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Into Another Channel? Literature and Politics in Hungary

By Gábor Schein
Translated By Ottilie Mulzet

In the essay below, translated from Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet, Gábor Schein discusses the impact Hungary's recent political developments have had on the country's literary landscape.

Again and again in Eastern Europe, previous generations—with their mute, often invisible tragedies—suffered the truth of these lines by Anna Akhmatova:

I, like a river,
Have been turned aside by this harsh age.
I am a substitute. My life has flowed
Into another channel
And I do not recognize my shores.

—from Northern Elegies, trans. D. M. Thomas

The poet who spoke these lines demonstrates to all that an individual, seemingly powerless and alone—if she is free to the depths of her soul—can nonetheless defy power, with its tanklike arrogance, its warlike cynicism. And yet she says that her life has "been turned aside by this harsh age"; she is a "substitute." Akhmatova never intended to become a symbol of unbending integrity, of solitary people mourning friends and lovers, but this is what she became; this was the necessary and natural choice of her inner freedom, her answer to Stalin’s terror. In the meantime, others—talented and dissolute youths, ruined bootlickers of the regime, violent, lummox-brained men—became directors, chief editors, ministers of a paranoid worldview.

What will become of us is, in the end, a matter of individual decisions. It is all too easy for anyone living in Hungary today to be numbed by bitterness. But if not from others, then at least from Akhmatova we can understand that the country, at the present moment, is still a friendly sanatorium compared to that time and place when “two Russias stare[d] each other in the eyes: the ones that put them in prison and the ones who were put in prison.”1 In Hungary today, the risks are incomparably smaller. Yet our lives are precisely like a matchstick struck on the side of a matchbox: it is up to us whether this tiny flare will result in candlelight or a conflagration destroying entire forests.

From the dissolution of the Habsburg Empire up until 1989—except for three short years (1945–47)—conditions in Hungary were dictatorial. The mental reflexes that enabled the birth of Viktor Orbán’s regime as a response to twenty years of disappointments and setbacks after the “regime change” of 1989, and which assure its survival today, have their roots in the powerlessness of previous generations. The familiar—even if unbearable—can still grant a kind of perverse security. Imre Kertész characterized the era of János Kádár, who ruled from 1956 to 1989, as “the cynical regurgitation of lies, the extermination of elite values, negative selection, corruption, lágervirscaft [the functioning of the concentration camps, a term coined by Kertész] disguised as public safety, social bungling in the name of social security, neglect of public health.”2 If I had to characterize contemporary Hungary, I wouldn’t change a single word.

I am a writer, and so I see the country first and foremost through the lens of literature, which in Hungary has always had an underlying tone of tragic melancholy, often accompanied by a kind of disregard when faced with life itself. Throughout the twentieth century, there suddenly emerged individual figures of radical courage and artistic force—Endre Ady, Attila József, Sándor Weöres, and János Pilinszky, and in more recent years, Imre Kertész, Péter Nádas, and Szilárd Borbély. But these writers never—not even for a moment—embodied or even symbolized Hungary. Their greatness, their radicalism could never drag the prevailing mentality out of its accustomed helplessness: for that, both freedom and critical self-understanding would have been necessary. What has defined the dominant attitude in Hungary is a frustrated narcissism, preventing most Hungarians from perceiving any difference between their own person and the imagined community of the nation. This is imprinted on every Hungarian child early on in school, along with the notions that independence is frightening and not generally desirable; that to question the regard of parents or teachers is ungratefulness; that to refuse loyalty to one’s leaders is infidelity. A kind of barracks mentality prevails there, even today. Any kind of transformation in Hungarian society would necessarily have to begin in the schools.

“What can literature do in this tiny European country?”

The general disposition in Hungary is extraordinarily harried—one could almost speak of a society as if in wartime. Very recently it happened that a well-known and multiple prize-winning woman writer mentioned in an interview that a certain classic nineteenth-century novel should be withdrawn from the seventh-grade reading list due to its deeply retrograde depiction of women. The press immediately picked up the interview. Subsequently, the writer was bombarded with unspeakably vulgar messages and insulted on the street, her postal box stuffed with dog excrement, her small daughter harassed in school.

But in a dispassionate portrayal of the facts: the majority on the Hungarian Constitutional Court is comprised of members delegated by Fidesz [the right-wing, conservative nationalist party led by Viktor Orbán that was elected by a majority in 2010 and has held power ever since]. The public prosecutor’s office also operates under the influence of Fidesz, and Hungary has never joined the EPPO, the European Public Prosecutor’s Office. Fidesz now holds most of the print media, radio stations, and television stations. With its two-thirds majority in Parliament, Fidesz rewrites the Constitution in its own interests; it changes voting laws and redesignates voting districts. Christian churches in Hungary are financially dependent upon the state; hence the principle of separation of church and state is, in practice, nonexistent. The homeless are forbidden by law to be present in any public space. State incitement against so-called migrants is relentless, and although such migrants are nowhere to be found, they are depicted, on enormous billboards, as an ongoing threat to Hungarians.

In a similar fashion, state media incites listeners ceaselessly against the EU, “Brussels,” and individual EU leaders. The EU is not infrequently compared to the Soviet Union or to Nazi Germany, even though Hungary joined the EU voluntarily in 2004, and EU taxpayers contribute to Hungarian society to the tune of 6% of Hungarian GDP. The vast majority of Hungarian-owned businesses depend upon state orders. Corruption in government procurement, also financed in part by EU money, takes place as a matter of course, and within the framework of current legislation. Business taxation is held at an extraordinarily low level for the sake of multinational corporations, and yet Hungary has one of the highest excise taxes in all of Europe. The government has pushed a significant share of foreign owners out of the banking, tourism, agriculture, and construction sectors, the food industry, and the media; it has not yet managed to do the same in retail and telecommunications. According to official figures, two million people—a full fifth of the country’s residents—subsist on an income below the poverty line. Not a single region of Hungary reaches the average EU GDP, while out of seven Hungarian regions, four (approximately 60% of the country’s territory) rank among the EU’s twenty most impoverished regions.

Local government is in ruins: the central powers have gradually curtailed their right to make decisions and the greater part of their tax revenue, while their schools and health care institutions have been forcibly taken over. In the schools, the curriculum has been nationalized: only textbooks expressing the views of the central government may be used. There is no support for training in methodological pedagogy. Decades-old educational principles are followed. The school system does not lessen, but greatly multiplies, societal differences. The Hungarian Academy of Science has been deprived of its network of researchers; all research is conducted under the purview of the central government. As is well known, the government forced the Central European University out of Budapest (gigantic posters incited the public against George Soros and labeled the CEU “Soros University”). Most public universities have been handed over to the ownership of foundations, the boards of which are comprised exclusively of Fidesz politicians and economic actors close to the government; the autonomy of the academic senates has ceased. The majority government has rendered the operation of NGOs extremely difficult, and they are not infrequently exposed to police harassment. A significant portion of the theaters are now under state control, the autonomy of the Theatre and Film Arts University has been scrapped, and students and teachers who protest are publicly stigmatized. Labor laws have been changed; lawful strikes are practically impossible. It is now easier to fire workers, and working hours can be increased arbitrarily by employers.

“Whoever gives a society its language shall govern it.”


From this list, there are two things that are immediately apparent. First: the autonomy of the individual in Hungarian society has, in the past ten years, been slashed to a bare minimum. Viktor Orbán’s regime has centralized almost every domain of societal functioning: economy, education, jurisdiction, information. Second, and clearly visible: what has been and is occurring in Hungary—although inconceivable in a democracy, and therefore truly a dangerous precedent for other Central Eastern European states—nonetheless in no way opposes or contradicts the principles and practice of capitalism. Hungary has returned to the state-capitalist model, and German investors, particularly those in the auto industry, are also the beneficiaries.

The totalitarian societies of the twentieth century always announced themselves through language. It is the source of power: whoever gives a society its language shall govern it, creating a language of camouflage in which lies are no longer lies and murder is no longer murder. As Paul Celan expressed it in his Bremen speech:

Only one thing remained reachable, close, and secure amid all the losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss. But it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silences, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech. It went through. It gave me no words for what was happening, but went through it.3

For years now, Fidesz, and Viktor Orbán personally, have consistently used the language of military mobilization, depriving of human dignity those it designates as enemies. In the hands of Fidesz, the daily press speaks of dissidents and of all those who dare protest or object as pariahs, as animals spreading disease. Rabble-rousing phrases from the 1930s are combined with the battle-ready arrogance of the 1950s communist press. This is the language of Orwellian replacement, rendering public thought impossible. Servility and cynical compromise are seen as courage. The desire for freedom constitutes injury to the nation.

This situation is reflected as well in the content of educational materials, primarily concerning history and literature. A past is created in which the Hungarian nation, maintaining its independence and isolation, always plays the role of victim. From the new middle school literature syllabus, there emerges an antimodernist canon, deeply patriarchal in nature, incapable of freeing itself from notions of national misfortune, hammering home its collective passive-aggressive complaint. Within this framework, the mere acknowledgement of modernizing and emancipatory movements, such as left-wing and feminist thought, is unimaginable. There is no room for independent argument or thought. The works of Imre Kertész are removed, but a writer such as Albert Wass—sympathizer of Nazi Germany, and a far lesser writer on many levels—is included.

The terms “nation” and “national” are, in Viktor Orbán’s system, the most inflated of expressions. The tobacconists are national, public utilities are national, waste management is national, and so are public health and the so-called referenda. Sport is national, as are public service, the politics of labor safety, the office, the food chain safety agency, horse racing, textbook publishers, and medium-term strategy. The Ministry of Human Capacities—before 2010, the health, education, and culture ministries—is national. The nation is the predominant reference, simultaneously weapon and threatening emptiness. It is a black hole that swallows everything: time, language, the state itself. As a complex of meaningful public functions, the Hungarian state has ceased to exist. In its place, there extends, there grows, a dreadful chimera.

“The position of writers in Hungary today is fairly grave.” 

What can literature do in this tiny European country? Do we see, do we want to see what is happening with us? What kind of person does our society create? Do we recognize the fears of the weak and the indifference of the strong? Do we recognize this grammar with its destructive abasements, the responsibility for which does not lie with the state, but with those who, like ourselves, remain silent? For what if we must speak, what if we must stand up for the debased with our speech and acts, what if we must take their hands? Because it is not language that is lying—it is we who lie.

Is there enough resistance in literature so that neither political power nor the market can enforce its own realities upon it? Of course, there is a difference between the two. Still, I believe that true literature can only be born of resistance. Not offering up the ready falsehoods often expected by the readership, it performs instead an experiment for the rehabilitation of truth, the creation of a better variant. It responds to the call of inner freedom, even if it does not speak of it directly.

The tools of power used against literature in Hungary today are much more limited than they were before 1989. There is no direct censorship. The publishers and the large book distributors are in private hands. And yet the smaller presses are extraordinarily frail and relatively defenseless. In essence, the only ones able to keep on publishing books are those awarded grants from the National Cultural Fund, the board of which is comprised of governing party delegates. The two large privately held publishing consortia do not require government support. There have been, however, attempts on the part of government-proximate business owners to purchase critical stakes in them. Nonetheless, the position of writers in Hungary today is fairly grave. Only very few can be sustained by the market and royalties from foreign-published translations. The government created a grant program for young and so-called middle generation writers; to accept such a grant is to signal support and legitimation of the regime’s attempts to rewrite the literary canon. In the past few years, a significant chasm has opened up between authors willing to accept such support and those—including myself—who decline to do so. In addition, the government generously supports Fidesz-aligned writers’ organizations, while those in opposition fight for survival. Private sponsorship of the arts does not really exist in Hungary; no large enterprise wants to be labeled as oppositional. The government’s goal is for a literature whose aesthetic principles and worldview align with Fidesz’s populist ideology to become dominant, as well as most favored by the public. This goal has not yet been reached. And while the government spends untold amounts of money on propaganda, ceaselessly evoking national self-esteem, the estates of the most important Hungarian writers of the recent past—Imre Kertész, Péter Esterházy, and Konrád György—are housed in the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, because both the authors and their families felt these manuscripts would find a more fitting home in Berlin than Budapest. These inestimable treasures of Hungarian culture—which, one day, will play an important role in the cultural and mental renewal of the country—have emigrated.

Earlier, I asked what literature can do. Except that from my point of view—for I am a writer—literature does not exist. At least, in the final analysis, not so much. There are writers, books, works being written, sentences waiting to be finished. There are doubts and answers, despair and hope. Here and now, in this country, on this continent, I sit and work. Or I sit and can’t work. I make decisions. I make decisions about my own politics as well. For me, this is literature. It is the entirety of my freedom that I can make visible. So, is my life one that has been substituted? As with any story, mine too could have worked out differently. I could have made different, perhaps better, decisions. But I am what happened; I am what I have done. I won’t substitute it, nor can I wish for anything else. And I am responsible. My shores have often surprised me with their outcroppings, with their wild plants and animals, and yet I recognize them all as my own. This is my time, this is my place—somewhere in Europe, somewhere on this planet. I write, I play, I make decisions, I experiment. I am free; I am resistance.


1. Akhmatova’s remarks to Lydia Chukovskaya, quoted in: Rappaport, Helen. Joseph Stalin: A Biographical Companion. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1999, 3.
2. Imre Kertész, from an unpublished manuscript.
3. Celan, Paul. Breathturn into Timestead. The Collected Later Poetry: A Bilingual Edition. Translated from the German with commentary by Pierre Joris. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux: 460.


Related Reading:

"The Guest" by György Dragomán, translated by Ottilie Mulzet

Open to Disagreement: Six Contemporary Hungarian Women Writers

Writing from Hungary: An Introduction

Published Apr 7, 2021   Copyright 2021 Gábor Schein

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