11. 13. 2009. 10:17

Kertész birthday interview causes controversy

Authors, critics comment on "Balkanization" backlash

On the occasion of Imre Kertész's 80th birthday, the German daily Die Welt featured an interview with the author. The Hungarian translation stirred up storms of controversy as soon as it came out in Hungary at the end of last week.

Public outrage was sparked by the Nobel Prize winning author's bluntly negative opinion of public affairs and culture in contemporary Hungary. Among other things, Kertész had stated in the interview that he considers himself a Berliner rather than a Budapest resident, as a true metropolitan cannot be affiliated with today's entirely Balkanized Budapest. He reckons that in today's Hungary, it is extremists and antisemites who have their voices heard, and the tendency of lying and suppressing the truth is stronger than ever. In answer to the question querying his relation to Hungarian literary tradition he answered that he considered himself a product of European culture and that during the years of Socialism, he hadn't read a single state-authorized book.
 
"Of course I had some critical sentences”, the Nobel-winning author commented to Duna Television, a Hungarian public channel, "but I intended them as constructive... My critiques are always considered treasonable statements, which they are not. I would be ever so pleased if I could be genuinely beneficial to Hungary, my homeland.” He emphasized the fact being beyond question that he considers Hungary his homeland, being born there, a Hungarian citizen and writing in Hungarian.
 
In the Hungarian daily Népszabadság the renowned literary critic Sándor Radnóti reacted to Kertész's statement in a commentary article. He discerned that behind Kertész's words was "a grudge policy that is painfully and unmistakably, characteristically Hungarian”, while also voicing his conviction that "a national culture must bear, in fact appreciate those prominent representatives who turn against it with contempt or disregard. Every Swift, Lichtenberg, or Thomas Bernhard. It is a test of maturity.”
 
The authors and critics consulted by the leading Hungarian literary website Litera also reacted to the Kertész interview with mixed emotions. Critic György Vári says that nowadays Hungarians "are living a rennaissance of our worst reflexes of self-pity and the fear of freedom, and have become vulnerable to our malevolent spirits, and in that sense, Kertész is correct. That our situation has been declining in the last ten years and Budapest has become a barely inhabitable capital, is also correct.” 
 
In answer to whether controversy and polemic around the birthday interview will influence the Hungarian reading of Kertész's works, author László Márton stresses that "Imre Kertész Imre is a writer, not a provocateur. In fact he is a wonderful writer of internationally significant literary works. These will be I think read twenty and fifty years from now, in contexts that are I hope immanent to these works.” Author Iván Sándor also encourages us to read books by Kertész rather than these recent statements: "Perhaps when reading a novel or essay of his, the reader will now think 'There, that's you Imre! and not the one whose incidental, cursory sentences are occasionally forsaken by that wonderful gift for conception that represents the European spirit so well.'”
 
In reply to whether Hungarians' confronting their history is aided by Kertész's words, Vári agrees with Sándor Radnóti and highlights how the Kertész statement "displays the very symptoms of grudge-bearing he condemns.” Though personally Vári considers these grudges understandable, yet "they downgrade his statement from a radical therapy proposition to an integral part of the above-mentioned domestic publicity dispute. That's really too bad, because what Hungary needs now is Imre Kertész in his best form, the real radical, resigned yet responsible, with his sound knowledge of self and of others.”
 
According to philosopher and public writer Ferenc Horkay Hörcher, although in discussing these matters, style can play a vital role, the Kertész statement could act as a catalyst in facing the past. "We do indeed tend to falsify and suppress – as do most European nations and cultures (but let's be frank, Americans aren't too keen either to recall how Natives or Blacks were dealt with in the past). Yet confronting the past is in every political and cultural community's basic interest. In this regard I hold the taboo-building practice of political correctness decidedly harmful... On the other hand, besides castigating Hungarians and the policy of untruthfulness, another important feature of Kertész's message was the critique of Germans and Jews. The only way to make critique sound credible is through self-criticism. And even the best of authors are in need of it.” 
 
As regarding Kertész's sentences on post-war Hungarian literature, Vári figures that if we were to take Kertész seriously, we would nullify the achievement of the likes of Miklós Mészöly, Géza Ottlik, Weöres, Pilinszky and Tandori. Not to mention the fact that even in works by authors of dubious conduct we may also find value.  
 
Slovakian Hungarian author Lajos Grendel is unimpressed by the "blunt, generalising point of view” that Kertész displays. "As a Slovakian Hungarian, I am familiar with the bitterness that Imre Kertész may feel hearing the far right or to put it appropriately, Nazi communication... This phenomenon is familiar in Slovakia, in addition to the anti-Hungarian hate speech of Slota and others. Yet I would not describe Slovakia as dominated by voices from the far right, or public discourse defined by antisemitism. Even though we have antisemitism, gypsy hating, and homophobia, here, oodles of it. And in the Czech Republic too. I also consider it a point-blank verdict that there was no Modernist Hungarian literature until put forth by Imre Kertész, Péter Nádas and Péter Esterházy. No way…!”
 
Translated by Dániel Dányi

Tags: Authors, critics comment on "Balkanization" backlash