘genuine’ achievement, both rewarded manipulation and intrigue.

It is not clear though, whose ‘genuine’ achievement the ballpoint pen is. As German manufacturers remarked – there didn’t seem to be anything essentially new about the pen Laszlo Biro was touting to them in the 1930s. It took incremental steps in development of the product – Goy’s refinement of the ink feed, Biro’s discovery of an appropriate ink, and ultimately Gy├Ârgy Meyne’s public relations and advertising campaign – to make the ballpoint pen the everyday item that it is. Further evidence for me against a ‘winner takes all’ economic system. The weakness of this book as history is that it doesn’t look critically enough at who did what in the development of the ‘biro’.

But written by a Hungarian novelist, I don’t think that was one of the intentions behind the book. It seems to be addressing the “Should I stay, or should I go” question which must have haunted Hungarians all through the 20th century. A question that Hungarians are again asking themselves.

The focus is on the characters of Biro and Goy, as they deal with both the demands of the ballpoint project and the vagaries of Hungarian history. I prefer Goy, and find his incredible stoicism and commitment to ‘genuine’ work inspiring. He strongly reminds me of his coeval and co-professional, Kadar. Biro is too flighty, and Moldova’s delicate analysis of his response to Hungarian anti-Semitism, suggests that he was damaged in way Goy wasn’t by his own persecution as a class-enemy of the communist regime.

It also contains yet another portrayal of Hungarian refugees living in France before WWII – as treated fictionally in The Invisible Bridge, and somewhat less fictionally in My Happy Days in Hell. I’m increasingly intrigued by this community.

View all my reviews