News – 14th March, 2014

Let sleeping dogs lie

News–14th March, 2014


Let sleeping dogs lie

My grandfather used to say that good is always bad, 'cause bad will follow anyway. I kept laughing at this; what an idea that you have to be neck deep in misery, so you at least know what to expect.

If misfortune has already happened, at least there’s no need to be scared of the future; to worry in precisely what way it will be bad and why. Almost ten years have passed since he died. We left him there in intensive care. There was accusation in his eyes – that now even we abandon him, like everyone and everything else; he had expected otherwise. If only it was possible to go back, to hold his hands and not to abandon him anymore. To tell him he was right: good was always bad. I did realize it eventually. Even when it’s tolerable, you have to be suspicious, because in this part of the world, evil will surely follow.

But a decade ago I didn’t yet understand how the system worked. I didn’t understand that they hand out the cards again and again every forty years, that they simply take what we have and give it away to others; relatives, friends, anyone who is cowardly and wimpish enough. They redistribute property, simple as it is. Private property has no sanctity in our fuggy little world: this Eastern European tale of mendacity is just a series of theft, forced displacement and confiscation. Helping the deported neighbors onto the train, shepherding the last cow to the collective farm. Or recently, the confiscated pensions, the monopolization of tobacco shops, cultivated lands, forests and flourishing ecofarms. The Hungarian sees the property of his neighbor – how nice, how prosperous! He assesses it, sizes it up. Then he simply grabs it, or hamstrings the neighbor, sends him packing, snubs him, and makes his act lawful.

There is an iconic dialogue that deserves to be recorded and memorized. The Mayor of Budapest and the Prime Minister of Hungary are mustering the old city, the crew is filming them, and we witness every single word they utter. The Prime Minister, governor of life and death, points to a building, and expresses his admiration for it. It should be de-privatised, should really be taken back – 'we’ll create a law for it.' Standing there shoulder to shoulder, firmly grasping the handgrips, the two men are satisfied and corpulent. They know their worth, and they know that they are allowed to covet anything that could possibly be coveted. There will be no consequences.

And the ordinary man just stares, just like his father did when things were nationalized, given over to the servants, confiscated, or people were shot and deported. It is only the exterior, the decor that is different now – fancier and more sophisticated. Once again, bureaucrats and functionaries show up, towering over the ordinary citizen, who is screwed and helpless once again in his turn. And the bureaucrats complain about the preceding government, and the financial crisis, and then all of a sudden our insurance, our investment and our savings, which we worked for our entire life, are gone. They’re gone, not available anymore, the mortgage grew larger than it was to start with, the cultivated land belongs to someone else, and the job's gone too.

And since it has always been this way, we tolerate it. Our fathers, they also tolerated it. At least, the worst part was over, they told themselves. When things were taken away, there was no need to worry anymore; eventually, the time had come to mourn, to remember and to die of their loss. At least you had a reason to drink, to drown yourself in the Tisza; at least you could start all over again, just like your father’s father did. And he managed, he didn’t die of it, our father claimed, but of course granddad did die of it, and our father also followed him quietly.

One night I was sitting in a club in Miskolc, a nice club, some young people were performing poetry, slam poetry as they say now, shouting the truth loudly into the microphone. They were rebellious, cheeky, and full of ideas. It was beautiful, like a vision of a liveable life, a dream; as if we had cut out a little separate, normal universe for ourselves from the big one. And as I was jurying, holding up the scores; I was wondering at which point it would all go wrong. When will the moment come when their optimism cracks for the first time, when they first notice that in this country, anything goes, that the powers-that-be can do anything they want. And the moment they accept it, they will know that they have accepted it forever. The oddity lies not in powerful people doing the same things all over again, but in us accepting it. Our eternal tolerance, accompanied by the same painted-on smiles. At what point will these young people learn to stand on the pillory, head bowed, and silent, because 'it could be worse'? Maybe it could, maybe it couldn’t; it doesn’t matter. It felt good to imagine that these young people will perhaps be different, that they will continue to revolt, protest and shout when what they have is taken away. That they are not made of the same stuff as us. That they are not us.

I remember the moment when I gave in. When I became just like my father and grandfather, when I first uttered that utmost Hungarian wisdom: let sleeping dogs lie. When I shook hands with the man who denounced me at the county council as an editor who is a 'stooge of the Jews'. And I did not quit immediately when I was told that investigations are on their way, instead of my employers being revolted by this assumption. I realised that in the depth of this absurd existence there is only ultimate, relentless darkness. I just wanted to have an apartment, a quiet life, and a future. Let sleeping dogs lie, the family decided. So we tolerated everything, as is the custom. Hungarians are not hellraisers, no need to be a drama queen. After this incident we started to make yearly statistics for the ignorant, corrupt, and stupid MPs, to prove that a sufficient number of our authors are from our county. We wanted a quiet life, and a future. And then we realized we lost both.

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