News – 25th January, 2013

Bans and taboos: censorship in the Kádár era

News–25th January, 2013


Bans and taboos: censorship in the Kádár era

According to Communist ideology, literature shapes consciousness. This explains why the regime was so much interested in literature. – A discussion on censorship in Communist Hungary.

Escher’s drawings are confusing only if we are hovering between a two- and a three-dimensional view – if we try to make out the objects they represent, it immediately becomes clear that they are impracticable, and they hardly remind us of the original idea. Similarly, the essence of Communism gets lost if we examine the absurd world, created by dogmatic ideology and individual interest, in the light of reason.

The publishing practice of the Kádár era was the topic of a recent event organized by the National Library of Foreign Literature in Budapest. The discussion centred around translated fiction because, as publisher-translator István Bart pointed out, it is the fate of translations that shows the nature of the bans and the taboos.

It was mainly contemporary literature that the regime kept an eye on, said Ferenc Takács, literary critic, translator and senior lecturer at Eötvös Loránd University of Budapest. Besides the obvious loss this also meant, however, that the Kádár era was a golden age for the translation of classical literature. Many classical works were published in excellent translations, often by the best writers who were not allowed to publish their own works. There will certainly be no sufficient intellectual capacity for translations of such high quality in the next fifty years, Takács added.

István Bart outlined the process a book had to go through before a decision was made about its publication. First of all, there had to be three favourable reader’s reports. There was no clearly defined set of rules – a lot depended on the reader himself. There was no office of censorship; publishers had to follow the directives of the Publishing Directorate. István Bart mentions a 1963 statement by the Directorate, which was centred around the problem “whether we need Kafka, Beckett or Joyce.” The answer was negative, of course. Although Kafka was an international affair, it was also an internal affair of the Eastern Bloc, and the Communist countries maintained the right to decide which ones of their authors could be published, Takács said. Eventually, Kafka was given the green light in East Germany due to the intercession of Western Marxists, while he was still banned in Hungary.

Though with time there was less and less pressure on publishers, two strong taboos remained all through, which thwarted the publication of many important books. One was the taboo on sexuality, pornography and obscenity, which made e.g. Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead undesirable, and caused Ginsberg’s Howl to be censored in part – seeing that the whole poem could not be left out from an anthology entitled Howl. This taboo became less strict by the 70s. Though Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint was still too strong for the regime’s taste, When She Was Good could be published as early as in 1973.

The other taboo was political, István Bart continued. No book criticizing the Soviet Union or questioning the friendship between the Soviet Union and Hungary was considered fit for publication. In that sense, the publication of Solzhenitsyn brought out into the open many topics that had been unimaginable before, like the Gulag. Ironically, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was translated by László Wessely, who had been an inmate at the Gulag himself.

Sometimes the translator himself cheated a bit so that an important novel could be published in Hungarian. The section where Marshal Rokossovsky destroys the city of Danzig was eliminated from Günter Grass’s Tin Drum – an instance of “pious self-censorship”, Takács said.

Some people were also taboo. For example, the name of Arthur Koestler, a renegade Communist, could not be mentioned. Towards the end of the 70s, Koestler sent all his works to the Hungarian publisher Európa (through George Mikes), with a brief note. He was aware of course that Darkness at Noon could not be published, but he was hoping that perhaps The Gladiators could. However, there was nothing the publisher could do about this, so they left the note unanswered.

Some bans were not so obvious, like the ban on Mayakovsky’s correspondence with Lili Brik. Takács was first baffled by this, but then he read an article in the Russian daily Komsomolskaya Pravda arguing that writers’ private life should not be a subject of discussion, this being a ‘bourgeois vestige’. So the book – which is actually quite uninteresting, Takács adds – had to wait ten years for publication.

Sometimes a certain event decided the fate of a book. Kundera’s Laughable Loves was published just before the Prague Spring. When news of the events in Prague reached Hungary, the authorities recalled the books from the stores. Lajos Zilahy’s The Dukays had a similar fate: the copies were quickly collected, the last, problematic pages were cut out with a razor blade, and the mutilated books were back in the stores again.

Perhaps the case of Bulgakov is the most interesting of all. Bulgakov’s works were banned in the Soviet Union, Takács said. However, after his death, a censored version of The Master and Margarita was published in a Russian literary magazine and Európa Publishing immediately commissioned a translation into Hungarian. Meanwhile, Bulgakov’s widow visited Hungary and offered the censored parts of the book to the publisher, so the Hungarian edition became the first complete edition of the novel.

According to Communist ideology, literature shapes consciousness. This accounts for the fact why the regime was so much interested in literature. In the beginning of the Kádár era, huge amounts were allocated for the publication and the popularization of 'good' literature. However, by the 80s, publication began to be more business-oriented. There was significantly less state support, and the regime became more lenient. The last official statement by the Publishing Directorate, written in 1984, cautioned against commercial literature and introduced the tax on kitsch.

(A shortened version of an article published in Hungarian at

See also: Literature and censorship in the Kádár era in Hungary

Miklós Szentpály

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