In the communist era literature played a crucial role in Hungarian society. Western writers were often jealous of the extreme importance that people living in a dictatorship attached to the written word. After 1989, however, the importance of literature gradually dwindled, and the publication of a novel by a well-known writer ceased to be a major event apart from professional circles.
These days the situation seems to be changing. For various reasons, literature is again becoming an issue that people talk about passionately in the press, at demonstrations and on communal websites. There are incidents in which it is the person, the political affiliation or a particular declaration of a writer that causes controversy, as in the case of Ákos Kertész, whose unfortunate remark in the US weekly Amerikai Népszava that Hungarians are “genetically subservient” generated such an outcry that the 80-year-old writer felt forced to emigrate to Canada. Sometimes the debate centres on whether the works of a writer can and should be separated from his person and his political views and actions, as after the death of István Csurka, a writer and right-wing politician who embraced extreme views and was, according to many, one of those who are responsible for the spreading of hate speech in contemporary Hungarian public talk. In other cases, the focus is on the literary canon, as in a recent debate involving four 20th century writers, József Nyirő, Cécile Tormay, Dezső Szabó and Albert Wass. Of these four, Dezső Szabó (1879–1945), a major figure of the so called ‘folk’ (that is, 'népi', as opposed to ‘urbánus' - 'urban’) literature, is the least controversial, but for many, the names of the other three call forth intense reactions.
An attempt to revise the literary canon
The names of these writers—labeled as ‘national conservatives’ by some, ‘national radicals’ by others—have been circulating lately as those whose works were proposed to be included in the national curriculum, in an attempt to revise the literary canon. (Eventually, after a debate between the Association of Teachers of Literature and the State Secretariat for Culture, Nyirő, Szabó and Wass were included as optional, whereas Tormay was left out.) This attempt is viewed by those on the right as a necessary rehabilitation of major writers who were unjustly discarded by the creation of the literary canon as it existed during the Kádár years; whereas on the left it is viewed as an "aesthetic and political rehabilitation of the counter-revolutionary Horthy period and of anticommunist Transylvanian literature, in other words, the redefinition of Neo-Baroque national culture, which is identical with the right-wing” (in the words of writer-critic Péter György).
In the 30s-40s József Nyirő (1889–1953) was a popular writer, by now all but forgotten. Nyirő’s short stories and novels describe the life of Székelys (or Seklers), a group of Hungarians living in Eastern Transylvania, Romania. His characters, villagers living in the Carpathian Mountains, are shepherds, woodcutters, people who live close to nature and who must struggle for a daily living. The protagonist of his novel Bence Uz represents the national ideal of the Székely man—physical strength, sense of humour, shrewdness, solidarity and an ability to survive under the direst circumstances. Nyirő’s political career, however, makes him a problematic choice today, to say the least: he was a great admirer of Goebbels—in a letter that is widely published on websites these days, he waxes lyrical about the Nazi Minister of Propaganda—and he was a member of the Fascist ‘Arrow-Cross parliament’ in 1944, who later escaped retribution and participated in the propaganda work of Hungarian Fascist émigrés.
A recent attempt to rebury Nyirő’s ashes culminated in a morbid farce. The ashes of Nyirő, who died and was buried in Madrid, were taken to Romania and were supposed to be buried on May 27 in Székelyudvarhely (Odorheiu Secuiesc) in Transylvania. The writer’s reburial, however, became a source of political tension between Hungary and Romania. The Romanian authorities didn’t allow the writer’s ashes to be transported to Odorheiu Secuiesc. They checked several cars, and there was a rumour (unrefuted to date) that it was none other but Hungarian State Secretary of Culture Géza Szőcs who was carrying the ashes in his bag. (Szőcs, himself a poet, is a well-known figure as a major Transylvanian poet, samizdat editor and dissident intellectual who had been arrested and beaten several times by the Securitate, the Romanian secret police, in the 1980s. Szőcs resigned on June 13, to be replaced by László L. Simon, also a poet and literary editor.) Eventually, instead of the reburial only a commemoration took place on May 27 in Odorheiu Secuiesc. (As a latest development of the Nyirő affair, on June 18 Elie Wiesel returned the Great Cross, a Hungarian government award that he received in 2004, because Szőcs and László Kövér, speaker of the Hungarian Parliament, attended the commemoration.)
Another writer who is the subject of intense debate is Albert Wass (1908–1988). Banned in the Communist era, the works of Wass, a Transylvanian writer as was Nyirő, started to gain popularity among the Hungarian right in the 1990s. He became so popular that his novel A funtineli boszorkány (The Witch of Funtinel) was rated as the twelfth most popular novel by the Hungarian TV show “The Great Book”, and two more of his books were among the first fifty. After World War II, Wass was condemned as a war criminal by the Romanian People’s Tribunal, a sentence that is still upheld to date. Just like another banned and recently rediscovered writer, Sándor Márai, he emigrated to the United States; and just like Márai, he committed suicide at around the age of 90. Wass wrote dozens of books, mostly novels but also poetry. His person is surrounded by myths and legends—that he almost received a posthumous Nobel Prize or that his suicide was really a murder by Romanians—and he is considered by many as not only a popular but a great writer, whereas most literary historians, as well as many readers, regard him as at best mediocre, sentimental and bombastic. The popularity of his books is due to the patriotic feelings expressed in them, the romantic descriptions of the natural landscape and their explicit didacticism. There are hardly any serious critical works on him; most scholarly literature deals with the story of his reception.
Cécile Tormay (1875–1937) was the grande dame of the conservative Christian right, a fervent opponent of the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919. Her novel entitled A régi ház (The Old House), the story of three generations of an assimilated German patrician family in Biedermeier Pest between the 1830s to the 1880s, is often likened to The Buddenbrooks. Her diary written during the Commune in 1919 (Bujdosó könyv - Book of Exile) is a detailed account of the events of those years, a unique document of a whole social class, which, however, reeks of anti-Semitism. The use of her figure as a political brand name is further complicated by the fact that she was supposedly a lesbian.
Political poetry now
Besides attempts to revise the literary historical canon, in the last few years politics has become an important issue in contemporary poetry as well. Poetry that can be labeled as ‘political’ or ‘public’ has become incredibly vigorous—poems on the current situation in Hungary are shared on communal sites and generate heated discussions. A poem by István Kemény (“Búcsúlevél” – “Farewell Letter”), a major poet of the mid-generation, was the first in a series, followed by János Térey’s “Magyar közöny” (“Hungarian Indifference”) and Ádám Nádasdy’s “A hazafiúi hűségről” (“On Patriotic Loyalty”), and most recently by Virág Erdős’s “Na most akkor” (“So, Now”), a poem which calls attention to the growing gap between the rich and the poor in Hungary in a mock-childish rhythmic and rhyme pattern.
Themes that these poems are concerned with include disillusionment with the current situation in Hungary, solidarity with the poor and the Roma, and the responsibility of intellectuals. Many of them deal with historical traumas such as communism, the holocaust and the Treaty of Trianon (the post-World War I peace agreement which resulted in the loss of two-thirds of the territory and the population of historical Hungary), issues that divide the Hungarian population. Besides generating debates on blogs and communal websites, these poems also started a theoretical discussion in Élet és Irodalom, a liberal literary and political weekly, in which leading critics discussed the meaning of political poetry and its tradition in Hungarian literature.
One of the most awaited volumes of Budapest’s Festive Book Week in June was an anthology entitled Édes hazám (Sweet Homeland), a collection of political poems. The editor of the volume, literary critic Tibor Bárány, writes in the postscript of his intention, by placing these poems side by side in a thematic arrangement, to generate dialogue. He says that although readers and critics paid increasingly less attention to these works after 1989, these poems did exist and thus had already entered into a dialogue of sorts with each other. By reading them side by side, we, the readers, are invited to participate in this dialogue that delineates two decades of democracy in Hungary. "Politics is too important to discuss only in the language of politicians", Bárány says. If we read a political poem, even one written by someone whose views are different from ours, we must put some effort into understanding and interpreting it, which delays our automatic reaction to dismiss the other person as a Communist, a Fascist, etc., labels that people are all too ready to throw at one another in Hungary today.
A poem from this volume by Gábor Schein, in Ottilie Mulzet's translation:
Hungary, you eternal...
Hungary, you eternal ellipsis,
an assignment handed in blank,
weed-choked cemetary, beggar’s alms-box,
A job for a maker of maps!
You blood, you soil, you memory of horror,
you bellowing drunken monster,
wretched ghost-picture on our screens,
if I call to you, you’re not even there!
Not even there, if someone declaimed you
which could last only for one minute.
The child’s bed a catafalque yet again,
Your sad cretinized son, look upon him!
Not even there, even if someone who still lived here,
beyond all hope, would yet grant you trust,
until you’ve devoured every one of his cells,
you on the x-ray, the spreading dark splotch.
Hungary, you eternal ellipsis,
above you the scrawl of time’s weary hand!
Forget the map, the coin's tossed, it’s heads up,
let this evil fable now come to an end!