07. 10. 2012. 23:15

Literary spies

Writers and poets were intensively spied upon in the forty years of the Kádár era. After his book on agents on the rock music scene, Tamás Szőnyei has written a monumental study on informers who specialized in literary life.

Arguably, no other art got as much attention in the Kádár era as literature—not even theatre, and definitely not the fine arts, music or film, Szőnyei writes in his Introduction. Bureaucrats condemned ‘harmful’ phenomena in literary life, as well as writers and poets whom they considered ‘confused’ thinkers, ideologically ‘problematic’ and ‘unbalanced’, and even those who praised these writers. This practice was later declared openly by the regime’s highest authority on all things pertaining to culture, György Aczél, and was known as the notorious 3 Ts (támogatás, tűrés, tiltás – support, tolerance and prohibition).

Szőnyei claims that although he worked through quite an amount of dossiers when he researched the Hungarian rock scene, spying on literary life consumed even more paper. This is, of course, partly due to the fact that some of the agents specializing in this field were writers (or at least graphomaniacs) themselves. Some of the reports are well-written, well-argued pieces and make for very interesting reading; others, however, were scribbled down by semi-literate people.

János Kádár, who came to power after putting down the 1956 Revolution, could not allow 1956 to happen again. The new power was aware that writers, their works and literary circles played a great role in the events preceding and leading up to the Revolution. Therefore they decided to keep close eye on the active participants on the literary scene. The State Security Department (the dreaded and hated ÁVO) was dissolved by 1957, then reorganized under the name of State Security Office (ÁVH), and expanded to include new agents, many of them former revolutionaries. A whole army of agents kept a close watch on literary life: on the institutions (writers’ associations, magazines, publishing houses, universities, the radio and the television), as well as on the private sphere—companies meeting in apartments and cafés. The content of the reports ranges from factual information to assumptions and the most irrelevant and banal observations, based on conversations that the agents overheard or participated in, as well as on opened letters and tapped phone calls. The secret police knew exactly who said what to whom, when, and why, Szőnyei says. And when this exceeded a certain limit, they intervened.

It is amazing to see how much energy the secret police wasted absolutely unnecessarily on cases which would definitely not be worth a mention in a normal state, the author says. He mentions some cases which could be considered funny if they were not so pathetic, including one from the 1970s in which a writer called Gergely Rákosy criticized the work of the police in his novella. An investigation was launched immediately to find out if the writer had internal sources. They followed him everywhere for ten days, with the only tangible result that once a week, they learnt, he discussed derby tips with friends at a restaurant.

From the point of view of the secret police, Szőnyei says, literature hardly differed from sport or from heavy industry. One thing was obviously not important: artistic quality. Dilettante writers were observed just as diligently as the greatest ones.

Szőnyei worked as a journalist for several decades before becoming a researcher at the Historical Archives of the Hungarian State Security (ÁBTL). Thus, his monograph is far from being a dry academic study. It begins with fictitious reports, written before 1945 by fictitious agents on major Hungarian writers and poets including Endre Ady, Frigyes Karinthy and Miklós Radnóti. If such reports were written in the Horthy era, there is no trace of them. Indeed, such a massive reliance on spying on ordinary and not-so-ordinary citizens by the secret police is characteristic of the party-state, which knew it all too well that the majority of the population loathed their rule.

The chapters are organized chronologically around the individual authors, magazines and events (including the first writers’ delegation to the West after 1956; religious writers and poets; émigré association of writers; venues of young artists; and the circles around certain poets, writers and critics). These chapters, with aptly chosen metaphoric titles, create a radically new impression of the forty years preceding the change of regime, as one reviewer puts it, and give us a lot of valuable information about how those in power thought about and related to culture. Perhaps the greatest value of this book is its contribution to the understanding of the Kádár era; as another reviewer writes, “the professional, objective and versatile description of the untruthful, yet crucial moral and existential dilemmas that determined and ruined the life of intellectuals in the Kádár era.” The question was “how much of our personal freedom and integrity can we give up in the transaction, and still preserve part of our freedom and integrity after it?”

Besides the main text, written in fluent prose, the book includes a lot of primary sources: reports by agents which betray their way of thinking and enable the reader to judge their influence on literary life on the basis of their writings.

The first review quoted above points out that many former agents have tried to defend themselves by saying that although they formally consented, they never really gave out any tangible information. However, as we read the reports we realize that the secret police would never have allowed that. As the reviewer says, “an agent could remain active (sometimes for decades) only if his work was regular, useful and precise”.

The reliability of the information contained in the reports is, of course, impossible to assess. We cannot know if what an agent said was true; if an agent revealed himself to those that he reported on; or if an observed person misinformed an agent, knowing full well that he was dealing with an informer. Accordingly, the author himself considers his work “the reconstruction of a constructed world”.

People like Szőnyei who work on this topic are often accused of “hunting for agents”. Yet Szőnyei says his aim was far from establishing a list. The real-life names of the agents are also mentioned in the book; however, the list is far from being complete: out of the five hundred agents specializing in literature the names of only 260 are known. More than two-thirds of the dossiers, including the one that listed the names of all the agents, were ‘somehow’ lost in the turbulent months of the change of regime. It is impossible to tell what principles were applied to this ‘dossier-burning’, if any. (Some say it was merely a hysterical attempt to annihilate as many incriminating documents as possible.) Some of the dossiers were preserved entirely, for example, the dossier in which reports on literary critic Mihály Ilia—some 1,500 pages—were kept; others were almost entirely lost, including the dossiers of Eötvös Loránd University of Budapest (ELTE), probably several thousand pages worth. (Former ELTE students say that even as late as in 1987, some of them were summoned to the office of the Dean of Studies where they were approached by two men looking like Laurel and Hardy, only much worse, who wouldn’t introduce themselves but would smile suggestively and ask them to inform on their fellow students.) Besides, as Szőnyei says in his Introduction, these bulky volumes of more than two thousand pages will still not be able to clarify all the important questions concerning agents, since the copies made for the internal archives of the secret police have been classified as top secret until 2060.

Through the years, some well-known writers turned out to be former agents. One of these was István Csurka, an important figure of the far right, who was recruited in 1957 during his internment, a fact he had to admit publicly in 1993, but who apparently never informed on anybody. Another case is that of Sándor Tar, whose short stories on the insulted and the injured of Hungary in the Kádár era are among the best in post-war Hungarian fiction. Of humble origin, Tar, who lived in the town of Debrecen, was supported by several of his colleagues in Budapest. In the 90s it turned out that he had informed on them all. Tar was emotionally and morally crushed by the scandal, and died six years later, lonely and poor, abandoned by his colleagues. It was one of the revelations of Szőnyei’s book that one of Tar’s Budapest writer friends, the prominent dissident intellectual Zsolt Csalog had himself been an agent.

Why did the agents agree to do such an ignoble thing? There could be several reasons. It is unacceptable for anyone to inform the secret police on our fellow citizens, Szőnyei says. However, the case of those who were intimidated and blackmailed is certainly different from that of those who chose to become agents for certain benefits—a bigger apartment or a trip to the West—and enjoyed their secret power for years, sometimes for decades. It also makes a difference whether someone was recruited just after the Revolution or in the 80s—in the former case, the methods were incomparably harsher and more efficient. In many cases the relationship of the agent and the organization was not based on mutuality; often, the secret police exploited and humiliated the agents. Yet, as Szőnyei points out, it was not even a fully professional machinery like its East German counterpart but a sloppy and chaotic one.

Should we reassess the oeuvre of those writers and critics who were agents, Szőnyei asks. Should this knowledge change our opinion of them? He arrives at the conclusion that everybody must answer this question for themselves. The whole ‘agent question’, as it is called in Hungarian public life, is a complex issue, and the responsibility of an agent remains a problem that must be assessed separately in each individual case.

Szőnyei Tamás: Titkos írás. Állambiztonsági szolgálat és irodalmi élet, 19561990 [Secret Writing. The State Security Services and Literary Life, 19561990]
Budapest: Noran, 2012

Ágnes Orzóy