A couple of years ago, I found myself in the northern Serbian town of Subotica. I had travelled north by train from Belgrade, crossing the Danube at Novi Sad by a new steel bridge upstream of the wreckage of the old one, recently smashed by Nato weaponry. It was January; in Subotica it was -12 C, never mind wind-chill factors, and the old centre had something of the ice palace about it: Austro-Hungarian gables added a pretty, brittle ornamentation to the heavy overnight snowfall.
I was in Subotica as a pilgrim. One of the town's curiosities is that two great central European writers were born there. In 1885, the Hungarian Dezso Kosztolanyi came into the world in what was then called Szabadka. In 1920, Szabadka was ceded to Yugoslavia under the terms of the Treaty of Trianon. A decade and a half later, in the new Subotica, Danilo Kis was born.
Having begun with one similarity (apart from sharing the same initials), the pair collected others. Kosztolanyi lived through a disturbing period of Hungary's history, observing its defeat and the end of Austria-Hungary, Bela Kun's short-lived Soviet Republic, and a precarious peace. Kis was also witness to a terrible time, "seeing the bodies lying outside the houses on our street", and his novel Hourglass, a story of the weeks in a man's life before he is sent to a concentration camp, was triggered by his father's deportation to Auschwitz in 1944. Both are considered accomplished stylists in their country. Both are concerned with fiction's melody - a kind of poetry, except that there is nothing heightened about this lyrical machinery. Both died in their fifties, of cancer. Eloquently but obliquely, their novels have welded themselves to my memory.
I mention Subotica and these two 20th-century men because there is a connection between their experience and our present plight. Both knew of war and both disbelieved the politicians' boasts. Kis wrote, in a collection of essays entitled Homo Poeticus (Carcanet): "The principle . . . which holds that literature must be engaged or cease to be literature, demonstrates only to what extent politics has seeped into all pores of life and being; it shows how the political has flooded everything like an awful swamp, to what degree man has become one-dimensional and poor of spirit . . ."
Kis described himself as a European writer. He was indebted to the Hungarian milieu of his childhood, which he regarded as part of central Europe, that distinct aesthetic and cultural milieu defended by Milan Kundera in his 1983 essay "The West Kidnapped, or the Tragedy of Central Europe". Kosztolanyi, too, thought of himself as European. He founded a literary magazine whose title, Nyugat (West), says something about the aspirations of its contributors, and his fiction is influenced by the 19th-century realists. Like theirs, his realism is plus que realiste; he begins his masterpiece, Anna Edes, with a sharp portrait of Hungary's morally hollow post-imperial middle class, developing it, Bovary-like, into a tragic crime of passion. Anna Edes can be read as a warning to any who would use power to humiliate, and as a still serviceable emblem of Balkan destiny.
The enterprise of both writers is rooted in one conviction: that words are all we have. As Kosztolanyi once noted, as a writer he would always choose "the babbling surface" over the "silent depths". Beyond language, you might say, there is nothing. Kis agreed: "We must be aware that literature, or poetry, is the barrier against barbarism, and that literature, even if it does not 'purify the senses', nevertheless serves a purpose: it gives some sense to the vanity of existence."
A further similarity is that both these novelists are hardly known in Britain. You will find infinitely more Danielle Steel than Danilo Kis on the shelf at your local Waterstone's (by which I mean there is no Kis at all). This is a freak of British literary culture. We publish occasional European discoveries - Patrick Suskind's Perfume or more recently the Hungarian Sandor Marai's Embers - but one of the most significant cultural signs of the 20th century was British publishers' systematic failure to publish 60 years' worth of European fiction. This does, at least, mean there are still discoveries to make; it also results in the foolish idea that a single novel such as Embers (hyped by its publisher after translation from the German) stands for a whole nation or language. First-rate translations exist of two of Kosztolanyi's novels, Anna Edes and Skylark, but astonishingly no English-language publisher has yet taken on his marvellously comic Kornel Esti stories.
"Who the hell would seek out literature in this country!" Kis once wrote in exasperation. "And who would be able to make his way through all the nationalist bullshit?" Well, he was, for one, as was his fellow townsman. Both understood there was no inherent meaning in nationalism, or anything else. There were only words, out of which we make up everything we have.
In our current spring of war - when the whole world has something of the ice palace about it - it is not hard to conclude that it is Homo poeticus, not Homo politicus, who will ultimately defend our civilised values.