03. 31. 2018. 07:10

The Pleasures of the Arrow-Cross

translated by Tom Sneddon

Gábor Zoltán could hardly have found a more fitting title to encapsulate the viewpoint and vision of his novel. – Teri Szűcs' review of Zoltán Gábor's Orgy, and interview with the author.

Orgy tells the story of the Hungary’s Arrow Cross Party – the fascist party which ruled Hungary during the final months of World War Two – and in particular the actions of Budapest’s 12th District branch. The facts surrounding this group are comparatively well-known (some more than others) which brings the characters, events and circumstances of those days into startlingly sharp focus. So close, indeed, that the reader can almost smell them, and it becomes apparent that this sense of immediacy is the overriding goal of the novel. Gábor Zoltán leads us places we do not want to go, but while the novel is based on a wealth of historical facts, this is unmistakably a literary retelling of the story.

Close to half a decade of research went into the writing of this book, and a wealth of detail surfaces on every page, from street noises to the speech inflections of the era and any number of familiar and not-so-familiar names. It’s the same with the houses, streets and courtyards, which in official documents are only addresses, but which here burst with stories of life and death. More than this, though, there is also insight: The past can truly be recovered, if we are willing to exchange the comfortable abstractions of temporal remoteness for an altogether more painful immediacy.

More even than this, however, is the step-by-step examination of how the orgy of violence unleashed by the ‘Boys from the Twelfth’ steadily escalated, moving from politically or economically-motivated aggression towards merciless brutality for the sheer thrill of it. There are countless instances in the novel where characters feel the intoxicating power of being able to hurt or torture another human being, and just as many which show how sexual violence was an everyday fact of life for the men and women of the Arrow Cross: First rape, then the river. The life of an Arrow-Cross member was an endless orgy of sexual and physical violence, in which the search for Jews, deserters, communists and ‘suspicious elements’ consumed virtually all manpower and resources. Absolutely anything could be done to those in custody; indeed, the more horrific the better. Torture, rape and murder were not merely tolerated but encouraged at every level of the command structure. This was the orgy of the Arrow Cross, and this their pleasure. This can, if the reader so chooses, serve as the book’s answer to that constantly recurring question: Why? Because brutal carnality was released, and allowed to run amok. The story of the Arrow Cross, and in particular of the circle around Father Kun, thus becomes the story of bodies: On the one hand their own insatiable, bodily lusts for aggression and violation, on the other hand the broken, mutilated, raped and defiled bodies of their victims.

In describing the orgy’s steady proliferation, Gábor Zoltán adopts a lean, understated style. Anyone who has read the continually developing details of this work in literary journals is sure to be surprised: In place of a reflective narrator constantly interrogating his own knowledge and ignorance, we are confronted here by writing which is uncompromisingly spare. The novel’s protagonist, a man by the name of Renner, is a Christian factory owner with a Jewish wife and a Jewish lover. From potential victim of the Arrow-Cross, he eventually becomes their accomplice, and though he abhors the idea of raping, beating or killing, he works to ingratiate himself with them in order to survive the post-putsch period and protect his loved-ones. Shadowing his movements and seeing events through his eyes, we gain a fresh, contemporary perspective on historical events. It is also through his eyes that we see the Arrow-Cross members, not only during massacres, but also in casual conversation with one another, and see the peculiar style of Hungarian used within the Arrow Cross (Gábor Zoltán speaks about uncovering the Arrow-Cross language, and about its reconstruction in the novel, in this video.) [link]

Just as our understanding of the past should be viscerally, physically real, so our forgetfulness of the past has a fundamentally physical character which we rarely acknowledge. Gábor Zoltán’s novel is full of streets and districts familiar to any inhabitant of Budapest: Városmajor, Maros St, Csaba St, Andrássy and Böszörményi Boulevards… I could go on. We are even given specific addresses: There were Arrow Cross centres at Városmajor St 37, Andrássy St 47, Németvölgyi St 5. There were massacres at the Buda Israelite Chevra Kadisha Hospital, at Maros St 16, at the Biró Dániel Hospital, at Városmajor St 64-66 and so on.

We, the current inhabitants of Budapest, stroll past such places every day, making them symbolic nodes of our collective amnesia: Each is crammed with the ghosts of the past, yet to us they remain utterly blank and anonymous. The novel explores this theme: every house has a story, with the murdered and the murderers living side-by-side, perhaps separated only by a single wall. Then one story reaches its conclusion and another begins, with the district and the city carrying on as though nothing had happened. The streets and houses of Budapest’s 12th District – the suburb of Buda where Gábor Zoltán himself lives – remain the scene of a great crime, and nothing which he can drag up from the well of amnesia is allowed to remain in darkness. Indeed, in this novel the effort of memory is pushed to perhaps its furthest possible point, in an effort to effect that ‘recompense of remembrance’ of which János Pilinszky wrote. Here the central effort is to make the past not merely visible but tangible, and to render impossible any complacent cynicism or indifference. We should not be able to avert our gaze from what took place in our own homes and on our own streets.

Though the narrative has been composed in a deceptively simple style, I consider Gábor Zoltán’s novel one of the most significant experiments in contemporary fiction. This is a bold attempt to transform the painstaking labour of historiography into literature. The difficulty should not be underestimated, since it requires an almost unimaginable level of precision, but it also leads to insights far beyond the factual basis on which it rests. I hope that many will read this book, finding it impossible to look away from either the unflinching brutality or from the subtle examination it offers of the stages and circumstances a society goes through as it collapses into anarchic violence.

In preparing for this review I conducted an interview with Gábor Zoltán. I asked him about the steps he went through in the preparation of this book, and in particular about the first step: the research. It may be helpful for the appreciation of this novel to observe how the interview develops, to better understand the kind of book we are reading.

Reviewer: What were the principle sources informing your work?

Gábor Zoltán: If I had to pick one source as most important, it would have to be court records. Reading about proceedings undertaken against different people at different times, and seeing the way the original records are altered or overwritten, shades and deepens one’s understanding of the past. Besides, the records themselves also contain an astounding variety of texts, from official reports and the minutes of meetings and negotiations to hand-written testimonies, interviews, negotiations, submissions, medical reports and so on. For instance, among a sheaf of documents from the 1960s there are submissions from a prison informer which – whatever one thinks about the regime responsible for commissioning them –contain invaluable information. They make it abundantly clear, for instance, that a quarter of a century after the events of 1944-45 the surviving Arrow-Cross members did not evince the slightest signs of a guilty conscience. This, of course, is difficult for us to grasp, but no less crucial that we bear it in mind.

There remain, miraculously enough, some documents produced by the Arrow-Cross members themselves, including both letters and reports. Thus the communiqué by Nidosi I quote in the book is in fact an extract from a real document that he himself typed.

Post-mortem examinations carried out by police doctors also proved invaluable as documentary evidence. After the Arrow-Cross torturers had brought their victims down to the banks of the Danube and shot them into the river, many bodies soon came to shore again. Some of these were taken to morgues, with post-mortems carried out just as they would have been in peacetime. In the objective style of such reports we see the various tortures these people had been subjected to.

One must, of course, wade through a great deal of uninteresting or patently false information to glean those little details which appear both authentic and important. For instance, buried in an official report is a directive stating that anyone condemned to die must first suffer at least twenty minutes’ torture, and this became a crucial leitmotif in my novel.

While researching archived material I relied on the advice and suggestions of academics, and for this I thank the National Rabbi Training – Jewish University and the Eötvös Loránd University of Budapest, as well as the help of György Gábor, Anna Gács and Péter György.

In the end, though, every means of gathering information is important, and the range of possible sources ultimately seems endless. For instance, I always seek out the locations of events, and stroll around the nearby streets.

R: Whether in witness statements, testimonials, or indeed any other kind of documentary evidence, how and in what degree were you able to piece together evidence of sexual aggression, rape and sexual torture, which is such a singularly vivid aspect of Arrow Cross brutality? Does any testimony of these orgies remain from survivors or perpetrators?

GZ: The answer is simply that it was such a key part of their modus operandi, and happened in so many places. One constantly comes across references to it, in a variety of veiled phrases. Often the same witness describes the same event differently in a different context. On the one hand, court recorders often seem compelled to gloss over or downplay accounts of sexual violence, but on certain occasions they seem to have felt they had no other option besides writing down the bare facts that had surfaced. In general, though, detectives and prosecution lawyers seem to have been unwilling to go into the details of what happened, and at times even seem to have suppressed both witness testimonies and the evidence obtained in confessions. A separate study could be made on the euphemistic language used in such situations. In fact, it really ought to be.

Still, by comparing large-scale cases of mass-rape, we are able in this case to assemble a fairly detailed impression of what actually happened. When it comes to mass-rapes committed by invading army units during the same period it is much harder to assemble such a detailed picture.

What windows do we have into the private lives of Arrow Cross members during this period? Is there anything we can read that would bring us closer to understanding their mind-set?

GZ: Well, first and foremost those court records I mentioned earlier. A lot of information can also be gathered from membership application forms, which are stored in the National Archive. Sometimes the press also adds some detail to the picture, for instance in an interview with Katalin Fehérhegyi, who was secretary to Arrow Cross commander Dénes Bokor. There are a few photos, including one of the grande dame of the Arrow Cross, Mrs Rédli, which survives in a newspaper. I was also lucky enough to be able to interview two people in person, one who personally knew an Arrow-Cross member herself, and one who knew the inspiration for Renner.

R: How much research did you do on the websites and encyclopaedias of groups sympathetic to the Arrow Cross movement, and did the atmosphere in such contemporary circles interest you?

GZ: I made no effort to seek such people out, but now and then (entirely by accident) I did stumble across such material. To say that I find it upsetting is a considerable understatement. That’s why I avoid the stuff printed about Ferenc Megadja in the text called Szlavko or in Holmi.

They argue that Father Kun was simply protecting the church by force of arms. That whole scene probably deserves its own study too: On the one hand they argue constantly, trying to win converts, but on the other hand there’s a continual sense that they’re all just pissing about. Still, I suppose the way they gather and present evidence is instructive in its own way.

R: How were you able to make contact with people who could give you testimony about what happened?

GZ: Well, for example I wrote a novella, a sort of preliminary work which appeared in a literary journal, and which featured the name of an Arrow-Cross member. It was read by a lady who had known this man when she was a little girl. This upset her, and she contacted me. We met up and told one another what we knew about this man. Her impressions of his character and personality helped inform his representation in the novel.

I also know some people who were in the factory in which Renner ends up hiding people. Without their help I would never have been able to put together such a detailed description of a steel mill during that period. 

R: It seems an important principle of this novel that every Arrow-Cross member appears under his or her own name: Kun, Bokor, Megadja, Hajgató, Dési-Dregán, Rédli… What about Renner, and how did you end up meeting someone who inspired his story?

It was an accident, and turned out to be rather painful. In an archive of reports from the DEGOB [Department for Deported Persons] I read a wife’s (‘Klára’s’) account of her husband’s Christmas execution, and decided to incorporate it into a novel under the name Véresmajor. A little later I came across the name of her husband as a member of the Arrow Cross, and had to discard that section from the novel I was preparing. I kept gathering information about the case, and slowly came to realise that this truly was a big story. All the same, I still didn’t think that I would write it. Then I changed my mind. Indeed, this story was the reason that I ended up abandoning the Véresmajor idea, and after several false starts eventually embarked on the novel now entitled ‘Orgy.’


Writer: Gábor Zoltán. Title: Orgy. Publisher: Pesti Kalligram.
Year of publication: 2016. Number of Pages: 320. Price: 3490 Forints.

The original review in Hungarian can be found at Revizor.

Translated by Tom Sneddon.