When I was an exchange student at Janus Pannonius University in Pecs long ago, we were required to take a class called Post-Stalinist Literature and, as a pre-requisite, Stalinist-Era Literature.
I vividly remember struggling with a few short stories that made no sense. They were circular and obtuse–the opposite, I felt, of good writing. My fellow exchange students complained also. Why doesn’t this writer just come out and say what he means?
Gosh, our teacher must have wanted to smack us, the rich, privileged corn-fed Amis (Americans) with their arrogant innocence and their blue passports. She looked at us for a long moment, and then she said this:
Because he didn’t want his family to be killed. Because he didn’t want to be sent to Siberia.
And so we began to appreciate the Eastern Block writers of Cold War era; I was born at the tail end. Ronald Reagan. Margaret Thatcher. Checkpoint Charlie.
“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Extraordinary Talent, Extraordinary Heart
God knows, it’s hard enough to write a good story when you’re NOT being censored. But to produce work that informs, entertains, and protests, in such a way that you can safely speak truth to power but yet deny having said it…Wow. That’s damned hard.
They were brave, those writers. Do you know what Nikita Kruschev said after the 1956 Hungarian uprising, which failed to get the needed support from the USA (I’m so sorry, Hungary!) and was crushed by Soviet tanks?
Kruschev said, “If 5 or so Hungarian writers had been shot at the right moment in 1956, there would have been no revolution.
Petition, by Mihaly Kornis
When I came across a compilation of short stories from the Eastern Block, translated into English (hard to find)–I was delighted to discover this story, PETITION, one of the few I still remember from 20 years ago.
The conceit is wonderfully witty; it does two things simultaneously. It records the events of the Communist era in Hungary while showing the tediousness of the endless bureaucratic red tape.
The whole story is told in the form of an application to leave the narrator’s present place of residence (a heavenly-type waiting room?) and journey to Hungary to experience a human life. The parallels with Hungarians applying to leave the country and being repeatedly turned down is unmistakable.
(Issued in compliance with Official Decree No. 40, 1957 B.C.)
A) I should like to be born on December 9, 1909 in Budapest.
B) I should like my mother to be Regina Fekete (housewife) and my father to be Miksa Tabori (traveling salesman).
LENGTH OF STAY
I request 61 years 6 months 3 days 2 minutes and 17 seconds. (Note: I have submitted similar request to the proper authorities on a number of occasions–eg. in 80 BC, and more recently in 1241, 1514, 1526, 1711, 1840–but on each occasion, due to lack of space, my request was turned down. This my seventh request,. 61 years is not a long time; were I to succeed in gaining your favor, sirs, in this matter, I would certainly try and make the best of my brief sojourn.
A Shocking Discovery: Story 2
Also in this volume I discovered the preface to the Revised Edition of Peter Esterhazy’s biography of his famous father, a former nobleman. It was a bit weird, presented by itself, but why was it revised? Because Mr. Esterhazy had since made a shocking discovery about his dad.
The preface is enhanced by several graphics of chilling secret police reports like this one:
Report by Hungarian Secret Agent “Briza”
on a lecture by Laszlo Peter, which was delivered at the Catholic Theological Seminary. According to it, the lecturer did not say anything that could be interpreted as “negative”. –June 15, 1985
I also liked the iconic poster which celebrated the Soviet troops departure from Hungary in March 1990:
It’s the back of a fat officers head. I can’t do Cyrillic letters here, but it says Tovarish Konetz!
An aristocrat of the old school, Count Esterhazy was beloved by his son. After his death, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, Peter began to wonder if the secret police had kept files on the family. What did his record say? What about his parents?
I thought immediately of the saying “Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.”
When Peter finally got permission to view the files, here’s what happened in his own words:
“I walked along Andrassy street, glancing up at the houses to see if they’d come tumbling down. But no. This is no crime story where I should or where I even could make sure that the identity of the killer, if any, will come to light only at the end (while there is nothing I would like better than to play for time), for as soon as I opened the dossier, I recognized my father’s handwriting.”
No-one in the Esterhazy family had known Count Esterhazy was working for the secret police. Was he blackmailed into doing it? Threatened? Did he participate willingly? How far did he go?
It is estimated that 1 out of every 2 East Germans spied on their neighbors, friends, coworkers, and family for the Stasi. The movie The Lives of Others is one I would highly recommend if you’re interested in this subject.
Egy Kicsit (A Little Bit…More)
Stay tuned for more Hungarian rhapsodies–I loved Hungary as an exchange student and hope to find more of its literature in translation. Unfortunately, I speak Hungarian only at a medium level–not enough to translate myself.