Last night news spread in Hungarian Internet circles that the Kossuth Prize-winning novelist Ákos Kertész had arrived in Montreal, Canada on February 29 and had turned to immigration authorities asking for political asylum. A couple of hours earlier a Hungarian-language press release was sent to Hungarian media organs officially announcing Kertész's arrival in Canada.
"Following the appearance of Ákos Kertész's open letter in the Amerikai-Magyar Népszava [on August 29, 2011] a hate campaign was launched against him not only in the City Council of Budapest but also in Parliament. At the insistence of Jobbik, the anti-Semite Hungarian Nazi party, the City Council's pro-government majority deprived him of his Freedom of Budapest award. The pro-government media openly incited the extremists against him. As a result he was exposed to constant physical harassment and threats. He was physically attacked in public. He felt that his life was in danger.
"There must be grave reasons for an eighty-year-old writer who is attached to his birthplace in a million ways to come to such a decision and to take such a step full of risks. Kertész's case says a lot about a country from which a writer must escape because of one of his writings.
"Kertész said, 'I came to this conclusion with grave difficulty because for me the Hungarian language means life. Hungary is my birthplace, my home. I made this painful decision not against Hungary and the Hungarian people with whom I always shared the same fate. I was forced to make this decision because of the current Hungarian government. I hope that one day I will be able to return to a democratic, tolerant, humane Hungary.' Otherwise, for the time being the writer is not going to make public statements concerning his decision."
What did Ákos Kertész do that upset the Hungarian right so much? He wrote an open letter to László Bartus, editor-in-chief of American-Hungarian Népszava, the oldest Hungarian-language paper in the United States, in which he bitterly complained about Hungarians who are "genetically servile" and who therefore allow the dictatorial Viktor Orbán to rule over them. He said a few harsh things, no doubt about it. He compared his fellow Hungarians to pigs who for the slop the farmer puts in front of them happily grunt, not realizing that they will be killed.
It was the word "genetically" that caused consternation even in liberal circles because it looked as if Kertész was a racist. However, I read an article by a lexicographer according to whom in Hungarian there is a distinction between "genetikus" and "genetikai." Kertész used the former word. According to the lexicographer, in all existing Hungarian dictionaries "genetikus" simply means "something indicating derivation, origin, development" and not something "relating to genetics or genes." I might add here that the English word "genetic" also has these two meanings. Its second meaning is "of, relating to, or influenced by the origin or development of something." So, strictly speaking, Kertész was talking about an attitude that was influenced by historical development.
I wrote about the "Kertész affair" on September 7, 2011, where I indicated that most likely a protracted hate campaign could be expected in the wake of this letter. I brought up the Landeszman case. In 1993 Rabbi Landeszman, after reading István Csurka's attack on Hungarian Jewry, said something negative about Hungarian literature without the input of Jewish writers. Because of the furious attacks, Rabbi Landeszman left for Canada. But I must admit that I didn't think that Ákos Kertész would also end up there.
The attacks in the right-wing media went on for two solid months. The last article I read about the "consequences" of Ákos Kertész's sin was on October 24. Almost two months after the appearance of the infamous letter. As I mentioned in my earlier post it took only a few days for Jobbik to suggest to István Tarlós, mayor of Budapest, that Kertész be deprived of his "Freedom of Budapest" award. Tarlós seemed to be game because "he was appalled." On September 6 he promised that he would discuss the matter with the city fathers. Obviously they didn't need much convincing. On September 21 Kertész lost his "freedom of the city" together with Stalin. Mind you, as it turned out, Stalin's name wasn't even on the rostrum but better safe than sorry, and Tarlós insisted on stripping the Soviet dictator of his nonexistent award. Twenty people (Fidesz and Jobbik) voted for the decision, nine against it, and two abstained.
Meanwhile others were busy as well. The question of Ákos Kertész's letter was a topic even in parliament. On September 12 a Jobbik member of parliament asked János Halász, political undersecretary of the Ministry of National Resources, whether the government was contemplating stripping Kertész of his Kossuth Prize, the most prestigious artistic award in Hungary. Halász's answer was that Kertész should apologize; if not, "he is not worthy of it." The Jobbik MP was insistent. He asked whether the government was thinking about turning to President Pál Schmitt, who seemed to be quite eager to cooperate in this joint effort. In fact, on September 14, he asked that the government examine the possibility of withdrawing state awards from those who had become unworthy of them. In his letter to Viktor Orbán, Schmitt wrote that an awardee becomes unworthy of the recognition if his behavior "violates the constitutional values of Hungary and of the nation." (In light of Pál Schmitt's alleged plagiarism case, one cannot help but wonder about his own unworthiness of all those awards, including the honorary degrees he received.)
Under the barrage of criticism Kertész admitted that he made a mistake because the phrase "genetically servile" makes no sense. But the attacks didn't stop. On October 24 another Jobbik MP, Sándor Pörzse, asked Viktor Orbán whether the government was planning to do anything about this abomination. "A man [férfiember] cannot suffer abuse without saying something in two cases: if his family is reviled or his nation is assailed." Orbán's answer was that "right-wing, Christian, Hungarian politicians must get accustomed to often ignoble, stupid, racist, abusive comments against Hungarians. And one should decide astutely when to pick up the glove and when to hit back and when not." Surely, one is not happy when a writer who had been awarded the Kossuth Prize "entertains us with racist stupidities." However, he added that there are greater problems in this country than Kertész's case. For example, Ernő Gerő, former first secretary of the Hungarian Communist party at the time of the 1956 Revolution, still hasn't been stripped of his Kossuth Prize. Considering that Gerő died in 1980, it would seem superfluous to strip him of his prize although, as we could see, Tarlós wasn't deterred by Stalin's death. If someone after reading Orbán's answer to Pörzse thought that the prime minister had decided to drop the issue he would have been mistaken. Orbán announced that there will be a new law governing prizes that can be debated in parliament.
The reaction of the right-wing media to Kertész's departure went according to script. Szentkorona Rádió (a station that has no frequency problems) wrote: "One fewer: Ákos Kertész went after Viktória Mohácsi." Mohácsi, of Roma origin, was a liberal member of the European Parliament between 2004 and 2009. A few months ago she also sought political asylum in Canada. Szentkorona Rádió included a picture of a pig with the caption: "He can go to Canada to grunt." Right wingers also flooded Népszabadság's article announcing Kertész's move to Canada with hundreds of similar comments. After a few hours the newspaper decided to take them off and closed the article to comment.
It doesn't matter how often government officials or Fidesz politicians, including the Jewish Ágnes Hankiss, Fidesz member of the European Parliament, try to convince the world that there is no anti-Semitism in Hungary, it will be very difficult to maintain that fiction.