Interview with Attila Ménes
A quarter of a century has passed since the end of communism in Hungary, and the files of the state security service are still inaccessible to the public. Attila Ménes's play is based on the life of one of the most prominent authors of the last century, Sándor Tar, who was later exposed as an agent.
One of the greatest scandals of the quarter of the century that has passed since the end of communism in Hungary is the fact that the files of the state security service are still inaccessible to the public. This is the shame and scandal of the political elites, Attila Ménes writes in the beginning of his play entitled Bihari, in which he recounts the life of one of the most prominent authors of the last century, Sándor Tar, the writer of Our Street , a masterpiece that was recently released in English by Contra Mundum Press. Ménes's play is performed at Katona József Theatre in Budapest.
How can someone be a pure man and a wicked informer at the same time? More than fifteen years have passed since the exposure of Sándor Tar in 1999. Why are you so concerned about his fate?
As a young author, I frequently visited his apartment in Debrecen, I lived close to him. We became friends, talked a lot and I grew to love him: he was incredibly straightforward, a fraternally simple person. When you looked into his eyes you saw a virtuous man. Meanwhile – as it later turned out – he did an extremely noxious job as a secret service agent. He did great harm to many. Moreover, he was over-zealous: he reported even things that were unnecessary, things he needn’t have reported because only he knew about them. He didn’t only deliver information on the given task, but gave tips about who could be involved and how. He had this nearly incomprehensible wish to prove himself to the authorities. It is this duality that is hard to forget, that nothing showed of all the cruelty in him. I’ve been pondering over this since 1999 and to this day, I still cannot come to terms with someone being so vile and benign at the same time.
Attila Ménes. Photo by Ákos Stiller
Did you get any answers to this question while writing your play? No explanation can be gathered from Bihari if not that according to common sense, this is impossible.
I couldn’t solve the question, I came to the conclusion that we have to live with the knowledge that there are all kinds of things in a human being, including extremities, and it’s only the circumstances that decide what comes to the surface. And this is true for every single human being. At the time, I myself did illegal things, for example I bought a printing press with a fake ID. If I was to be caught and blackmailed with my mother, I would have signed to them without a second thought. I was just lucky it didn’t come to that.
The play is obviously based on Sándor Tar’s life, yet it is not only about him…
When I came to Pest in the middle of the eighties, I joined the democratic opposition. I distributed samizdat literature, and was a member of a radical group, so I got to know many figures similar to Sándor Tar, with whom I was in a fairly close relationship, and about whom it later turned out that they were agents. I moulded the figure of Bihari from them: from the experience that you trust someone who has grave thoughts that you cannot see. It’s like when a child no longer trusts the world. This is a personal drama that I had to come to terms with: writing the play was the work of mourning.
How thoroughly did you research the records?
There are many blank spots but there are some fixed points as well: we know that he was involved, we are familiar with the reports, and we also know that this killed him. I filled these fixed points with fiction, but I cannot be far from reality. We don’t know, for example, whether he was beaten or not when he was recruited because at times he said he was, at other times he said he wasn’t. I think he was badly beaten, humiliated and his personality was torn into pieces so as to a create a whole new person of him who was their ‘comrade.’
In retrospect, can you think of anything that was strange, moments when you could have suspected that something wasn’t quite all right with him?
No, my faith in him was a hundred per cent sure. In 1999 the bomb blew up at the Frankfurt Book Fair just when he could have become renowned in Europe as two of his books had just been published in German. He couldn’t face his past, though he was asked by several people to write his story. He did write a screenplay on it, but the facts are blurred. He told me he would never tell anybody how he was recruited.
Did he tell you why?
No. His recruitment file says that he signed on to cooperate with the authorities for patriotic reasons.
Nevertheless, you raise a few possible reasons in your play…
Yes, with the most probable reason being that he was blackmailed with his homosexuality. But nobody has reliable information about that.
Didn’t he talk about that either?
That was the greatest taboo. Tar came from an extremely poor, rural background, where it would be absolutely impossible for anyone to come out publicly. If he was homosexual, he kept it as a secret.
You once said you could not decide even to this day whether you were glad or whether you regretted that all this came out…
Fundamentally, I think everything should be brought to light. There are many people who say that a quarter of a century has passed since then and that it doesn’t make any difference now, let’s just forget all this and move on. Yet we know that in the first parliament, a major share of the MPs were former state security agents.
What difference would it make if all were cleared up? A common counter-argument is that so many files were destroyed that although some would be made public, many former agents would still get away with it.
I think all the files can be found somewhere, if nowhere else, in Moscow. Even if some were removed, it would be important to follow the Czech and the Germans and make all data public. I’m sure it caused some tragedies but it’s still worth it and it’s never too late.
Because these secrets spoil everything?
Yes, this is a very strong poison; besides, once in a while some names are being dragged out by the different political parties which is terribly disgusting. I prefer knowing everything even if it is incomplete.
Did you meet Sándor Tar after 1999?
Only a few times. He was already in a bad condition then. He moved in and out of the psychiatric department near his flat in Debrecen, where he was heavily drugged so he could tolerate things to a certain extent. Then, on a Saturday afternoon he drank himself to death. Already at the time, I tried to retrace that day. That morning György Moldova declared on TV that Tar should clear out of literature. Sándor Tar wrote sociographic prose, Moldova was one of his great role models, and it was him who gave him the final blow. I went to the pub near his house, to his regular haunt, where the bartender told me Tar turned up that morning, bought a demijohn of brandy and went home.
Do you see him as a victim?
Yes, because I knew he wasn’t born into an educated family, so he didn’t have the family’s civic virtues to fall back on, and it was much harder for him to resist the authorities. You cannot defend yourself, you cannot say no, because you are socialized in a way that whatever the authority says you have to do. He didn’t have anything to draw courage from.
Not everyone brought up in a middle-class family could say no…
That’s true, but they at least had the chance to. They dare to see the world differently, to judge with their eyes and minds what’s good or bad, what is sinful and what is not, because of their upbringing.
The most vulnerable ones are always those coming from the outside as they have this jealousy, envy, and ressentiment in them which is an excellent base for the authorities to build on. What can possibly be done about that?
It is exactly this “negative core” in us that we have to struggle against. I believe we can make up for a disadvantaged background, but it requires persistent work. Anyone can become anything. I myself have always felt this inferiority complex. No doubt that’s why I was able to get so close to Tar.
This interview was originally published in Hungarian at hvg.hu.
Translated by: Anna Pályi