11. 16. 2017. 10:18

Viktor Horváth: My Tank (An Excerpt)

translated by Peter Sherwood

October saw the publication in Hungarian of Viktor Horváth’s new novel, My Tank, set in 1968. We are pleased to be able to bring you an extract from it, translated by Peter Sherwood. Horváth was the 2012 winner of the European Union Prize for Literature for his novel Turkish Mirror.



The Prague Winter

Sergeant-major Gyuszi drove us in the black Volga. It was evening by the time we reached the "White House", the Budapest headquarters of the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party, and in it the office of the first secretary, János Kádár.
As we sat in front of the bank of telephones and waited, comrade Kádár eyed my oil-stained fatigue jacket.
"Thank you for getting here so quickly, comrade lieutenant. I hope it hasn't held up your work on the tanks in Rétság. You must let me know if you find your duties too arduous. I'm sure we could find something else for you. Because your assignment here is of the utmost importance to the People's Republic."
"Thank you, comrade Kádár, but I wouldn't wish to ask for special treatment. It wouldn't be comradely."
"Very good. You are a true communist. And a fine tank driver. In a tank cooperation is vital. Well, not that I've been in a tank that often, but I know very well how cramped it is inside. All that technical stuff can easily leave its mark," he said, as I tried to cover up my jacket. I'd had no time to get changed in the barracks.
"Comrade Kádár, have you ever gone anywhere by tank?"
"On occasion. At the time of the 1956 counter-revolution, comrade Ferenc Münnich and I were brought up to Budapest from Szolnok in a Soviet tank. We asked the Soviet Union for internationalist assistance for the Hungarian people to defeat the counter-revolution."
"Yes, brotherly assistance."
"Indeed so. But we had to learn our lesson. We had to exercise self-criticism. You know, comrade lieutenant, we consider it vital that ever broader strata of the people play a role in the guidance of our country. That the workers, the peasants in the collectives, the intelligentsia, and the military should all be able to scrutinise issues of importance, and that young people should have their say, too. You are young yourself. You know what I mean, don't you?"
"I do, comrade Kádár."
"Very well then."
At this point a phone rang and we both reached for our handsets. Brezhnev was agitated.
"Have you seen the article in today's Rudé právo?" he asked Kádár.
"I've just had it translated. It's truly terrible what's happening. This is treason, counter-revolution. It's imperialist subversion. I knew it, I knew that it would come to this. I knew there'd be trouble with Dubček when, as soon as he was elected last week, he got into his car and immediately drove from Prague to Bratislava for an ice hockey match."
"Ice hockey?"
"Da, da. Slovan Bratislava against Torpédo Košice, Zimný štadión, final score 11:9. They elect him First Secretary in the morning, and instead of being pleased, he swans off in the afternoon. He has the nerve to leave important party matters for a hockey match, when there are decisions to be taken on personnel matters, decisions on internal policy and decisions on external policy. I thought then that this Dubček was a ... a... a flighty... an unreliable...lumpenprole!"
The word lumpenprole exploded from him like the steam from a 424 engine.
Kádár frowned and tried gently to calm him down.
"But Leonid Ilyich. I don't think this is such a big problem. There is no contradiction between love of sport and Marxism-Leninism."
"Indeed not. But it shows you."
"Shto?" asked Kádár, "what does it show you?", switching to Russian to get into the brotherly leader's good books, and now I no longer despaired over their confusion of the two languages.
"Shto, you ask?" Brezhnev fulminated. "Don't you see the foreign press? Don't your colleagues translate them for you?"
"But of course they do. I've already seen Moscow Pravda, the papers of the brotherly countries' parties, and the Washington Post. I mean, the gist."
"And? What did you read in Rudé právo?"
"That they are restoring democracy."
"And why is that? Perhaps up to now there has been no democracy?"
"But of course there has, of course there has. Novotný meant well, but perhaps he didn't fully appreciate the interests of the workers. Czechoslovakia's national income has declined and there was unrest among the working masses. The Czechoslovak comrades must change, they must exercise self-criticism; Dubček came along in the nick of time, comrade Brezhnev. We must give him a little more time."
"But just read their press! The things they scribble about! The separation of the party from the state. So what kind of party is it that it needs separating from the state? Some kind of church, perhaps?"
"That's not a problem as such. As you know, the two are already separate in our case. In principle."
"In principle. In principle. But they want them separate in practice as well, the Czechs."
"The Czechoslovaks."
"The Czechoslovaks. They've abolished censorship, no one is keeping an eye on the so-called journalists, so they're vilifying the achievements of socialism. And then the writers! Their writers' union is openly anti-communist. Anti the people. They are questioning Marxism-Leninism. Demanding social self-management. Changes of personnel. Decentralisation. Restoration of human rights. Socialism with a human face. Why? What kind of face has it had up to now? An animal face, a plant face, a fungus face? An insect face? A germ face?"
"Leonid Ilyich, please..."
"A bear face, a worm face, a fish face, a pinecone face, a Tyrannosaurus Rex face, a Donald Duck face?"
"Please. Take it easy, Leonid Ilyich. All they want is to raise the standard of living."
There was a pause at Comrade Brezhnev's end. Only the tiny electrons could be heard crackling along the wire, buzzing and humming, bouncing and fizzing in the atoms, afraid to emerge from the bakelite grille of the handset's earpiece, and only when so many had collected that the pressure could no longer be resisted did the question come roaring out of Leonid Brezhnev:
"Raise the what?"
"Zhiznenniy uroven'," I repeated, "the standard of living."
"Shto eto, what is this standard of living that they want to raise?"
"Oh, you know, eating, drinking, that kind of thing. Cigarettes, refrigerators, washing machines, holidays... in Crimea... pioneer camps," said János Kádár, giving me a rather reproachful look.
"But these are things we already have."
"Well, we do, certainly."
"Whoever heard of such a thing," said Leonid Ilyich, lost in wonder, then quickly came down to earth. "But they claim there's a crisis because of the command economy... But that's not true. We also have a command economy here, but crisis – nyet. So that's a lie."
János Kádár didn't want to press the issue, as he had himself just begun to dismantle the command economy; only a few days earlier he had launched the New Economic Mechanism because of our crisis at home. He thought it best to bite his lip and content himself with saying:
"Dubček says it's better to try and convince the comrades rather than issuing orders. If you can't convince them, then you must talk with them a little longer. Until they are convinced."
"They are anti-Soviet!" Comrade Brezhnev's patience was exhausted.
"But why would they be anti-Soviet? There aren't even any Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia."
"Well, there soon will be."


Translated by Peter Sherwood


Previously on HLO:

Viktor Horváth wins European Union Prize for Literature

Viktor Horváth: Turkish Mirror (Exceprts)