03. 09. 2011. 09:22

The will to live

György Spiró: Spring Collection

György Spiró's new novel, Spring Collection tells about the vicissitudes of a man from the outbreak of the 1956 Revolution to the evening of 1 May 1957. Though he spends the weeks of the Revolution in hospital, he almost ends up being involved in a show trial.

György Spiró’s new novel spans a bit more than half a year: it tells the story of the vicissitudes of an engineer from the outbreak of the 1956 Revolution to the evening of 1 May 1957. The story in a nutshell is as follows: Gyula Fátray goes through a haemorrhoid operation, thanks to which he lies in hospital during the weeks of the Revolution. The Revolution is crushed, and Fátray returns to his mediocre life and gloomy family. Soon the retaliation by the new, Soviet-installed regime of János Kádár begins, and Fátray notes with relief that, having done nothing wrong during the Revolution, he can come to no harm. Yet very soon he finds himself slandered, kicked out of his job and threatened with a show trial. He is finally saved through the intervention (in the form of deus ex machina) of an old buddy.

The opening scenes of the novel show 1956 from a contemporary and bottom view, without any heroisation: shooting, chaos, occupation, retaliation. It is precisely the closed and limited nature of the bottom-view perspective that guarantees its – though very partial – truth. It shows the reverse of what the most vicious Hungarian 1956 poem says: “The Soviet invasion had no real / deep effect. It just showed what we know / anyway, that people are mostly cowards / and bastards. In other words, that they want to live. / Which is – after all – forgiveable.” (György Petri: “1956”)

The insurgents were right, but their truth was pointless. It is the most harmful common illusion of all revolutions that they think that, at any given moment, truth can become a driving force of history. Our hero – a Jewish petit bourgeois turned Communist – is the victim of this illusion, and that almost costs his life. He is temporarily sentenced to death, for the second time in his life, and thus he learns at last that history – especially in these Eastern European provinces – is merely a vicious circle of manipulation, oppression and destructive chaos, and there is no way out of it. “These are also fascists, if red fascists”, a lawyer says in the novel about Kádár and company. This lawyer, Lali Szász – a weak, sickly man who understands everything, yet all this understanding does is to cripple him – is too smart (e.g. he knows in advance that there will be an Imre Nagy trial and that the ex prime minister will be executed). His perspicacity and soberness accelerate Fátray’s ‘novel of education’, or rather, of disillusionment. Fátray himself arrives at this conclusion before the visit to the lawyer: “It is incredible what these people are doing. Incredible? They have always been like this. That’s how they were in the 30s, in 1944, in 1949… That is probably how they were in 1919… Why should they be different now? What has changed?” The figure of the lawyer, broken and wise, is somewhat of a cliché, yet it is here that Spiró’s desperate love for humanity springs forth. People are mostly utterly selfish and miserable, but those who aren’t, are wise and selfless. One can see that the deep contempt that flows from Spiró’s cynical view of humanity is still fed by a desperate, almost sentimental humanism.

There is hardly anything specific about our ‘hero’, his only specificity being a lack: that he spent the weeks of the Revolution in hospital, unable to participate in the events. This, however, is no obstacle in one of the darkest eras of a regime in which – to quote Kafka – lying became the world order. The reason why Fátray has to be an ‘everyman’ is the same reason why Akakiy Akakiyevitch and Josef K. were nobodies in the humanist sense of the word; this was precisely their essence. The environment of the protagonist, the only tie that binds him to his family, his relatives and friends, is the experience of the Jewish low middle class – that is, complete defencelessness. The atmosphere of the main location of the novel, the Újlipótváros district of Budapest is determined by the rivalry of illusionary hopes (socialism will eliminate the sins of the past) and complete distrust in the moments of discernment. Yet in the final analysis, this knowledge and this self-deceit do not only belong to this district. Everyone knows that “we should have left long ago, in 1945, we shouldn’t even have been born here”. In the clearest and most painful moments of disillusionment Fátray realizes that he does not understand “how come he had to live his whole life among such miserable scenes as this hopeless part of Dózsa György Avenue?” But then they forget about it all, and – despite all – people find each other again, all of them together, if not millions, then hundreds of thousands in a collective lie that is the demonstration on 1 May 1957. Towards the end of the demonstration a colleague of Fátray’s who took part in the preparation for Fátray’s show trial all but too willingly, hugs Fátray, and then Fátray feels that he had probably exaggerated this affair: one has to go on living after all. If there is nowhere to go, at least there should be no shooting and there should be enough food to eat. “The militiamen standing on guard on the steps of the Museum of Fine Arts were cheerful. People have had enough of trouble, they want to rejoice. Let them rejoice.” Our hero reconciliates with his wife and his son, or, to be more precise, yields to his fate and takes them to the cinema to watch a kitchy movie. That is how they will live from now on. Here, together.

Another – minor – strand in the novel is the Spring Exhibition of the title. The Spring Exhibition of 1957 was the first exhibition since 1949 where abstract and surrealist paintings were on show besides the ‘socialist realist’ works of art, socialist realism being the only style allowed and supported by the Communist regime. Yet the exhibition, flourished as a sign of tolerance, merely gave a pretext for socialist critics to condemn the ‘revisionism’ of abstract art. In Spiró’s novel, Fátray’s wife, Kati is one of the minor organizers of the exhibition. When the exhibition is condemned by the Party, Kati, who is far too narrow-minded and cowardly to stand up for the cause, is transferred to another job. As if the retaliation found her instead of Fátray, without her having merited it to the least, and moreover, this retaliation is grotesque and weightless. The world order of lies loses its existential dimensions, and is invested with a historical and local character. By putting this ‘marginal’ retaliation into focus, Spring Exhibition exhibits this particular state of affairs.

Spiró György: Tavaszi Tárlat
Budapest: Magvető, 2010

György Vári

Tags: 1956, György Spiró