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  • Still Beyond the Pale: Hungarian Emigré Writing After the Collapse of Communism
  • László K. Géfin (bio)

A specter is haunting Hungarian literature, the specter of Hungarian literature written in the West. As my subject is an anomaly in literary history and critical reception, the grandiose and somewhat inappropriate Marxian image ought to capture the nature of the problem at hand. Within Hungarian literature “as a whole” (a solely quantitative entity, whose metaphysical pretensions, as I will clarify below, I do not recognize) it is this literature that forms an oddity and a historical novelty; it is for these reasons that it can be said to have a ghostly presence, something that is both fearful and unreal. This literature has been produced by writers more or less permanently living outside the present national frontiers; for the sake of brevity, in this paper I will call this literature “emigré writing.” 1 Despite the profusion of books published by these writers since the watershed year of 1989, nearly all of them by publishers in Hungary, the work especially of the so-called “Generation of ‘56” 2 continues to be surrounded by an almost unbroken critical silence. One reason for the silence lies in the oft-acknowledged fact that a serious and disinterested literary criticism does not, because cannot, exist in Hungary. The other fact derives from the first, or vice-versa, in that the contemporary literary scene is fragmented and composed of coteries and even warring factions, each having its resident critic or [End Page 206] critics whose sole function is to heap praise on the writings of the group to which they belong and ignore all others. The somewhat cynical suggestion is that emigré writing has now become the production of just another group within this atomized literary scene, and it cannot hope to receive adequate attention until it develops its own corps of partisan critics “at home.” But since such critics are not to be found in Hungary, as the ones who might have sufficient theoretical and practical preparation to deal with such complex a body of work have already “invested” their time and talent in domestic writers, the silence continues to muffle and obliterate the very existence of emigré writing, a sizeable corpus produced in the last fifty years.

The questions raised by the above situation are thus quite pragmatic: what is the use of emigré writing, and what is its relevance to Hungarian literature? This pragmatism is, however, always one-sided: the terms of use and relevance are at all times laid down by the literary establishment “at home,” in conformity to prevaling cultural ideas, governing principles, traditions and myths. It was no different before 1989. Preceding the collapse of communism, emigré writing had a certain function and presence in Hungarian literature and cultural life, satisfying a variety of expectations. Even though during the post-revolution regime of János Kádár Hungary had attained the reputation of being “the best barracks” in the Soviet camp, enjoying a more liberal climate than East Germany or Czechoslovakia, not to mention Poland after the imposition of martial law, it was still a closed society, in which a vast communist party bureaucracy monitored and controlled all aspects of political and intellectual life. It is understandable that under such conditions Hungarian writing produced in the free West had an attraction like some contraband material, for indeed, in order to be read, it had to be smuggled in through the ever-vigilant eyes of Hungarian customs. (As a result, many a Budapest writer had to face reprimands and even more humiliating punishment because books and magazines by emigré writers were found in their luggage.) Emigré writing was prized for various reasons. For those who looked to it for free political expression impossible in Hungary under György Aczél, a close associate of Kádár’s and the supreme authority in all cultural matters, many of the emigré journals and books provided a kind of mental tonic and source of information. They were especially useful in treating the two subjects whose mention was absolutely forbidden in the Hungarian press: truthful discussion of the 1956 revolution and any critique of the...

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