News – 29th July, 2006

Art and politics – part three

László Najmányi

News–29th July, 2006


"This is your last night, László," said the voice in the phone. It was 3 AM, on a night in early spring, 1978. I put down the phone. After a couple of minutes, it started to ring again. "You’ll be dead by the morning, László," said the voice.

He kept on calling and threatening for hours. I barricaded the entrance to my apartment, but the glass door, which opened to the balcony, was no match for a professional intruder. I called the police. I told them that I was getting threatening phone calls. "There is nothing we can do, until the threatening person actually tries to break into your apartment, Sir," said the duty officer. "Call us when he gets inside your apartment."

At the end of the 1970s, it was against the law to unplug the phone in Hungary. Having a telephone was still a privilege at that time. The all-powerful State Security Agency, the largest employer in the country, regularly tapped the phone lines of hundreds of thousands of citizens at the twilight of the regime. Their high-tech machines could automatically sense if any of the private phones had been disconnected. It was deemed an act against public order to unplug one’s phone for an extended period. It was a misdemeanor punishable by revoking one’s telephone privileges permanently. I did not want to lose my phone, so I just took off the receiver and muffled it with a blanket.

The next night I received a call, some time after midnight. "If you think we are just joking, László, just go to the balcony," said the voice in the phone. I put aside the receiver, picked up the ax which I kept at my bedside, and stepped out onto the balcony. I lived on the first floor of a small apartment building. My balcony was an easy jump for any government ninja. I looked down on the grassy yard beneath my balcony and saw a man standing there, looking at me. "What are you doing there?" I asked. "That’s none of your business," said the man. "You should go away. This is private property," I said. "Go away, or else I call the police." "Just call them," said the man, turning his back to me, "I can wait." I went back to the room and called the police. I told them that I am getting threatening phone calls for the past days. "They are threatening to kill me. Now there is a man, a stranger, standing beneath my first floor balcony, on private property. He won’t go away." "There is nothing we can do, until that person actually tries to break into your apartment, Sir”, said the duty officer. "Call us when he gets inside your apartment, ok?" I went out to the balcony again. The man had left the yard.

The next morning I was driving to Buda, across the Árpád Bridge, over the Danube. Suddenly, I was bumped by three cars which surrounded my beaten Lada, forcing me up to the sidewalk. Half way up, I managed to stop my car, so they couldn’t push me into the river. The attacking cars took off and disappeared in the morning traffic. I’d lost a mirror and part of the front bumper, but my tires held up. I managed to get off the sidewalk and slowly drove across the bridge. Once in Buda, I stopped at the nearest bar and had a shot of vodka.

To run the goulash communism of the 1970s was a costly business. The dictator János Kádár’s vision for the country was a lower middle class, blue collar workers’ paradise. Easy jobs in an unproductive economy, enough pay for food, booze, tobacco, a tiny parcel of land with a small weekend house in the country side, and a small car to get there seemed like a birthright to most citizens, most of whom shut their mouths and went with the flow. To maintain the unearned standard of living it had secured for the population, the government went into ever-growing debt with Western banks, in exchange for allowing some civil rights and scrutiny by the Western media. The government stopped locking up deviant artists, writers and intellectuals. They did not want any bad PR in the Western media, because that would lower the government’s credit ratings. Those artists, writers and thinkers whom the State Security identified as potentially dangerous to the system were forced out of the country, by various means. By the mid-70s, my circle of friends was decimated this way.

While the authorities would - to a certain degree - tolerate my theatrical activities (which attracted a few hundred intellectuals, at the most), they instantly deemed me dangerous when with friends we formed the Eastern Block’s first punk band, the Spions. From the night of our first rehearsal, I had two police cars stationed at the entrance to the apartment house where I lived. Each time I passed them, the policemen would yell insults at me from their cars.

While theatre was for the bourgeoisie (at that time, negligible in size); rock music, by nature, was and is for the masses. With a fresh beat and a message much more appealing to the new generations than the noise which the government's own sound machine could produce, our minimalist rock & roll enterprise was instantly identified by the gifted minds of the Cultural Department of the State Security as potentially capable of removing thousands of young souls from Communist mind control. After just a few concerts, our band was declared an enemy formation against the workers’ state. Squads of police agents were assigned to chase us out of the country by various means, among them, harassing us by threatening phone calls and staging mock traffic accidents. Bored of the constant harassments, we both applied for passports and exit visas, which we received within days – as opposed to months, which was the normal procedure then. Exiled from the goulash bowl, we soon discovered that we were the reddest rock stars in Paris.

(To be continued)

László Najmányi: Strike (Self-Portrait, Budapest, Hungary, 1979)

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