“Who do I write for?”
Paul Varnai’s interview with Gabor T Szanto (Fall 2008)
Photo by Csilla Tóth
Photo: Csilla Tóth
We have recently received this interview from our Hungarian correspondent, Paul Varnai who has been interviewing a number of well-known Hungarian figures from public life; mostly writers but also some politicians and theatre or film personalities. We thought it might be interesting to see how Hungarian writers of Jewish background see their work and their public. Do they consider themselves to be writing outside the mainstream or as part of it? In Canada we are used to a richly diverse literary field, one that forms a central part of the Canadian literary canon now and is a reflection of the diversity of our society (including Aboriginal, French and English and a range of other immigrant voices). In Hungary, this is not the case: numerically the largest “minority” is the Roma who live a difficult, marginalized existence and though in recent years progress has been made in finding ways to be more inclusive, there have been as many difficulties and challenges in managing to find equality and reduce discrimination. Hungarian Jews are perhaps the next biggest minority – though many if not most Jews do not consider themselves to be a minority (and in fact, refused to be considered one of the Officially recognized “ethnic minorities” so designated by the office of national and ethnic minorities for the purpose of government programs and political representation). However, there is a very lively Jewish cultural and intellectual life in Hungary today – with the third largest community of Jews in continental Europe. We hope to bring some more articles and information on these and similar issues dealing with cultural diversity in the near future as we feel they relate to the mandate of this website.
For this interview we asked a Canadian Jewish writer, Seymour Mayne, if he might compare/contrast the situation of Canadian Jewish writers with that of the one described by Gabor Szanto of Hungary. Professor Mayne responded by saying: “I don't think the situation of the Jewish Canadian writer is similar to the condition of the Jewish Hungarian writer and some aspects are quite obvious. Canada is a diverse country, with a multiple or multi-cultural identity. Canada is not situated in Europe; nor was this country the scene of extended violent attacks on Jews sanctioned by our government. While some Anglo-Celtic writers and critics were at first uneasy with Jewish Canadian writers, the temper of our literary world has generally been open and tolerant. Mind you, there is a definite bias against Israel more and more apparent in cultural and intellectual circles but it does not at all come near the current situation in Hungary”. In further discussion Professor Mayne made a suggestion for a possible joint project: “it would be interesting to have a colloquium one day which would focus on the experience of Jewish Canadian vis-a-vis Jewish Hungarian writers. It could be a mini-conference that you could set up in the coming year or two, perhaps even with the cooperation of some Canadian institution such as the Vered Jewish Canadian Studies Program or a similar one – and a Hungarian counterpart. Then we could have a conversation among a number of Canadian and Hungarian writers. In fact the first part could be in Canada and the second part in Budapest. These sessions could be taped, edited, and then published.”
We hope that we can garner enough support for such an idea and will pursue it with interested partners.
Interview with Gábor T. Szántó
by Paul Várnai
Gábor T. Szántó writer, poet, longtime editor of the Hungarian Jewish political and cultural monthly Szombat (sabbath – www.szombat.org), was born in Budapest in 1966. After his long novel Keleti pályadvar, végállomas (Eastern Station, Last Stop, 2002), he published a volume of short stories: Lágermikulás (In Crunch of Empty boots, 2004) in which he focuses on the Jewish fate since the Shoah in Hungary. This book also appeared in Russian. Anthologized in Contemporary Jewish Writing in Hungary, Szántó spent three months in 2003 at the University of Iowa's International Writing Program.
In your novel Keleti pályaudvar, végállomás you raise a topic rarely discussed in Hungarian literature: you portray Hungarian-Jewish life in and around 1949, the time of an infamous show trial. More specifically you demonstrate how Jews position themselves, as both victims and executioners in the Communist regime.
I wanted to write about the dictatorship, about the 1949 trial against political leader, minister of interior affairs Laszlo Rajk, which was one of the several false trials under the Communist era. The novel shows what different ways of life Jewish survivors could choose. One of the characters becomes a state security officer. Another one is a religious Zionist who wants to leave for Israel and helps others leave too. The third main character is a middle-class man, also a Holocaust survivor. His Communist daughter marries the state security officer. Behind these three story lines, I try to give a picture of Jewish-Hungarian life under the dictatorial regime in 1949. It is also a way to show, how Jews positioned themselves: how they suffered or participated in the Communist regime. And this is indeed a topic rarely discussed in Hungarian literature.
Many Jews welcomed the Russians as liberators and put their faith in the Communist Party. Do you think this was a logical and unavoidable consequence of their past experiences? As member of the next generation can you find justification for their choices? Was that a fatal error on their part? What would you have done in their place?
To join the Communist party can be interpreted as an understandable response to the Jewish suffering. But the regime became a cruel dictatorship. I don’t know what would I have done after the Shoah, but as I tried to portray in my novel, there were different options.
The predicament of the next generation, the dilemma of those born after the Holocaust is a central theme in your writing, both prose and poetry. You analyze their search for a Jewish identity and values their parents suppressed or denied. You combine the experiences of the survivors and the second generation trying to ease this double burden while looking towards a wishful future. Could you comment on that?
The second generation in Central Europe has to face both past and future with the burden of their parents’ Shoah-experiences as well as their own experiences in survivor families in the Communist dictatorship – all the while lacking serious Jewish identity themselves. Very often they knew nothing or very little about the past experiences of their parents, even less about the parents’ relation to their own Jewishness. Finding some identity, they are faced with the question: what kind of Jewish future – if at all – is possible in East-Central Europe. Mixing the experiences of survivors and that of the second generation in my writings is not at all accidental. It is mapping reality: our life is pervaded by all that our parents experienced. We react to their suppressed experiences, which they so much wish to forget.
One of your concerns seems to be that you write about the experiences of a minority in a majority language, so your message about Jewish culture, Jewish identity does not reach the majority, which is not open enough to accept your „strangeness”. In other words: what kind of readers are you writing for? Don’t you think that all writers have to find their own readership? The Russian poetess Zinaida Gippius went so far as to question that a Jew could be a good Russian writer given that Jews are not fully rooted in the soil of their country. She suggests that they may excel in painting and music but not in literature. Is she biased, unfair or is there some truth in her argument?
It is a real question: who do I write for? In Central Europe national identity is fragile, and literature is a very important tool to protect it. There is a century long tradition that those Jews became succesful who accept the assimilationist paradigm. But hopefully this tradition changes as Hungary becomes more open and will have a more diverse culture. I think, as the „world spirit” changes in a globalized world, and the Jewish experience of „homelessness” also becomes globalized, the Russian poetess will prove to be wrong. To be an outsider was and still is an opportunity for a writer to see his world more clearly, although it is a hard predicament for any human being to be lonely. This might be the reason for my turning to Yiddish, American and English Jewish poetry which I have recently been translating. I have found it intellectually exciting; moreover I have found “company” in my loneliness.
You are editor-in-chief of Szombat (Sabbath), a Jewish political and cultural monthly. Szombat is not merely a periodical; it is also a forum for organizing a wide variety of events. Would you say a few words about that?
Szombat is an interesting phenomenon in the Hungarian and Hungarian Jewish cultural and political life. We publish articles reacting to public life, we publish political analyses and cultural reviews, interviews and reports, excerpts of literary works, etc. But at the same time overstepping the boundaries of a magazine, we organize cultural events, literary readings, open universities, conferences on art, literature, or on the new anti-Semitism.
In addition to reflecting aspects of Hungarian-Jewish social, political and cultural life Szombat pays special attention to Israel. Anti-Semitism nowadays often takes the form of anti-Israelism, and even anti-Americanism. I wonder if the authors of Szombat take a uniform view with regard to Israel or are encouraged to express a variety of opinions thus striving for a certain impartiality? Can a Jew be objective about Israel in this sea of anti-Israelism?
Of course we have different authors with different views but there are a lot of common experiences. It is quite difficult to be “objective”, but we try to do our best. Many of the European nations have taken responsibility about the Holocaust, but the deeply-rooted anti-Semitism still exists. Israel can often be a surrogate target of old prejudices. Naturally, Israel’s policy can and has to be criticized, similarly to the policy of other states and nations, but when criticizing, we have to take equal measures. We need to be aware of the fact that many people – having lost traditional integral identities as a result of modernism – try to find attachment in building up enemies. According to sociologist Andras Kovacs, the anti-Americanism and anti-Israelism of our days is a particular form of searching for identity. With the fall of Communism and the collapse of the Soviet Union a new „Other” became necessary, something that Europe could compare itself to and find its own identity.
When the Jews lived in ghettos in religious isolation, the majority society had a motivation to hate them. When they sought assimilation individually into European nations, it was another motivation for the majority society to hate them. When Jews intend to assume a place in the international community as a people and as a nation-state (amid conflicts similar to those raged a century and a half ago, when nation-states emerged in Europe), they come under criticism. It is often prejudiced. The influence of the Holocaust was among the factors that pushed European thinking towards transnational ideas, while Jews re-emerged as a nation and established their nation-state. This historical delay also lies behind the conflicts and the anti-Israelism of our day.
Since the collapse of the so called „socialist” regime in 1989, anti-Semitism has surfaced and is more and more apparent in Hungary. Unlike Germany the Holocaust here is not regarded as a national trauma. If I may make a point: Hungary is almost unique in the world in that it simultaneously tolerates (or permits) open anti-Semitism and a blossoming Jewish culture. Isn’t that very bizarre? Isn’t that, using Nietzsche’s expression, „living dangerously”?
Some say the anti-Semitism had a huge impact on the Jewish ethnic revival... But more seriously, there definitely is anti-Semitism, and it is tolerated in the media of the political right. It is trendy among youngsters to be on the radical right. It is a kind of rebellion against the mainstream. Jewish and Hungarian coexistence in the past 100 years has been analyzed in several of my essays. People in Hungary are not conscious enough about the historical past, including the Shoah. One of Hungary's major neuroses derives from the two World Wars: the loss of two-thirds of the territory of the country after WWI. Hungarian identity is also very fragile. There is a minority complex, a constant fear that the nation will disappear... On the other hand, Jews also have a fear of the “Other”, because of the traumas of the Shoah and because of the fragile Jewish identity. People with fragile or no identities, desperately need the „Other” to create an enemy to be afraid of. By comparing themselves to this “Other”, they can try to recreate their own identity on the remnants of their “original” identity.
Do you see any future for Jewish youth in Hungary?
After the Shoah European Jewish life can never be the same as before. After the Communism it is also very difficult to start Jewish life. But each generation brings about people who take up the intellectual challenge of individual thinking, of being different, even in spite of difficulties.