Kati Marton in Hungary

Kati Marton, who began her career as a reporter for ABC and NPR and is now a freelance writer, is in Hungary on a book tour. Her latest book on nine famous Hungarians who "changed the world" just came out in Hungarian.

Kati Marton was born in Hungary in 1949 to Ilona and Endre Marton, both reporters: Ilona worked for UPI and Endre for AP. In 1954 they were falsely accused of espionage and spent two years in jail while Kati and her older sister were taken in by strangers. By the 1956 revolution they were free again and reported to foreign news agencies throughout the revolution. They escaped with their two children and came to the United States, settling in Maryland. Kati was eight years old at the time of their arrival. After graduating from high school she studied for a while at the Sorbonne and the Institut d’Études Politique. Returning to the United States, she received a B.A. in romance languages and an M.A. in international relations at George Washington University.

Despite her tender age when she left Hungary, her Hungarian is surprisingly good. I heard three interviews with her, and it was amazing to watch how her ability to express herself improved after only two days in Hungary. Admittedly, she has had some practice over the years. The first time she visited Hungary was in the late 1970s when she was working on her first book on Wallenberg, and since then she tries to return at least once a year. After her divorce from Peter Jennings, anchorman of ABC, she married Richard Holbrooke, a diplomat who at one time was U.S. representative to the United Nations. The marriage to Holbrooke took place in Budapest a few years ago. She is a patriotic American and a patriotic Hungarian.

I must say that Kati Marton is a congenial person who most likely surprised her interviewers by her easy-going, friendly behavior. For instance, she asked all the reporters to use the familiar "te." To elucidate, I must report on a very odd custom in the Hungarian media. Hungary is a small country, and political and cultural life is centered in Budapest. So everybody who is anybody knows everybody else. No six degreees of separation in the Hungarian capital. Prior to the communist takeover people were much more formal, and only very close friends and members of the same family used the familiar form. All that changed in the 1950s: more and more people called each other by their first names and used the familiar form. It was practically compulsory to call fellow students "te" at the university. Then colleagues in all walks of life began moving in this direction until practically everbody used the familiar form. Reporters and politicians, actors and actresses know each other very well and are on a first name basis. However, according to Hungarian media etiquette the familiar form of address is taboo on the air. So you can imagine what happened when Kati Marton, prior to the interview, asked to be called Kati and "te." The reporters swallowed hard and slipped up only a couple of times.

The other thing that must have been a total shock to these people is that Kati Marton is an optimist and she smiles a lot. Hungarians on the whole are irritated by this American smile, which they consider phony. However, the reporters seemed a bit envious of her for that optimism. Somehow one had the feeling that they wished that all the Hungarians they interview would be like Kati Marton.

I almost missed Kati Marton’s third media appearance. She appeared in a show (MTV1) called "A La Carte" which is not one of my favorites. For one thing, I am not crazy about the reporter who is in charge and, second, he usually invites too many people who very impolitely cut into each other’s sentences. In the end one cannot understand half of their discussions. However, a cousin of mine in Hungary called my attention to it. Kati Marton made a very good impression on her, and she added that "Marton’s sheer presence made a difference in the whole tone of the political discussion. It was quite civilized." So I had to see that. I have to agree with my cousin. The "natives" decided that perhaps in front of the "American guest" one ought to show that after all they can talk to each other in a civilized manner. Most of the participiants, including Zoltán Pokorni, the Fidesz politician, were quite moderate. There was only one actress who was an interesting case: it was quite obvious that she shares the Hungarian right’s political philosophy but at the same time she was yearning for the good old days of the socialism of János Kádár. Kati Marton along with two or three other people were just shaking their heads.

A footnote for those who follow American politics. Richard Holbrooke is an advisor to the Clinton campaign and there are some who would like to see him become secretary of state if Clinton wins the presidency. Lots of if’s in this scenario, but it makes Kati Marton’s visit to Hungary a tad more significant than a simple book tour.

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I find “A La Carte” far more palatable than almost everything else on TV here. Ruminating on the issues of the day, I’d say the standard of civilised behaviour from the guests has always been quite high. Interestingly (for me) it is the “artists” and “actors” (including actresses in that) that are the worst behaved normally – alternating between petulance and diffidence as they play to their audience. I remember one particularly snotty Opera singer refusing to eat once Gyurcsány’s name had entered the conversation. There was a memorable contribution from a doctor some weeks ago when he claimed ‘hálapénz’ (azaz, félelempénz) had nothing to do with doctors protests over the health reforms. Reforms which I have plenty of proof are working in a positive way for Hungary and patients. The Hungarian smile, as with any public display of happiness, is always an act of supreme doublethink. I’m always left with an uncomfortable feeling that the main route to true happiness for most people is not happiness itself, but knowing that other people can see that you are happy and that dependence on others’ opinions robs Hungarians of any happiness – for who really believes that others would wish them… Read more »

********The other thing that must have been a total shock to these people is that Kati Marton is an optimist and she smiles a lot. Hungarians on the whole are irritated by this American smile, which they consider phony. However, the reporters seemed a bit envious of her for that optimism. Somehow one had the feeling that they wished that all the Hungarians they interview would be like Kati Marton.********
Didn’t Janikovszky Éva write a book just about the tendency of Americans to smile? But why should we expect Hungarians to smile, after all, we are one of the leaders in suicide per capita, no?

I also followed with quite some interest Marton’s appearance in Budapest, not so much for its personal effect, but rather for the effect of the book. She is a very pleasant and attractive person and as a writer is not bad either. What disturbed me a bit was the intent on her part to concentrate her attention to the Jewisness of her subjects. In my estimation those Hungarian Jews about whom she writes were indeed worthy of her attention, as well as ours, however, this book (which I so far only know from descriptions,) appears to be a somewhat distilled version of Laura Fermi’s much earlier work. With the addition, of course, Marton’s lovely, personal touch. It is my contention that if she had looked at the actual effect of her “heros” she might have chosen either different people into her list, (such as Molnar Ferenc for example,) or by giving up the “Jewish exclusivity” she could have heeded Eugene Wigner’s contention in the Fermi book. Here I refer to Wigners remark, saying that many talented people came to America from Hungary, but only one true genius: Bela Bartok. In view of the incredible accomplishments of the well known Hungarian… Read more »