“We were the frontrunners of democratic reforms in Eastern Europe”

Grenzgaenger 4Maerz15

As part of the Grenzgänger/Grenzdenker [cross-border travellers/thinkers] series held on 4 March at Vienna’s theatre, Kasino am Schwarzenbergplatz, Hungarian authors Zsófia Bán and György Dalos talked about their home country with Martin Pollack.

No, Viktor Orban is neither Virginia Woolf nor the bogeyman. Right at the beginning of the discussion, György Dalos answered the question that headlined the second edition of the Grenzgänger/Grenzdenker series, “Who is afraid of Viktor Orban?”, rather tersely: “Not me.” The multi-award winning author, who was born in Budapest in 1943 and has been living in Berlin since 1995, and his fellow writer, Zsófia Bán, talked with the Austrian author and expert of the Eastern European literary scene, Martin Pollack, about their home country Hungary at the crowded Kasino am Schwarzenbergplatz. Pollack hosts this new reading and discussion series, which ERSTE Foundation has been organising with the Burgtheater since early this year.

As in the first round of the Grenzgänger/Grenzdenker series, when a Russian author and a Belarusian writer tried to approach the political phenomenon Vladimir Putin through literary texts, the first hour of the event initially did not engage with current affairs. Instead, art took centre stage. Two actors at Vienna’s Burgtheater, Andrea Clausen and Martin Schwab, took turns reading aloud passages from works by the guests. Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1957, Zsófia Bán is a professor of American studies at Loránd Eötvös University in Budapest. Her publications include Esti iskola [Evening School] and Amikor még csak az állatok éltek [When There Were Only Animals], which were translated into German by Terézia Mora. From the extensive work of György Dalos, the actors read aloud passages from the text Meine beiden Ringstraßen, published last year, and from the book Der Fall des Ökonomen [The Economist’s Downfall].

Varying greatly in their language, the texts already painted a nuanced image of Hungarian society, even when they dealt with life in South America, as in When There Were Only Animals. Zsófia Bán’s language often changes its tone, and her, at times, ribald insights into the minds and hearts of the characters in her books reveal strong feelings and create an atmosphere alternating between confinement, even trauma, and the desire for freedom. Dalos’ texts often specify in detail – sometimes in the form of anecdotes but always analytically – the political and social demands his protagonists must struggle with. The two authors share the same, slightly sarcastic, humour that pops up frequently.

After György Dalos had tersely told Martin Pollack that he was not afraid of Viktor Orban at the beginning of the talk that followed the reading, he went into more detail. With the keen eye of the observer from a distance, he described the current situation of a country he had left 25 years ago. Dalos said that many issues that justifiably worry critics of Hungary’s political and social developments today, have their roots back in the 20th century and even earlier. He went on to explain that Hungarians had always possessed two very contradictory sides: All Hungarians, including himself, took a romanticising pride in their nation and generally bore the pathos of national identity. “I still remember how bewildered our fellow writers from the GDR were when they visited us on New Year’s Eve in 1970 and saw us Hungarians fervently singing the national anthem at midnight,” smirked Dalos, a dissident at the time, convicted of “subversive activities” in 1968, and co-founder of the Hungarian democratic opposition. The other side of Hungarians was their inherent scepticism, he said. “Unfortunately, our sceptical side emerges very rarely these days.”

Because Orban would not be dangerous at all, said Dalos – again referring to the title of the event –, if Hungarian society were not so weak. Although he acknowledged that Hungary’s opposition was on the rise again, he said that it was, regrettably, utterly undemocratic. “The growing dissatisfaction in Hungary mostly benefits Jobbik,” that is, the far-right political party that openly propagates anti-Semitism and hatred towards the Roma community.

Zsófia Bán could only confirm this. As a university lecturer, it particularly troubles her that Jobbik recruits most of its members among students, young people.

In Dalos’ opinion, Hungary’s biggest problem was the atmosphere of hatred even perceptible in everyday life, one that had, however, also developed before the change in government: the hatred towards Roma and anti-Semitism. The series of murders against Roma, which made headlines at home and abroad, had been committed under the previous government. He went on to say that Hungary was simply unable to get rid of its anti-Semitism, it was “like an itching, open wound that you keep scratching”.

Overall, Dalos warned that criticism of Orban and his governing party Fidesz ran the risk of becoming too hysterical, which would make any dialogue impossible. “Criticism is necessary but it must come from the population and exert social pressure.” He cited the Internet tax as an example of the impact of protests by young people who had simply raised their mobile phones in the air on Chain Bridge. Orban’s very own voters had forced him to cancel the tax.

Martin Pollack wanted to know from Zsófia Bán and György Dalos how they saw the role that intellectuals, who had shown such courage under communist rule, played today. How are writers and artists responding to the country’s atmosphere as described above? Ban said that reactions were hardly noticeable, because there were not many forums left for critical artists in Hungary, since the institutions in which they had been employed – theatres, museums, libraries, etc. – either no longer had any funds left or had replaced them by government-friendly people.

In his response, Dalos again drew on events of the past. During Communism the importance of intellectuals in Hungary was huge: “During the dictatorship culture compensated for civil society.” He believed that today culture had lost its central function and as a result was less visible and that intellectuals had ceased to play a distinct role since the political changes in 1990. They were incapable of maintaining the privileged situation they enjoyed during Communism in a market-oriented society. The new media had also suddenly made the old intellectuals anachronistic.

The evening’s conclusion was mixed. The deep regret in György Dalos’ voice was evident when he spoke about lost opportunities over the past 25 years: “Together with Poland, we were the frontrunners among Eastern European transition countries in 1988/89 and had a very good reputation in Europe. Today we are completely isolated.” At the same time, the texts by Zsófia Bán and György Dalos, which had been read aloud at the beginning, made it clear what cross-border travellers and thinkers need to explore first of all: the changing, often insecure, yet still common European landscape in literary texts that express thoughts about identity and diversity “to enable ‘the idea of Europe’ outside of politics and demographics”. It may be that Hungary’s intellectuals have lost social privileges over the past few decades. They are, however, needed more than ever as smart analysts of their country’s situation.

Maribel Königer, ERSTE Foundation