Under Communism, the government cared a great deal about what you wrote. If you were part of the system, the government promoted your work. If you were against the system, the government censored you or possibly jailed you. In either case, though, the Communist governments took your words seriously — as useful propaganda or potential threat.
In Hungary, in the 1970s and 1980s, the system was not quite that harsh. A second public sphere gradually opened up for those writers who did not toe the government line.
“During the socialist time, writers and artists who were near to the Communist party or the government had lots of opportunity to write and publish their works, to travel around the East and even to the West,” Hungarian writers Katalin Mezey told me in an interview in Budapest in May 2013. “The artists who did not have contact with power instead formed a republic of writers. It was very friendly in this second public sphere. At that time, there were a lot of big poets and writers from the old times. They were famous people and the quality of their work was not destroyed. After 1956, the big-name writers who were not close to the Party were not getting prizes, but they were still published. And they published great works. It meant a lot for a young writer to join their circles instead of becoming a Party writer.”
But whether writers were part of the official literary circle or members of this republic of writers, they were living in an environment in which the government took words and culture seriously. That changed after 1990.
“With cultural politics, the Communists had big ambitions,” Mezey continued. “They wanted to show off the cultural heritage and achievements of the country to the West. They thought that all these high-quality works were the achievement of socialism, and they wanted people to know about them in England, in Sweden, in America. That was the big change after 1990. The new governments have no ambition to promote cultural achievements around the world. Nobody in the government has any idea of what to do with high-quality culture. It’s of no interest to them because it has no connection to political success.”
The Communist government tried to enforce a political uniformity in the cultural sphere. Today, although there is political diversity, a different kind of uniformity threatens.
“The world is moving in the direction of cultural uniformity,” Mezey explained. “People talk of multiculturalism, but the reality is that the world is moving toward uniformity — the Hollywood-ization of culture. From the publishing perspective, there is just one global market and only a few publishers. They’re not interested in discovering talent in small places like Hungary and promoting them. These publishers are just looking for markets where they can publish and sell their own books. And the government here is not interested in protecting our own cultural products. You have to put a lot of money behind cultural achievements to promote them. Some countries are doing that, like Romania and Slovakia. South America is also doing it. But it takes a commitment from the government.”
When it comes to her own writing – her poetry, essays, articles — Mezey is happy with the changes. “If I write something now, I can publish it, even if it reaches only a few people,” she concluded. “Making a living is not easy, but being able to publish what I want to say is a great change.”
We talked about her memories of 1956, her trade union activities, and how the republic of writers has dealt with the issue of collaboration during the Communist years.
Do you remember what you were doing and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I don’t remember where I was when that happened. I was very skeptical about these changes because I didn’t really expect a big change, one with long-term effects. But naturally, it was a big deal.
By the way, I was in Berlin when the Berlin Wall was built. We were coming back from holiday from Rugen Island in the North Sea, which was part of the GDR. I was 18 years old. I’d graduated that year and received a prize. I spent the prize on this holiday on the North Sea. We were coming back by train, and the train passed through Berlin at midnight. It just happened to be the night when the Wall was being built. We saw the S-Bahn with broken windows, but we didn’t know anything. Nobody told us what was happening. But our train stopped there and couldn’t go further until the next morning at 8 or 9 am. We didn’t know why we stayed there in the main train station. When we got back to Budapest, everyone asked us what happened because our train was late by half a day. In this way I was very near to the building of the Wall.
I had a lot of good poet and writer friends in East Germany. I was a German language translator of literary works, at first a lot of poems. I knew how much they suffered under the German Communist regime. They had a harder situation than we had here. I was naturally very happy when Hungary opened the border with Austria and all the German people who were staying in Hungary could leave. And it was nice to know that the GDR would change and these friends would have a better life. My good friend Reiner Kunze is a very well known poet of contemporary German literature. From his stories I have learned how much they suffered from the Stasi. I was hoping that the people of GDR would have a better life. We thought that when Germany became one country it would mean a better life for both East and West Germany.
You were probably about 13 during the uprising here in Budapest in 1956. What do you remember from that?
Of course I was a young revolutionary. As young children, we were very enthusiastic about the revolution. We were listening to the Free Kossuth radio, and we were crying for 12 days. My father brought my brother by motorcycle to Pest to see what was happening. On November 4, he said he would bring me too. That night, the bombing began. So, I was not in Pest, and I didn’t see the destruction that took place in the city. My father and brother told me stories. There was no TV, only the radio. From Buda where we were living, we could see the red sky at night from the Russians burning the Hungarian archives. For three days and nights, it was in flames and the whole skycape was red.
Was your family or your friends affected after the revolution?
Nobody in my family had been. My parents were already older when we were born, in their forties. So, they were much older when the revolution took place. The whole family was at home around the radio. People from the other houses were always on the street. No stores were open. My mother went to get bread, and it always took a long time because she was gathering the news there and bringing it back home.
A Hungarian poet who died 10 years ago wrote in one of his poems: “if I die, write on my headstone that I lived only for 12 days.”
When did you get involved in union activities?
It happened just at the end of the former political situation. I was the head of the Hungarian Writers Union. All the arts fields had unions. Only the writers didn’t — because the writers association was very deeply involved in the revolution. The government didn’t allow writers to continue their activities as a union. In 1987, we founded the Hungarian Writers Union. It was not a member of a big trade union association, only the association of the art trade unions. It was such an interesting union. The arts trade union association was a little bit Bohemian. Then, from 1990, we became the member of the League of the Free Trade Unions, Liga. I was very active there until 1993. That’s when there was a change in the leadership of Liga, and I ended my work. I was in the presidium. But when our candidate for president was not elected, that was the end of our participation in Liga.
Today, we are independent of all the trade union confederations. We are very small and weak, because of our independence. The leader of the Writers Union is a writer named Anna Jokai. She’s known for her Christian Democratic views. So, during the last government, her letters were ignored and the union was ignored. This is a difficult situation to turn around. Because we weren’t getting funding, we couldn’t give any funding. It’s hard to rebuild from that.
During the early 1990s, what were your happiest accomplishments?
Our hopes were the most beautiful. But the transition years in Hungary were full of contradictions. The governments have only been interested in something if they can get some political gain from it. There was very little political gain in protecting trade union members. At that time, the American trade union movement protected us. The American trade unions warned us that trade unions here should take control of and create public service programs, because there would be a lot of unemployment coming from the new capitalism. We couldn’t do that at the time. Only now, 20 years later, is the government starting to do this.
So, the situation over the last 20 years has been very difficult for workers.
It was difficult for the last 20 years, and it is also difficult now. During socialism, you were punished if you didn’t have a job. Police arrested you if you didn’t have a mark in your ID booklet saying you had a job. Going into the new situation after 1990, when there was suddenly a lot of unemployment, it was almost incomprehensible for people. It’s a very bad model for children that the parents don’t have the responsibility to get up in the morning to go to work. The children have to get up in the morning to go to school. But what’s the point if there’s no future possibility to use the knowledge taught in school? This economic situation destroyed society, which had very low morale. Everyone was stealing, taking things that were supposed to be public property. In some way, they were forced to do this. Building up this social standard since then has been a major task.
Back in 1978, when our children were young, we moved out of the city and built a house. There was a locksmith out there who asked me, “Where do you work?”
I said that I worked at a company where I was a journalist.
“What can you take home from there?”
He said, “I work for a factory. I’ll get you a job in the administration there while you’re having your house built and you can take home all the materials that you need. I guarantee this for you. We can steal all the materials you need for the house.”
That was the great chance of my life that I missed.
What has been the situation for writers since 1990? Miklos Haraszti described the situation for writers under communism as living in a “velvet prison.” Do you agree with that description and how would you describe the situation for writers in Hungary today?
During the socialist time, writers and artists who were near to the Communist party or the government had lots of opportunity to write and publish their works, to travel around the East and even to the West. The artists who did not have contact with power instead formed a republic of writers. It was very friendly in this second public sphere. At that time, there were a lot of big poets and writers from the old times. They were famous people and the quality of their work was not destroyed. After 1956, the big-name writers who were not close to the Party were not getting prizes, but they were still published. And they published great works. It meant a lot for a young writer to join their circles instead of becoming a Party writer.
With cultural politics, the Communists had big ambitions. They wanted to show off the cultural heritage and achievements of the country to the West. They thought that all these high-quality works were the achievement of socialism, and they wanted people to know about them in England, in Sweden, in America. That was the big change after 1990. The new governments have no ambition to promote cultural achievements around the world. Nobody in the government has any idea of what to do with high-quality culture. It’s of no interest to them because it has no connection to political success.
The world is moving in the direction of cultural uniformity. People talk of multiculturalism, but the reality is that the world is moving toward uniformity — the Hollywood-ization of culture. From the publishing perspective, there is just one global market and only a few publishers. They’re not interested in discovering talent in small places like Hungary and promoting them. These publishers are just looking for markets where they can publish and sell their own books. And the government here is not interested in protecting our own cultural products. You have to put a lot of money behind cultural achievements to promote them. Some countries are doing that, like Romania and Slovakia. South America is also doing it. But it takes a commitment from the government.
And Fidesz, does it have a cultural policy?
If they have one, it’s for the internal market — not externally. They have friends in the cultural sphere that they protect and promote. There’s a Hungarian Arts Academy just founded by Fidesz. There was a lot of opposition to it. Poland has had a Polish Arts Academy for 200 years — created by a Hungarian person! Here, the Arts Academy existed for 20 years but as a private association. Now, for two years, it has been elevated to the government level and now gets state funding.
If I had any faith, I’d say that may be this academy, elevated to the national level has some promise for the future. But since we know that the governments here change back and forth, we don’t know how long this organization will last. This academy is working on behalf of the artistic elite. But the arts field is much bigger and includes younger artists, less well-known artists. There are 100 times more artists not represented by this academy. The representation of these artists is not even at the level it was under socialism. At that time, an arts fund existed that provided health care, pensions, studios for painters, and so on. Now, they only control the distribution of studios. As a trade unionist, and a mother of two sculptors, I can tell you that this is a big problem for young artists. They have no health care. They had to pay for health care in the Communist times, but it was nothing like what they have to pay now.
The New York Times recently published an article about the popularity of Hungarian literature in New York at the moment because of the novelist Laszlo Krasnohorkai.
Yes. When the writers union was formed, the first thing we did was set up a publishing house. At that time, there were only two publishing houses, and both were supported by the government. That’s where the censors operated. In 1989, we set up the new publishing house. From 1992 to 2000, Laszlo Krasznohorkai was our author. He was one of the most famous younger Hungarian writer. Satantango is one of his best novels, and from it was also produced one of the best new Hungarian films. It’s seven hours long. It’s beautiful. Apart from being a good writer, he’s been concentrating on networking and foreign publishing. Many of his books, particularly Satantango, have been turned into films, and that has increased his international reputation. I brought my family twice to Satantango. When I bought the tickets, they allowed us to see the film in two parts with a week off in between.
I was reading an article by Paul Lendvai about the release of the information from the secret service files. He was very disturbed to learn from the file on the director Istvan Szabo that he had been a collaborator immediately after 1956. Have the files had impact for Hungarian writers as well?
Not only Istvan Szabo. There are several books covering this, one on the theater and film world and the others on the world of writers. The first one, on the film and theater scene, covers individual stories in a deep way. There are a couple famous figures in there, like Istvan Szabo. You could tell that these people were using their secret service relationship to their own advantage, advancing their own careers and suppressing competitors. You could have guessed that anyone who went to film festivals in those days on government money had to have very high connections. In the end, would Istvan Szabo’s films be better or worse if he hadn’t been an agent? No, they would have been the same films. The other two books, thick books called Code Writing, covers the writers’ sphere. These two books focus on the facts and don’t go into the motivations of the collaborators. There was a kind of democracy in this surveillance. Everyone was watched. Some were watching others, but everyone was watched.
For me it was a relief to find out who the actual agents were. By 1990, I was becoming hysterical thinking that everyone was writing reports on me. Finding out that it wasn’t everyone was a relief. Young people ask me if I still interact with the people who wrote reports on me. Some of them actually apologized, and that was a good feeling. As for the others that I found out about, what can I do? They are not my friends. But they are still in this circle of writers.
There’s been a process of coming to terms with the last 40 years within this circle of writers. At our summer camp the Writer Workshop in Tokaj, for instance, we’ve been talking about those years under the title of “Banned and Forgotten.” Through these discussions, which take place in public, we can set down some of our burdens. Last year, we covered the years from 1945 to 1965. This year it will be from 1965 to 1990, and we’ll be discussing each individual case where the government intervened to ban people and destroy their careers. The more we discuss, the more we can heal these wounds. Throughout this process, younger people can get a synthesis of what happened during these years that is closer to reality than what is conventionally presented.
When you think back to the way you looked at the world in 1989-90, has anything changed dramatically in your Weltanschauung?
The most fundamental change has been the change in responsibility. Until 1989, you were only responsible for what you said — and you had to watch yourself so as not to get into trouble. After 1990, we had the responsibility of actually changing things. The burden was now on our shoulders. It was important to help people who were talented to succeed. But to find the money to publish them has been a very hard task. During the socialist times, we had much more private life. We lived a more secluded life. Today, life is much more public and there’s much more work to do. We can’t say any longer that it’s the Party that doesn’t support someone and that’s why they aren’t getting published. We have freedom now. We just have to find the money to publish the talented writers.
When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed here in Hungary since then, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 most disappointed and 10 most satisfied?
If I look at it from the field of arts, the fact that we can say what we want to say, this opening has been incredible, and we are winners. If I look at my own personal life, my personal work achievement, I’d give it a 10. If I write something now, I can publish it, even if it reaches only a few people. Making a living is not easy, but being able to publish what I want to say is a great change. If I look at Hungary as a whole, however, things don’t look so rosy, so whether it’s a 2 or a 5 is hard to say.
When you look into the near future and evaluate the prospects for Hungary over the next two or three years, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?
We are now connected to the rest of the world. What happens to Hungary, whether a total collapse or a slow development, is open. The German newspapers are full of articles that say that Orban needs to be toppled, that we need to create a revolution. But we Hungarians are not going to make a revolution. We hope that with the government of Victor Orban a slow build-up of the country together with Hungarian cultural life can happen. There is so much wretchedness and misery in the country now, but you can see the first results too.
But for Hungary to have its own path of development is not something that outside forces want to see. Even in the country there’s no consensus on this. The Hungarian politicians fight against each other the hardest. So, 4.
Budapest, May 6, 2013
Interpretation assistance: Judit Hatfaludi