An interview with György Spiró
“It is not worth writing prose without an authentic epic core.” Is this the basic tenet of Spiró novels?
Not necessarily. I have also written stories that are absolutely fictitious, but there is a certain kind of text where it is very important – for me – to create a strong reality basis. It is not a well known fact, but decent writers tend to do a lot of background work. My experience is that I can use roughly ten per cent of whatever comes up during the research. Obviously, it is not my aim to reconstruct an era as a historian. I am not interested in the era per se, because I write fiction. But in order to make a narrative work, in order to convey the atmosphere and the events, it is worth delving into the era thoroughly. Writers do not tend to emphasize this, because it is part of the job.
Your most recent novel is about 1956 and the months following the Revolution. Was it easy to gain access to the materials?
I didn’t know before I started that a lot had been published about the era in the last twenty years. Most of these books are fascinating reading, but many of them do not get to the audience, because they are published in a few hundred copies and hardly get reviewed. One of these is about János Kádár’s 1952 trial, edited by László Varga, another is a monograph by Éva Standeisky. The Institute for the History of the 1956 Revolution has published interviews with the leaders of the workers’ councils who were later condemned. And there are many others.
Do you have first-hand experience about the events in 1956? You were 11 years old then.
There are some advantages to the fact that I was a child then. Those who were adults at the time usually could not write a valid account. Or if they could, they inevitably distorted it and represented it from one particular point of view, and no wonder. It is always like that in times of particular historical weight. Those, on the other hand, who did not take part in the events on either side, for example because they were not born yet, usually don’t understand what happened in the souls. I was big enough to have memories, I still have some images in my mind and I think I understand those who were adults then. The rest is the result of the research that I was in fact very happy to do.
Did you have any unexpected findings about the early Kádár era?
Oh yes. This was a time when the regime did a lot to intimidate the society. And what is funny about this – and this is something I understood in the course of this research – is that it was absolutely unnecessary. The society, it seems to me, invented the Kádár era long before Kádár and company realized this. The tragic fact is that many people were executed in order to intimidate the society when all the regime should have done is to make a compromise.
The 50s had a very special linguistic scene, with terms and expressions that have been all but forgotten ever since. How did you construct the linguistic reality of the novel?
This scene is familiar to me. I started school in 1952, so I had my share of the socialist jargon. The task was to use the least jargon possible, because today readers don’t understand it anymore. Of course, the linguistic scene of the 50s is very strongly present in the terms the characters use. In such a case a writer does not always know what to do. One cannot go and explain the terms because then one ends up with a lexicon instead of a novel. It is not easy to find the right balance.
One of your characters consistently calls the events of 1956 a civil war.
Because that's what it was. In 1956 there was an uprising, a revolution, a civil war and a war. All four. I am not the first to use all these terms together. We have known ever since the French Revolution that revolutions start with uprisings, then there is a revolutionary phase, then comes the civil war in which the citizens massacre each other. Then sooner or later foreign powers intervene. Civil wars are usually crushed with the help of foreign powers; in other words, the counterrevolution is carried out by foreign powers. This was the case with the French, the Russians, everywhere. Eastern European uprisings and revolutions are typically 19th-century phenomena, and we are far from the culmination of the process. We are part of a long era that may last several hundred years, and this means more revolutions and civil wars to come. Almost every generation has a share of some of these in Eastern Europe.
A lot of your fiction is about historical subjects. Why?
Of course one tries to write about things one has personal knowledge about. This is true about historical topics as well. I do not write about things that I haven’t experienced personally, because I would be unable to. That is how I felt about Rome two thousand years ago: for some reason I thought that it resembled the world of today, and that is why I had the courage to write about it.
Your books are usually sold in many copies, your dramas are played to full house. What does literary success mean to you?
Weak works can be very successful and very good works can be unsuccessful for long periods. Success does not say much about quality. As for me, I am happiest – and this rarely happens – when I manage to write something that I was in fact incapable of writing.