How obituaries are written in Hungary: The death of István Csurka

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.

Dead1

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.

 

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Öcsi
Guest

“De mortuis nihil nisi bonum dicendum est” is attributed to Chilon of Sparta who lived in the 6th century BC.
I know next to nothing of that period but I suspect the context and implication of that “pious social dictum,” as you call it, was very different from today. So it’s very easy to abuse.

Chris
Guest

I remember reading one of Csurka’s short stories entitled “Protest Song,” which I found really rather mediocre and even indicative of the sort of frustration and defensiveness that grips many Hungarian right wing nationalists, especially those of the author’s generation.

Member

BREAKING NEWS: Eva S. Balogh has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her writing in the Hungarian Spectrum. Congratulations! Well deserved!

Chris
Guest

Well deserved, indeed! Congrats and lots of strength, energy and determination to keep on blogging for many, many years to come!

Petofi
Guest

Hungarians are interesting case of mass phychosis. Perhaps the roots lie in a disastrous 20th century in which Hungary found itself on the losing side both times.
It is now impossible to be constructively critical of Hungary or Hungarians. It is immediately viewed as an attack on “Magyarorszag”. A moronic Hungarian minister–strangely, considered an intellectual; I believe his name is Kertesz or something like that–has equated attacks on Jews with attacks on
“Magyars”. Many Hungarians nowdays would agree with that forgetting that “szidozig” has as its background the gas chambers and crematoria. Only a true anti-semite would make that parallel.

Sandor
Guest

When in doubt, by all means follow the the Groucho Marx maxim: “If you have nothing nice to say, just go ahead and say it.”

Odin's Lost Eye
Guest

The use of “De mortuis nihil nisi bonum dixit” may be due to the Anglo Saxon idea of justice. The dead are not here to face their accusers and to defend themselves in open court.
There is a much later quotation which is: –
“The evil that men do lives on after them the good is oft interred with their bones.”
-M. Anthony’s speech J. Caesar by W. Shakespeare.
Congratulations Professor, a nomination for a Pulitzer Prize by Jove.
By God! That will really infuriate the Viktator and his trolls (if they know what a Pulitzer Prize is).I dare say that we shall get a huge upgrade in the troll classes soon.
If I may break the 12th Commandment perhaps we shall see The ‘Orbanizer Prize’ for trolling with two categories. Category 1 will be for hand written work, category 2 for ‘Bunk-O-Matic operators.

John
Guest

The line quoted from Ferenc Erkel’s opera László Hunyadi goes as follows:
“Meghalt a cselszövő, NEM(!) dúl a rút viszály,…”
Its translation should reflect the difference accordingly.

GDF
Guest
It’s worth reading the obituary published by the Transylvanian newspaper szabadsag (in Kolozsvar/Cluj). It is an MTI text, I assume (but I don’t know) sent to the world. If one who knows nothing about the background reads it, he/she is left with the impression that a great playwright was lost, who had some political prioblems during the Communist era. The only references to his Nazi past are the following: – according to János Szentmártoni, the chairman of the Hungarian Writers’ Union, the two aspects of his life (as a politician and as a writer) have to be judged separately – the obituary gives no explanation as to why. – the obituary mentions that starting in december of 1991 he was the vicepresident of the MDF and that in 1993 he was expelled from the MDF, again, no explanation. – the obituary mentions that he founded the MIEP, without any comment of the nature of this party. – the only concrete reference in the obituary to this Nazi’s true nature is a sentence: in 1972 he was forced to be silent (szilenciumra iteltek) for statements that were judged to be against the regime and to be anti-Semitic. If someone who knows… Read more »
Paul
Guest

Congratulations Éva! Very appropriate, considering Pulitzer’s origins.
Stand by for lots of “it’s a left/liberal prize” spin.

Kingfisher
Guest

Totally off topic but there is an interesting interview with Lázár: http://nol.hu/belfold/20120206-vagy_valtozunk__vagy_elesunk

Bowen
Guest

Congratulations to Professor Balogh for her Pulitzer nomination! (I hope President Schmitt won’t be too jealous – I gather he was hoping to be considered for this year’s ‘Best Fiction’ category).

Törpefejű
Guest

Eva, thanks for mentioning the Writers’ Union “methane-release” – language all too reminiscent of what was coming out of Belgrade twenty years back (and we all know how that ended up). Chris, good to know that someone else read Protest Song.
But the Karinthy Szinhaz!!! What a desecration!!! Or is this theatre up for a “patriotic” re-naming itself?
Also, has anyone heard more about the Hungarian Quarterly takeover?

late night
Guest

Csurka is an example of the mass phenomenon of persons having changed political positions wildly after 1989. He moved(as witnessed by his writing) from having been a mildly critical socialist (literary) figure to being a right wing and even antisemitic extremist. It would be useful to understand the urges that made him and his likes to make the bad choice instead of the good one.

Joseph Simon
Guest

Csurka was a nationalist. He followed Winston Churchill who said: ‘When I am abroad, I always make it a rule to never criticize or attack the government of my own country’. This Spectrum should respect that Churchillian maxim. It is rather amusing how even in this present write-up Eva dismisses the opinions of the Writers’ Association. Orbán also dismisses all criticism, he is a politician. But this Spectrum should represent a broad range of opinions and be more balanced, which it is not.

Member

@Joseph What is the definition of “being abroad” on the Internet ?? Wake up and smell the 21th century.

Bowen
Guest

@ Joe: “When I am abroad, I always make it a rule to never criticize or attack the government of my own country”
Can you also supply the rest of that quote, plus the context in which Churchill made it? Otherwise, it just seems like you are being selectively attentive for your own ends (and I’m sure you wouldn’t things to seem that way).
Otherwise, you know, I could do that same. Churchill said: “I always make it a rule … to criticise… the government of my own country.”
See what I did there?

tigerente
Guest

The complete Churchill quote is: “When I am abroad I always make it a rule never to criticize or attack the Government of my country. I make up for lost time when I am at home.”
He was a member of parliament at the time.

John T
Guest

@ Bowen. The fuller quotation is:-
“When I am abroad, I always make it a rule never to criticize or attack the government of my own country. I make up for lost time when I come home.”
And he also said some other things that would be quite pertinent to the Hungary of 2012:-
“To build may have to be the slow and laborious task of years. To destroy can be the thoughtless act of a single day.”
“Some people regard private enterprise as a predatory tiger to be shot. Others look on it as a cow they can milk. Not enough people see it as a healthy horse, pulling a sturdy wagon.”

Ron
Guest

Joseph Simon: The exact quote of Churchill is:
When I am abroad, I always make it a rule never to criticize or attack the government of my own country. I make up for lost time when I come home.
It is a quote on Patriotism when he left office in 1947.

An
Guest

As for the rumor mill… Mutt Damon, how are you so well informed? Nomination for Pulitzer’s? Better be true, as it would be well-deserved indeed!

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

An: “Nomination for Pulitzer’s? Better be true, as it would be well-deserved indeed!”
It is true. One of our readers, a media expert, nominated me. Quite an honor.

Andras Sch
Guest

As it has been mentioned, the line of the opera goes “The intriguer died, the vile strife rages NO MORE”. Not a proper forecast this time.

GW
Guest

I just went through the membership list at The Hungarian Writers’ Association’s website. It is more striking for the names missing — basically every internationally-known Hungarian contemporary writer — than for the names on it. I guess that they don’t even pretend anymore to represent diversity and quality.

An
Guest

Great news, Eva, so happy to hear that! Congratulations! Looking forward to see how it goes from here; will keep my fingers crossed.

Mutt Damon
Guest

@An “Mutt Damon, how are you so well informed?”
The Internet is a small country … frien of a frien of a friend told me.

riviera1
Guest

@ Joseph Simon, and the ‘balance’ re submissions.
Dear Mr. Simon,
The blog is wonderfully balanced: between those not bridled by the maniacal world-view of Fideszers and the greatly suffering, mostly ex-pats, who know that the slippery slope that Hungary is sliding down on will land us, closer rather than farther, into the Berlin of 1936.
Hungarian world-view is not only earth-centered, it is Hungary centered; alas, not Budapest-centered, hence the rash of 20 cm mustaches. So far, only Vago Gabor wears one of those and still retains a semblance of sanity and balance.

Mutt Damon
Guest

Just another word to Josephine Simon about this “don’t criticize your country abroad” idea. There’s no such animal on the Internet as “abroad”. Professor Balogh could write the same blog while living in Hungary (of course Porno Annie and her gang of “bazmeg” counters aka. Media Council probably would go after her at least make her register) but what would be the difference? Nothing. Your problem Jose is the English language. Somebody writes a blog that attracts more then 10,000 visits a week, better that and average printed periodical, and it tells a not-too-flattering opinion about the government. Abomination!
The reason we don’t see Johnny Boy nowadays is that he and his buddies are on a treasure hunt on the Internet all day long scouring the sites for pro-Orban articles. The propaganda ministry on Planet Hungary offered a hefty special bonus for finding an article that agrees with Orban, written in an indo-European language and the author is know by at least a half a dozen live people. Good luck boys!

Joseph Simon
Guest

That Churchillian maxim is observed by most Americans, as far as I know. Accordingly, it is unethical to criticize your country while abroad. In the fifties J.E. Hoover would have dragged you before the Un-American activities committee.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Mutt Damon: “Professor Balogh could write the same blog while living in Hungary”
You have no idea how often I get invitations for a meeting in Budapest. They think I live there. Just in the last week three invitations that I had to turn down temporarily.

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