There is hardly any disagreement among Hungarians when it comes to all those Nobel Prize laureates with Hungarian connections. Everybody seems to agree, and never ceases to brag about it, that a country so small and so poor gave rise to so many winners of the noble Nobel. The national pride is fulfilled and nurtured by those worthy Hungarians. Never mind that most of them were working in other countries, many were actually refugees, chased away by the inhospitable conditions and the fact that only one of them earned the Prize by his work conducted in Hungary, the rest was forced to work elsewhere. Never mind also the other fact, namely that most of them were Jews, who would have found it impossible to work at all if they had stayed home.
This was the case until 2002, when Imre Kertész was awarded the literary Nobel.
Imre Kertész was born in 1929, survived the Holocaust and the communist system both. During the communist years he lived as a voluntary internal exile, writing all kinds of comedy and cabaret pieces for a living. He moonlighted in secret, writing his magnum opus, for some twelve years, Fatelessness, a wonderful and heartrending account of personal participation in the Holocaust as a victim, the account of his personal transformation as a novel.
Winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, a heretofore unprecedented event, should have increased the delight of the nationalists and everybody else. But this time the opposite occurred. Almost immediately after the announcement the nationalist right began a campaign against Kertész, claiming that he is not really Hungarian. The reason for this was not only his Jewishness, but also the fact that he never hesitated blaming Hungarians for what they did and for the sins they never admitted, or atoned for. This campaign has never abated since, Kertész is the whipping boy of the right. So much so that shortly after receiving the Prize, he packed up his belongings and moved to, irony of ironies, the cultural capital of Europe, Berlin.
As he turned 80 on the 9th of November this year, Die Welt published a personal interview with Kertész. This interview gave enormous hiccups to the Hungarian nationalists, because Kertész didn’t pull punches, he called them as he sees them and after years of being the butt of their hate, he could afford to speak his mind. And that is, indeed, a superior mind.
In his answers he points out how narrow and parochial Budapest is and how ill suited for a truly urban person. How in the last ten years the Right gained the upper hand in Budapest, the anti-Semites hold sway and that the old burden of Hungarians, self-deception, and suppressing the past, are more prevalent than ever: the past is unaccounted for. Kertész denies to be part of the Hungarian “culture,” instead claims to belong to the universal, the cosmopolitan culture. Toward the end of the interview he declared his inclination to sarcasm, irony and mockery as his own style.
No wonder these damning confessions infuriated the “patriotic” right in Hungary. The press of the Right was having a banner day. They accused Kertész of betraying his nation. As if not they were the ones who excommunicated him just a few years before. “The besmirching of the Nation!” thunders Magyar Nemzet.
The unspeakable Magyar Hírlap phoned around to all the “usual suspects” of the right and managed to get a few hateful and stupid quotes about how Kertész is not Hungarian and he is harmful to the country and he should just shut up. I shall not go on enumerating the rest. The righteous indignation was endless on the Right.
Népszabadság last week had at least one article a day on the subject, but on some days even two or three. It turned out soon enough that the original translation from Die Welt to Hungarian was quite sloppy in certain places. But Kertész not only stood his ground, he also concluded and did not hesitate to say that the Hungarians have no capacity for irony. And with that the matter was closed as far as he was concerned.
What I find to be the chief irony in this skirmish is that he was denied the universal recognition so richly deserved in 2002 when he won the Nobel Prize. He took the bums at their word this time, showed them the cold shoulder and disdain they also so richly deserve, and yet, ironically, they don’t like it. The right should rejoice when hearing that Kertész no longer insists on being their countryman, this is what they demanded. But now, hearing the same from Kertész himself, when the joke is on them, they are squirming and accusing and cursing him.
Ladies and Gentlemen: hurrah for irony.