News – 20th October, 2006

Art and politics – part seven

László Najmányi

News–20th October, 2006


In 1996 I visited Hungary for the first time in 18 years. I came from New York with my laptop and a thoroughly Americanized mind. I found the country completely different from the grey death camp I left almost two decades ago. It was now a bursting, yet somehow utterly depressed and depressing Balkan bazaar, a kind of Mad Max land in King Ubu’s empire, where most people I met were in a bad mood.

The Communist dictatorship lasted for almost half a century in Hungary. The impact it made on the psychological and spiritual make-up of the population will probably linger for generations; the ghost of Communism will haunt this part of Europe for decades to come. The change of the regime 16 years ago did not bring about the much-needed catharsis. An agreement was drawn up between the leaders of the old regime and the so called "democratic opposition" (at its core, the children of the ruling families of the fallen regime), an ad-hoc coalition of liberal and national-conservative forces that was generously spiked with agents of the Communist secret police. Owing to their agreement (unauthorized by any democratic means), crimes committed against the citizens during the years of state terror went unpunished, in exchange for a peaceful transition of power. The country was rigorously purged of Nazis after the end of World War II, but no such purge followed the end of the red terror. What’s more, the main players of the terrorist regime were allowed to exchange their political power for economic gains. They enjoyed a privileged position during the privatization of the country’s assets.

In 1996, I visited Hungary for the first time in 18 years. I came from New York with my laptop and a thoroughly Americanized mind. An old friend of mine (later I was shocked to learn that he was a secret police informer who regularly reported on me from 1968 to 1989) lent me his car, and I drove around the country, revisiting the important places of my youth. I found the country completely different from the grey death camp I left almost two decades ago. It was now a bursting, yet somehow utterly depressed and depressing Balkan bazaar, a kind of Mad Max land in King Ubu’s empire, where most people I met were in a bad mood. They hated each other passionately, and did not make a secret about it. Old marriages and friendships broke up; people would not talk to each other. The healthy black humor which kept people’s spirit alive during the darkest years of Communist terror was largely gone. The country seemed to be run by criminals and madmen.

The material landscape was just as devastated as the spiritual one was. I drove up to the mountains of the North East, where my father, a civil engineer, had designed a scenic water reservoir back in the 1960s. The reservoir was built in the very same valley where his father, a communist banker, died in a hunting accident in the early 1920s. The artificial lake, surrounded by enchanted forests, with a guesthouse on its shore looked like a splendid Swiss mountain retreat thirty years ago. By 1996, it was turned into an industrial wasteland. The forests were gone, and so was the Swiss Chalet-style guesthouse. The lake was filthy and foul-smelling, the shores were covered with garbage. People were living on the lakeshore in plastic foil tents. As I learned, most of the area’s once thriving industry, forestry, mines and factories which gave employment to the locals, were hastily privatized at the time of the regime change. They were sold for pittances to a competitor who promptly drove them to bankruptcy and shut them down. Most of the locals found themselves out of their badly paid, yet secure jobs. The whole population of some villages and small towns was suddenly unemployed. Especially the gypsies, who made up a large percentage of the population, suffered a great deal from the change. As I drove through the mountains of Nógrád and Zemplén, I saw decaying villages where groups of drunken, unkempt gypsies were lingering on both sides of the road. They were similar to the kind of Third Word ghetto neighborhoods in which one better not make a stop to ask for directions. The mountain paradise of my high school years was replaced by Calcutta – without the teachings of Buddha and Brahmins to calm the poor.

From the barren mountains of the North East, I drove across the country to Lake Balaton. My Canadian-born wife was with me. I wanted to show her the places where I grew up, but found all of them devastated. It was a hot and humid August, and I wanted to stop at my old favorite swimming spot by the River Tisza near Szolnok. When I swam here the last time, the banks were covered with soft, white sand. There was a willow forest in the flood plains, full of flowers, where I used to watch colorful birds and butterflies, and collect blackberries and wild strawberries in my childhood. Now the once great beaches were all full of knee-deep mud, littered with beer cans and plastic bags. The old willow forests were mostly gone, chopped down at waist height by lazy lumber thieves who did not even bother to bend down with their chainsaws to cut the trees nearer to the ground. I drove along the river for about 50 kilometers, but could not find a place to swim, or even just a clean spot of grass to sit down and have a picnic.

We arrived at Lake Balaton in the evening hours and wanted to have a dinner in a restaurant. We sat down on the terrace amidst loud, bald, tattooed muscle men with their drunken girlfriends, as well as dining families with small children. A snuff porno movie, super hardcore, with screaming rape scenes was blazing from half a dozen television monitors on stands on all sides of the terrace. There were drunken brawls at the neighboring tables while we ate our meal. We went to another restaurant for a drink after dinner. The scene was the same there, too: drunken road warriors and filthy porn on monitors. We took a room at a hotel, but could not get much sleep. We were kept awake by the sounds of the most violent S&M sex scene I have ever heard. A man was screaming in Serbo-Croatian, while a woman was shrieking, moaning and crying loudly in pain, as her partner was hitting and torturing her. The walls were paper thin. We were forced to listen to their sick pleasure in detail until sunrise. My wife later told me that she was afraid for her life during our entire short stay at Lake Balaton. I paid the hotel bill by credit card in the morning. Upon returning to New York, I was notified by my bank that the card’s number had been stolen during my Balaton hotel transaction and the thief ordered high priced items by mail with it.

After returning to the Hungarian capital, Budapest, I was trying to retrieve my old photos, videos, writings and artwork that I had left in the care of a friend when I left the country 18 years ago. I was not allowed by law to carry any artwork or writings across the border at that time, so I had to leave them behind, locked in a large wooden chest. The guardian of my stuff, my old friend, had died some years ago. A common friend of ours inherited his treasures, which – beside my works – included the works of many other exiled artists. I visited the gentleman and asked him to give me back my property. Sitting on my wooden chest with an impatient, stern look on his face, he denied my request. “When you left Hungary 18 years ago, László, you renounced all your rights to your works. These rights now belong to the Hungarian people, whom I represent”, he said and proceeded to pour me another glass of home-made liquor, a pálinka, which tasted of yeast. There was madness in his eyes. I was trying to bargain with him, asking him to lend me my own photos and writings, so they could be published in the documentary book I was assembling at that time. I promised to give him back the original photos and manuscripts after making copies of them, but the man wouldn’t change his mind. Without the documents of my pre-emigration activities, I did not succeed in completing the book. Five years later, I learned that the man who so brazenly privatized my past was, in fact, also a police informer, assigned to spy at my theatre from 1972 to 1976. Some say that he went completely insane after the regime change and keeps on calling his old contact officer (always finding him, even if the now retired ex-state terrorist changes his number or address), and he still writes reports on anybody he meets. He is storing the documents he has confiscated at a secret location and keeps his non-commissioned secret police reports in the very chest that once contained my artistic legacy.

(To be continued)

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