I really do have serious problems with that Latin saying “De mortuis nihil nisi bonum dicendum est,” which translates into English as “Speak no ill of the dead.” How long do we refrain from saying anything critical of the dead? A day or two? A week? Until the person is buried or a memorial service is held? Wikipedia says that “it is socially inappropriate to say anything negative about a recently deceased person.” Well, that’s vague enough.
I mentioned in one of my comments that the death of Stalin brought absolute joy to perhaps the majority of Hungarians on March 5, 1953. I recalled that my whole class sang on the top of their lungs the famous chorus from Ferenc Erkel’s opera László Hunyadi which includes the lines “Meghalt a cselszövő, dúl a rút viszály” (The intriguer died, rages the vile strife). Was that bad? Inappropriate? Surely not. Stalin’s death merited rejoicing; if he had died earlier it would have been even better.
Of course, I’m not comparing Csurka to Stalin. I’m simply calling attention to the absurdity of this pious social dictum. Some people claim that the proper translation from Greek, the original language of the saying, would have been “De mortuis nil nisi vere,” that is, “About the dead the truth or nothing.”
Kuruc.info decided to follow that latter saying and described some of the negative aspects of Csurka’s career. Most of the other obituaries didn’t mention Csurka’s connection to the secret service or if they did, like Magyar Nemzet, they claimed that he refused to cooperate with the authorities. Kuruc.info also recalled Csurka’s leftist phase after 1968 when he claimed to have devoted his life to the service of the socialist regime and the Hungarian working people. Kuruc.info’s obit also went into the shady details of Csurka’s finances and noted that he remained the chairman of MIÉP only by cheating. Kuruc.info naturally has a negative opinion of Csurka’s support of Fidesz which they consider to have been servile and unprincipled submission.
Jobbik and some of the smaller parties decided to express their condolences. Jobbik’s message was short and concentrated more on his literary legacy rather than on his political career. The official Jobbik response called him “one of the greatest Hungarian dramatists.” His death was portrayed as a blow to Hungarian cultural life. A rather dubious statement considering that Csurka hasn’t written anything in the last twenty years except for newspaper articles. However, there was one telling sentence in Jobbik’s published statement. Jobbik appreciated Csurka’s “bringing out into the open some taboo topics.” Naturally, we know what they are talking about: Csurka’s anti-Semitism.
János Szentmártoni, the chairman of the Hungarian Writers’ Union, also thinks that Csurka was “an outstanding representative of Hungarian prose and drama in the 60s and the 70s.” According to him “no one can question Csurka’s creative talent.” Perhaps, but it is important to note that the current membership of the Writers’ Association is comprised mainly of writers who support the Orbán regime. The Association just lately published a declaration in defence of the government. Here are a couple of sentences from the declaration: “With increasing indignation we are observing the libellous attacks against our homeland in the global media. We know that claims concerning Hungary’s ‘drift away from democracy’ originate mostly from Hungarian intellectuals, writers, philosophers, musicians, and journalists who are well known in the West. What is not so well known in the West is that these intellectuals are affiliated with today’s political opposition and their goal is to destabilize our freely elected government.” So much for the Writers’ Union’s opinions.
The Karinthy Színház is the only theater in Hungary where a Csurka play–“Eredeti színhely” (Original scene)–is currently running. Márton Karinthy said he has liked Csurka’s plays ever since childhood “because he managed to show a sharply worded and accurate picture of Hungary in the 1970s.” Apparently, the production has been well attended ever since last September.
The Thália Színház also said farewell to István Csurka, the dramatist. Most of his plays had their premieres in that theater. The theater’s condolences also refer to his importance in twentieth-century Hungarian drama.
There is an odd little party called Jólét és Szabadság Demokrata Közösség (Jesz) that claims to be the successor to MDF. Kitti Németh, the spokeswoman of the party, positively gushed about Csurka. That response was especially odd in light of Csurka’s expulsion from MDF in 1993. He was described as a theater man through and through for whom “the world consisted of right and wrong and life and death.” Well, that doesn’t allow for much shading, does it?
The democratic parties–MSZP, LMP, DK–said nothing. Népszabadság published Sándor Révész’s obituary entitled “Egyezkedő lázadó” (Negotiating rebel) which I found forced and meaningless. I couldn’t even figure out exactly what the title is supposed to mean.
That kind of criticism cannot be levelled against the editorial that appeared in Magyar Narancs with its title borrowed from Erkel’s opera, László Hunyadi. According to this obituary it makes no difference what kind of a playwright Csurka was. Hungarian verse is as good as any, Hungarian prose is only competitive, but drama–let’s be honest–is not much. According to this editorial it is not important whether Csurka was the enemy of the dictatorship or the communists before the change of regime. He played a clever game under the circumstances; he knew how far he could go. He did all this with finesse because he knew how to play the game. This is what in Hungarian they call “ügyeskedés.” It was in the 70s and 80s when the Kádár regime was slowly disintegrating that Csurka “made himself ‘the excellent playwright.'” He was an anti-Semite even then, but he always added “sorry, but when I drink I make anti-Semitic remarks.” (In Hungarian there is an untranslatable verb for this: zsidózni.)
After the change of regime he didn’t have to apologize. He became the leading anti-Semitic public figure and, the editorial continues, is “guilty of bringing Nazism back.” Or more precisely, “he is guilty of making Nazism official.” He was the one who managed to move masses of people in the name of Nazism. The Magyar Narancs editorial also finds him guilty of destroying the Hungarian conservative right. “This legitimized anti-Semitism or Nazism poisoned the country, poisoned it and bifurcated it–perhaps forever. An awful lot of energy and the suffering of generations will be necessary to repair all the damage he inflicted on society. István Csurka is gone, but what is terrible is that his work survived him and that will not be Házmestersírató (Lamenting the Super). Those who focus on the playwright are defending the guilty.”
Of course, this is just one opinion and most likely it bestows too important a role on an individual. But the editorial is right in one thing. Csurka’s political legacy will undoubtedly be more important than his literary one.