News – 22nd October, 2013

1956 in cultural memory. The testimony of literature

News–22nd October, 2013


1956 in cultural memory. The testimony of literature

In the cultural memory of the world 1956 is closely connected to the Hungarian revolution of that year, and Hungary in the twentieth century is largely remembered for 1956.

In Yann Martel’s short fiction “The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios” the narrator and his dying friend suffering from AIDS pass the time by making up the story of an imaginary family in Helsinki while recalling important events of the twentieth century – one event for each year. The year 1956 is dedicated to Hungary: “1956 – The Soviet Union invades Hungary to bring to heel a country reluctant to march to the drumbeat of communist totalitarianism. Material damage to the country is heavy, and two hundred thousand refugees flee the country for the West.” Dry, factual words in a story otherwise steeped in emotion. As demonstrated by Martel’s story, in the cultural memory of the world 1956 is closely connected to the Hungarian revolution of that year, and if Martel’s short story is any kind of yardstick, Hungary in the twentieth century is largely remembered for 1956 (in the story, the only other Hungarian reference is made to “Lazlo Biro”, who, in 1938, invented the ballpoint pen).

It is historical fact that from 1949 the Hungarian Workers’ Party started to exert a direct influence on the arts and literature in Hungary. Such basic rights as the author’s creative freedom, the free choice of themes and styles and the criticism of the political and economic situation were severely restricted and rapidly eliminated. Several poets and writers were arrested on various ideological and political charges, while the works of others could not appear. For example, the poetry of Sándor Weöres and Ágnes Nemes Nagy, and the music of Béla Bartók were condemned to long years of silence. Artists were forced to support party policies and to wage ideological wars against those whose works were considered out of line with the current communist agenda.

In 1953, with the death of Stalin and the arrival of a less stringent ideological wind from Moscow, several writers expressed a growing desire to get rid of the political control over literature and to be allowed to write freely about the country and the problems it was facing. Irodalmi Újság (Literary Journal), established in 1950, provided an important forum for this open discussion. The famous 2 November issue of Irodalmi Újság deserves special attention. Perhaps the most eminent (and, undoubtedly, most famous) poem published in this issue of the journal was Gyula Illyés’s “Egy mondat a zsarnokságról” (One Sentence on Tyranny). Written in 1950 in the darkest days of the Rákosi regime but remaining unpublished until 2 November 1956, the poem depicts the nature of tyranny as it spreads to everything and everyone, finally overwhelming and engulfing the individual and the human soul. This poem is generally regarded as one of the most outstanding literary monuments of the 1956 revolution despite the fact that it had been written six years beforehand; it is a rare example of poetry’s ability to evoke the essence and fundamental nature of an important historical event. Also, Illyés’s poem compellingly represents the mechanism and consequences of dictatorship, and as such it is of universal signifi cance. Following the suppression of the revolution, the poem was not published in Hungary until 1986. Although it was circulated in samizdat copies and there were attempts to publish it officially in 1966 and 1972, respectively, Illyés did not want it to be published by those who had previously prohibited its publication for years. Moreover, giving consent to the publication of the poem would have implied that its message was no longer valid for the Kádár regime. Thus, the history of the publication of the poem reveals a rare case of self-imposed silence against the wish of those in power.

Authors intending to incorporate the 1956 revolution in literary works after the revolution was put down found themselves in extremely repressive circumstances. A number of them decided to leave the country, while many of those who remained in Hungary were taken into custody on charges of “participation in counter-revolutionary acts.” The legal actions brought against these writers resulted in the imprisonment of such famous literary figures as Tibor Déry, Gyula Háy, Zoltán Zelk, Tibor Tardos, Zoltán Molnár, Gyula Fekete, Domokos Varga, István Eörsi and József Gáli. Most of them served long years in prison and were released only under an amnesty in 1963. Obviously, the political regime did not tolerate their support of the uprising. The Writers’ Association was dissolved and Irodalmi Újság had to move to London, and later Paris, to continue operating, edited by émigré writers. Without a doubt, it was left to émigré literature to express openly and explicitly the memory and legacy of 1956.

Although writers who remained in the country and were not imprisoned could not openly write about the revolution for many years (at any rate, they were prohibited from publishing such works and were thus condemned to silence), the political regime – after securing power – showed a certain degree of tolerance for works which did not explicitly refer to the revolution and used a sufficiently metaphorical language to allow for various interpretations. This metaphorical language could most effectively be achieved in the language of poetry. Poets dedicating themselves to the memory of the freedom fight included László Nagy, István Eörsi, József Tornai, Márton Kalász, Gyula Óbersovszky, György Petri, István Ágh, István Bella, Attila Szepesi, József Utassy and Gáspár Nagy.

Although some novels on 1956 appeared soon after the revolution, these expressed the interests and requirements of party-line propaganda. Similar partyline ideology was present in some dramas as well. In this oppressive political atmosphere, there was no room for real catharsis. Works that were allowed to be published on the revolution had to represent a tragedy, but this tragedy was false, based on untrue social and historical grounds. Moreover, there was a tendency to pretend that nothing had happened and to discuss issues which deliberately diverted attention from the recent past of the country. In March 1957, the journal Élet és Irodalom (Life and Literature) was launched, replacing Irodalmi Újság, and in September of the same year the first issue of the journal Kortárs (Contemporary) appeared. Edited by József Darvas and Gábor Tolnai, Kortárs proclaimed its reluctance to commit itself to an agenda; however, the introductory article of the journal contained a nicely phrased but unmistakable threat: “It is our firm belief that the thinking of our socialist writers has become more profound as a result of the past events and most of those who had not been socialist have now come closer to socialism.” At this time, the writers mentioned earlier were under arrest. The second, October issue of the journal also manifested some form of ambiguity: it published works by writers who had been previously sidelined, such as Sándor Weöres, János Kodolányi, János Pilinszky, Zoltán Jékely, Miklós Mészöly, but in parallel with a critique of a recent book of verse, Szárazvillám (Heat Lightning) by Ágnes Nemes Nagy, disapproving of the poet’s “doubts and distrust.”

The only truly astounding publication in the second issue of the journal was a short story by László Tóth (today known as László Kamondy), entitled “Fegyencek szabadságon” (Inmates on Vacation), about the liberation of convicts from a prison in the last days of October 1956. Going beyond any reasonable daring, the short story contained the following dialogue: “’What’s this?!’ asked Venczák in an increasingly loud and sharp voice, as by this time the wing of the building had resounded with bangs and he could hardly hear his own words. – ‘This, papa,’ said one of the civilians joyfully, who had been recently released from the detention camp in Oroszlány, ‘this is a revolution.’” Kamondy’s short story is perhaps the only literary work in the span of some 30 years or so which used the word “revolution” for the events and still succeeded in being officially published in Hungary. To my knowledge, the next literary work that mentions this word is Péter Nádas’s A Book of Memories, published in 1986.

In addition to the metaphorical language of poetry, and the sophisticated, but unmistakable allusions in prose, the absurd or grotesque was another literary tool in the hands of writers to recall the days of the freedom fight; Déry’s novel G. A. úr X-ben (Mr. G. A. in X, 1964) uses Kafkaesque absurd to this end, and a similar technique is followed in Ferenc Karinthy’s novel Epepe (1979, published in English as Metropole) and István Örkény’s drama Pisti a vérzivatarban (Stevie in the Bloodbath, 1983). Although these works had an elusive, intangible storyline, each of them had to wait years before they were given green light for publication. The confusing story-line and the possibility of multiple interpretations owing to the absurd finally caused these works to serve as, to use Marshall McLuhan’s phrase, “the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind”, the mind of the censor.

In the second half of the 1980s, with the rapidly changing political system and, eventually, the collapse of communism, all political and ideological obstacles were removed from the way of discussing the memory of the 1956 revolution. A number of works have been published since, drawing on the theme of the revolution, such as György Konrád’s A cinkos (The Accomplice), Károly Szakonyi’s Bolond madár (Silly Bird), Károly Szalay’s Párhuzamos viszonyok (Parallel Relations), András Simonffy’s Rozsda ősz (Rusty Autumn), Ágnes Gergely’s Stációk (Stages), Géza Ottlik’s Buda, Péter Nádas’s Emlékiratok könyve (A Book of Memories), and Ferenc Juhász’s Krisztus levétele a Keresztről (Christ’s Descent from the Cross).

However, these recent works show it would be fallacious to conclude that confronting the memory of the unsuccessful revolution has become easier, or less problematic, as a result of the freedoms provided by the new democracy. The armed protagonist of György Konrád’s short story “Álmerénylő hosszú kabátban” (Bogus Assassin in a Long Coat, 1992) is aimlessly roaming about the streets of Budapest on 4 November and the days to follow, incapable of using his gun. In Péter Nádas’s Parallel Stories (2005), the narrator decides not to take part in the street-fighting, even though he supports the armed resistance in theory: “But I had to get some bread and other stuff,” the hero admits, “my family was submerged in paralysis.” Similarly to the people who are paralysed when, standing in line for bread, a Soviet tank appears and shoots into the house above them.

While in the past the revolution was almost unutterable because of the ideological restrictions, and any work that truthfully referred to 1956 exhibited an act of courage by its very existence, in these recent works the heroism is gone, replaced with the invocation of a sense of paralysis in the narrative. It has now become clear, with the political and ideological constraints gone and the freedom of speech re-established, that the crushed revolution with all its inevitable consequences for the ruined and distressful lives of a whole generation is truly unspeakable and unutterable, which, quite paradoxically, is recounted so accurately in literature.

This is a shortened version of a paper originally published in Confrontations and Interactions. Essays on Cultural Memory. Edited by Bálint Gárdos, Ágnes Péter, Natália Pikli and Máté Vince. L'Harmattan: Budapest, 2011.

János Kenyeres


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