Matriculation test questions can keep the whole country buzzing. As soon as the high school graduates receive their questions the exams are shared with the public. And then begin the heated discussions about the appropriateness of the questions. Reporters go out to schools and interview students about their reactions. Every year there is something wrong or questionable or not quite appropriate. This year, for instance, some people were upset because the students were asked to compare two "drinking songs." These drinking songs were from the romantic period, written by Sándor Petőfi (1823-1849) and Mihály Vörösmarty (1800-1855). Drinking songs are no longer part of contemporary culture; neither, it seems, are these two poets. As one girl said: "Petőfi doesn't speak to me." Another bone of contention was the choice of a short story by Ervin Lázár (1936-2006) for analysis. His politics should have been all right. Around 1990 and after he worked mostly for conservative papers and periodicals. Why some people didn't like this short story is not clear to me. Perhaps they considered it mundane.
But the Hungarian extreme right became outraged as soon as they saw the name of György Spiró (1946- ), a prolific contemporary writer. Students were supposed to comment on an excerpt from an interview that appeared in Heti Válasz, a weekly that came into being with the generous help of the Orbán government. In the excerpt Spiró suggested that some of the Hungarian classics ought to be "translated" into modern Hungarian because youngsters don't like to read. Perhaps one of the problems is that "they don't understand half of the words." He brought up as examples Mór Jókai (1825-1904) and Géza Gárdonyi (1863-1922). I personally was most surprised about Gárdonyi because I didn't remember his prose causing any problem whatsoever. In fact, his historical novel about the Turkish times in Hungary called Egri csillagok ( Stars of Eger; or more fancifully in English, Eclipse of the Crescent Moon) was named a few years ago as the most beloved and most read of Hungarian books in the country. Needless to say I haven't read Egri csillagok since childhood, and therefore I decided to refresh my memory. After reading a few pages I decided that Gárdonyi doesn't have to be "translated." My refresher course on Jókai brought different results. There I found a few words I wasn't familiar with and not even the dictionary managed to set me straight, but surely these unfamiliar words might be handled with a few footnotes. Believe me, it isn't like reading Chaucer!
The Hungarian extreme right wasn't upset over the question of translating the classics into modern Hungarian. The problem was György Spiró himself. The scribblers of Magyar Hírlap devoted two articles to him. They dug up a poem he wrote in 1984 entitled "Jönnek" (They are coming) in which he complains about the second-rate nationalistic Hungarian poets and prose writers who began to surface around that time. Admittedly, Spiró wasn't kind to them. They emerged from "feces" and, if they had the chance again, they would "drink blood." And why? Perhaps because of Trianon? He accused society of being timorous while "we few of us weaklings have to show that not only the scums know Hungarian." This was interpreted by the right as a poem in which the author, who is Jewish, poured out his hatred on all Hungarians. However, it is quite obvious that Spiró's attack was reserved for the nationalistic second rates.
Magyar Hírlap immediately complained. Miklós Apáti wrote an opinon piece (May 5) "György Spiró's Encounter with István Hiller, Minister of Education: Matriculation. The Ministry Failed." According to Apáti it was not Spiró who was the guilty party but Hiller and the ministry that had the gall to use Spiró's prose at the examination. Especially because of the poem he wrote in 1984. "One couldn't like this poem but still a few fanatic Zionists who wished to collect more than one citizenship embraced its author." Apáti goes further. Why did the ministry time this "provocation" to coincide with the anniversary of Miklós Radnóti's birthday? Radnóti was a Jew who converted to Catholicism, but that didn't save him from being sent to a forced labor camp where he was killed in 1944. Radnóti was born on May 5, 1909, that is, a hundred years ago. Apáti argues that the "timing" was outrageous because "the ministry besmirched the memory of Miklós Radnóti." Well, that is quite a switch for someone who a few lines earlier attacked Spiró for not being a Hungarian, someone who as a Jew attacked the Hungarian nation. But it is possible that he is making a distinction between the patriotic and the Zionist Jew.
Whatever the case, the story didn't end here. Zoltán Biró, who calls himself a literary historian, expanded the attack. In his article in Magyar Hírlap he attacked György Spiró along with other literary figures despised by the extreme right: Péter Esterházy, Péter Nádas, and Imre Kertész, the only Hungarian writer who ever received the Nobel Prize. All of these writers achieved worldwide literary fame but, according to Biró, only because they are "expertly promoted." These writers "have nothing in common with the Hungarian people except they make their living off them." Whatever that means. A huge upheaval followed, but to my mind one should simply ignore these people. One should not sink down to their level.